Tag: police accountability

Police Management Contract, Which Includes Concessions, Could Serve as Template for SPOG Negotiations

By Erica C. Barnett

On Tuesday, the Seattle City Council is expected to approve a contract between the city and the Seattle Police Management Association, which represents about 80 police lieutenants and captains.

The contract would establish new restrictions on arbitration (a process through which police can appeal disciplinary decisions for misconduct), make it harder for SPD to “run out the clock” on investigations, and implement other key provisions of the city’s landmark 2017 accountability ordinance. The city effectively abandoned the new law when it signed a contract with the Seattle Police Officers Guild, which represents officers and sergeants, the following year; that contract supersedes the 2017 law whenever there’s a conflict between the contract and the ordinance.

The SPMA contract only covers police managers, but has potential implications for the hundreds of police officers and sergeants who are represented by SPOG as well. SPOG is just beginning negotiations with the city for its own contract, which expired at the end of 2020.

Once the contract is signed, captains and lieutenants will receive retroactive wage increases of 2.7 percent in 2020, 1.9 percent in 2021, and 4 percent in 2022. (Retroactive increases are common in police contracts, in part because they generally take years to negotiate, which means police often operate under expired contracts.) In 2023, police managers would receive a pay bump equivalent to the consumer price index increase, up to 4 percent. Overall, the increase just for this relatively small group of employees will cost more than $6 million through the end of next year.

The most significant change in the contract—and the provision that could have the most direct impact on negotiations with SPOG, according to several people familiar with police contract negotiations who spoke to PubliCola on background—is in the section on arbitration.

Arbitration gives a police officer or commander who’s been accused of misconduct an opportunity to challenge the findings of the Office of Police Accountability and any discipline imposed by the police chief to an outside investigator. This process has been at the center of several controversial cases in recent years. In 2018, an arbitrator reinstated then-SPD officer Adley Shepherd, who was fired for punching a handcuffed woman who was sitting in the back of a police car; three years later, a state judge overturned the arbitrator’s decision, but such reversals are rare. Earlier this year, an arbitrator reinstated a parking enforcement officer (a position housed, at the time of the incident, in SPD) after Seattle Interim Police Chief Adrian Diaz fired him for telling a coworker that he supported lynching.

Federal Judge James Robart, who oversees the decade-old consent decree between the US Department of Justice and the city, ordered the city to fix its arbitration process when he ruled the city partly out of compliance with the agreement in 2019.

The new SPMA contract would put additional bumpers around the arbitration process when a captain or lieutenant appeals serious forms of discipline, such as firing and demotion. Currently, arbitration is a kind of secondary trial: Officers are allowed to bring in new evidence and witnesses that neither the OPA nor the police chief have seen, and the arbitrator can use any standard of proof they want to decide whether a cop is guilty of misconduct. For example, arbitrators can require the city to present “clear and convincing” evidence that an person is guilty of misconduct that justifies the punishment they received—a difficult hurdle.

Often, arbitrators’ decisions can seem arbitrary: In the case of the parking enforcement officer who was reinstated, the arbitrator found that the officer had no disciplinary record or complaints about similar comments in the past.

The contract attempts to directly address many of those issues. First, it would prohibit police managers accused of misconduct from introducing entirely new information, or witnesses, during arbitration. Second, it would change the standard for the police department to prove the officer was guilty of misconduct to a “preponderance of the evidence” requirement, meaning that it’s more likely than not that the misconduct occurred. And third, it would require outside arbitrators to decide whether the discipline the police chief imposed for misconduct was arbitrary or capricious; if it wasn’t, the arbitrator will have to uphold it.

SPMA’s contract doesn’t directly impact SPOG or its ongoing negotiations with the city, but it does set precedents, of a sort, for the city to bring up during negotiations.

“This agreement creates a new discipline review system that marks a sea change in how discipline appeals operate,” the city council’s public safety committee chair, Lisa Herbold, wrote in a recent letter to a constituent. “It will help slow that backlog from growing by ensuring cases aren’t being entirely relitigated during arbitration as they currently are (de novo review). It will also ensure arbitrators, who are not generally experts on policing, don’t substitute their judgement for the police chief’s, undermining accountability as happened in the Adley Shepherd case.”

Advocates have argued for getting rid of arbitration entirely; legislation that would have done away with arbitration failed last year in Olympia. The ACLU’s People Power Washington project has demanded five specific changes to the contract; some, including subpoena power for accountability agencies looking into officer misconduct, are already in place. Continue reading “Police Management Contract, Which Includes Concessions, Could Serve as Template for SPOG Negotiations”

Proposal Would Prevent Mayors from Burying Complaints Against Police Chief; Nelson Cherry-Picks Study to Claim Forced Treatment Works

1. The actions of Seattle Police Department officers during the protests against police brutality in 2020 led to more than 19,000 complaints against officers and then-police chief Carmen Best, which the city’s Office of Police Accountability subsequently consolidated into just 143 cases.

Most of those cases are now resolved. About 10 are still being processed, with “completion” rates, according to the OPA’s Demonstration Complaint Dashboard, between 75 and 90 percent. Just three complaints remain stalled at 50 percent complete. All are from 2020, and all three name former police chief Carmen Best as a subject.

City law empowers the OPA, which is an independent office within the police department, to decide whether investigating a complaint would create a conflict of interest, which the office did in these three cases involving Chief Best. Because the three complaints would have essentially investigating the boss, OPA referred them to then-mayor Jenny Durkan, who initially wanted the Office of the Inspector General, an independent police accountability agency, to do the investigation.

When the OIG declined, the case went back to the OPA, which asked to assign the investigation to an outside agency. Instead of acting, Durkan apparently sat on the complaints against Best, leaving them to languish until her successor, Bruce Harrell, forwarded them to an outside agency. Harrell’s spokesman, Jamie Housen, said the administration found out about the languishing cases in January and referred them to an external investigator late that month.

Legislation filed by city councilmember Lisa Herbold would prevent the mayor and OPA director from burying complaints against the police chief in the future by setting up a formal process, and deadlines, for the OPA to refer complaints against the police chief to an outside investigator.

Under the proposed new process, which Harrell supports, if the OPA decided a complaint against the police chief merited an investigation, the bill would require the OPA director to decide whether the complaint should be investigated by the city’s Department of Human Resources or an entity completely outside the city.  The OIG would review OPA’s recommendation and decide where to route the complaint, based on a process laid out in the legislation. The proposal would also give the OIG a stronger oversight role in complaints and investigations involving the police chief.

The first of the three cases the city failed to investigate involves Chief Best’s claim (later retracted) that armed people were running an extortion racket at the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) during the protests. As the South Seattle Emerald reported this week, Best apparently knew the claim was a hoax when she repeated it to officers in a videotaped statement to officers working at the protests.

The second unresolved case accuses Best of lying about errors made by Seattle police and fire officials that prevented emergency responders from reaching a man who had been shot in the protest zone; Best told reporters (falsely, according to reporting by KUOW) that protesters had blocked the path of emergency vehicles, contributing to the man’s death.

The final case involves the police department’s use of tear gas against demonstrators in early June, 2020, after Seattle Federal District Judge Richard Jones granted a temporary restraining order against the department.

One goal of the bill is to “protect against any abuse of discretion that might occur if the Mayor or OPA Director are involved in the complaint or seek to conceal the complaint” in the future, according to the bill text.

A spokesperson for the OPA declined to comment for this story. The outside investigation into the three cases is reportedly wrapping up.

2. City Councilmember Sara Nelson told a constituent in an email last week that her own experience going to treatment convinced her that mandatory treatment is an effective response to homeless people who commit crimes because of their addiction—and “less expensive than most housing options,” too.

The email, which Nelson forwarded to all her council colleagues, came in response to a constituent who sent a link to a study finding that out of 160 people in an employment-based treatment program, the 131 who were required to go to treatment by a court were more likely to complete treatment than the 29 who went voluntarily.

“If a person stays sober for even six months, that’s less expensive than most housing options and far less deleterious to a person’s ability to find future housing and employment than having a record.”—City Councilmember Sara Nelson

“I’m not surprised by its argument that mandating (or ‘stipulating’ as used in the paper) treatment is more effective than commonly thought because I’m in recovery myself and when I went to a residential treatment program, I met many people who were in treatment for the first time and only because court-ordered,” Nelson wrote, adding that about half of the people she kept up with from treatment were still sober.

“A month of private in-patient or 6 months of outpatient treatment costs about $10,000,” Nelson continued. “If a person stays sober for even six months, that’s less expensive than most housing options and far less deleterious to a person’s ability to find future housing and employment than having a record. And treatment leads to better health outcomes than jail.” Continue reading “Proposal Would Prevent Mayors from Burying Complaints Against Police Chief; Nelson Cherry-Picks Study to Claim Forced Treatment Works”

Oversight Report Raises the Question: Are the 2020 Protests Still Relevant Today?

Office of the Inspector General for Public Safety

By Paul Kiefer

A Seattle police oversight office released a report on Tuesday revisiting controversial Seattle Police Department actions during protests in June 2020 and urging the department to find ways to build new public trust. The report from the Office of the Inspector General for Public Safety (OIG) is the second in a series drawn from panel discussions between oversight officials, community members and representatives from SPD, including some commanders who led the department’s protest response.

On its surface, the report’s narrow focus on nearly two-year-old controversies comes across as old news; most of the incidents described in the report were already investigated by the Office of Police Accountability. Inspector General Lisa Judge, however, says that the reports point to a persistent lack of trust between SPD and a notable portion of the general public—distrust that escalated during the protests and that remains relevant as SPD embarks on new projects, including crackdowns on visible drug use and shoplifting in the downtown core.

Although SPD’s protest response may no longer be front-and-center in Seattle’s political zeitgeist, Judge said, “the issues of public trust in SPD and legitimacy of SPD’s use of its authority are timeless. Many of the report recommendations address protest response tactics, use of force, and weapons, but the larger recommendations regarding trust and legitimacy translate to every aspect of SPD’s operations within the community.” What remains unclear is whether SPD will do anything to address the persistent distrust the report identifies—and whether that distrust can still shape the department’s future.

Although SPD’s protest response may no longer be front-and-center in Seattle’s political zeitgeist, Inspector General Lisa Judge said, “the issues of public trust in SPD and legitimacy of SPD’s use of its authority are timeless.”

The first of the OIG’s Sentinel Event Reviews, released last July, focused on the first three days of the protests and concluded that SPD should aim to “facilitate” protests, rather than controlling or directing them. That report also suggested some basic tactical changes, like prohibiting officers from leaving their weapons in unattended vehicles during protests.

The latest report centers on the second week of protests, when clashes between police and demonstrators shifted from the downtown core to SPD’s East Precinct on Capitol Hill. Two of the panel’s members—Lieutenants John Brooks and James Dyment—were instrumental to SPD’s decision-making during that phase of the protests, including the use of tear gas and blast balls against demonstrators.

The panel reviewed five key moments in the second week of protests, including the impacts of tear gas on residents of an apartment building next to the East Precinct and an incident in which the brother of an SPD officer drove a car into a crowd of protesters and shot a man who tried to stop him before surrendering to police.

As the group discussed the tactics behind and public perception of each incident, a pattern emerged: While SPD representatives could often explain the policy and tactical thinking behind a controversial decision, the community representatives on the panel remained critical of SPD’s motives.

When discussing the allegedly retaliatory arrest of a man who filmed a widely circulated video of an officer pepper-spraying a child at an earlier demonstration, for example, SPD representatives said officers were unaware of the man’s identity when they detained him a day later for shining a laser pointer in their eyes. Community representatives on the panel were skeptical; according to the OIG’s report, the panelists argued that “law enforcement agencies sometimes justify illegitimate actions after-the-fact and have not been historically forthcoming about misconduct.”

Some of the panel’s discussions, the report says, “highlighted the loss of trust in SPD by a wide cross-section of the Seattle community. Improvements in tactics and communications are only part of the necessary solution. SPD will also need to find effective approaches to fostering transparency, education, outreach, and accountability when officers violate the rules, to rebuild community trust.”

“SPD wants the community to trust them so they can expand their budget and more easily apprehend people, but SPD doesn’t trust community members when we say that defunding the department is what would actually make us safer.”—2020 protester and Seattle Abolition Support volunteer Peter Condit

In its report, the OIG offered two dozen recommendations for changes to SPD’s protest response planning. Many of the recommendations—including a proposal for SPD to conduct a public education campaign on the dangers of laser pointers, ostensibly to reduce the risk of clashes between officers and protesters—address panel members’ criticism of specific SPD decisions in 2020.  Others, like a suggestion that SPD reserve tear gas for “full-scale riot situations,” addressed changes to department policies that could remain relevant in the long term.

Some of SPD’s critics say 2020 taught them another lesson that remains relevant today, especially as SPD sounds the alarm about a rise in gun violence while attempting to rebuild its ranks after two years of high attrition. “SPD is now trying to make use of crime statistics to regain public support,” said Peter Condit, who regularly took part in protests in 2020 and now volunteers with an organization called Seattle Abolition Support. “But the protests were a galvanizing moment for a political movement that is still alive. They created a body of people in Seattle who are immune to SPD’s propaganda because they witnessed how the department treated community members, and that group of people has stuck around and continued to organize in creative ways.” Continue reading “Oversight Report Raises the Question: Are the 2020 Protests Still Relevant Today?”

Legislation Will Allow Police to Use Force to Stop People from Fleeing

Rep. Roger Goodman (D-45, Kirkland) speaks during a meeting of the House Public Safety Committee in February.

By Paul Kiefer

The state Senate voted on Friday to allow police officers to use force to stop people from fleeing when police stop them on suspicion of a crime. The legislation was a sticking point in the legislature’s efforts to revisit and refine a set of sweeping police reform bills that passed last year, including a rule that officers can only use force when they have probable cause to make an arrest.

This year’s bill, sponsored by Rep. Roger Goodman (D-45, Kirkland) drew criticism from national police accountability organizations and split the Senate Democratic caucus. Some police accountability advocates argued the bill gives police permission to use force in situations that don’t call for it.

Goodman initially introduced the bill in response to pressure from law enforcement agencies around the state, who argued that last year’s reforms, which required officers to have probable cause to make an arrest before using force, unintentionally limited police officers’ ability to stop and question people while allowing suspects to simply run away from police when stopped for questioning.

In crafting this year’s bill, lawmakers had to step carefully around a 1968 US Supreme Court decision, Terry v. Ohio, in which the court ruled that while police can detain someone based on suspicion alone, they can’t use force during such stops. The bill specifically focused on the right for police force to stop someone from walking away from officers during a stop, which law enforcement groups argued would not run afoul of the ruling.

“This law gives officers more leeway to harm people, and it makes it harder to hold them accountable when they do escalate an encounter.”—Enoka Herat, ACLU of Washington

Steve Strachan, director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, told PubliCola that so-called “investigative stops” usually end with officers letting a suspect walk away. “Most investigative stops I’ve done in my law enforcement career have ended with, ‘thank you, I appreciate the information and you’re free to go,” he said.

Since the legislature adopted stricter rules for when police can use force in 2021, Strachan added, officers have “felt unsure of what to do if the person they’re trying to talk to—a person who may have been involved in a domestic violence incident, for example—starts walking away.” As a result, Strachan said, officers have increasingly opted not to stop people who attempt to flee questioning.

There is no statewide data to demonstrate that pattern, and while Seattle Police Department data shows that officers made fewer investigative stops in the six months after the 2021 rules took effect than in the previous six months, that decline began at the start of the pandemic, during which SPD has seen hundreds of its officers retire or transfer to other law enforcement agencies.

In Strachan’s view, Goodman’s bill was an attempt to find an “appropriate balance” between enabling police to hold suspects for questioning and prohibiting officers from using excessive force to do so; the bill stipulated that officers could only use “reasonable and proportional” force to stop a person from fleeing from a stop, which Strachan called a “productive guardrail for accountability.”

But civil liberties groups say the new law will enable law enforcement to escalate otherwise minor encounters with civilians, possibly with deadly consequences. “There was already case law that would allow officers to use force to stop someone from fleeing if there’s a danger to the officer or the public, like if there’s reason to believe that a person is armed,” said Enoka Herat, the Police Practices and Immigration Counsel at the ACLU of Washington. “But this law opens the door wider than that. … It gives officers more leeway to harm people, and it makes it harder to hold them accountable when they do escalate an encounter.” Continue reading “Legislation Will Allow Police to Use Force to Stop People from Fleeing”

Bill to Allow Police to Use Force Against Fleeing Suspects Could Face Constitutional Challenge

Washington State Capitol (Flickr: SounderBruce)

By Paul Kiefer

Responding to pressure from law enforcement agencies, state lawmakers introduced a bill last week that would allow police officers to use force to stop people from fleeing when police detain them on suspicion of a crime. Currently, police can only use force when they have enough evidence to arrest a person.

During a public hearing Tuesday, dozens of commenters, including local and national police accountability advocates, testified against the bill, arguing that it would escalate otherwise minor confrontations between police and civilians. The bill’s supporters, most of them police, argue that the change is necessary to prevent criminal suspects from running away from police with impunity. Looming over the debate, however, is a 1968 US Supreme Court decision that could be the largest obstacle to the bill’s passage and, if it becomes law, spark a new fight over the constitutional limits on use of force by police.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Roger Goodman (D-45, Kirkland), would have two key effects. First, it would define “physical force” in state law for the first time, a change supported by both police accountability advocates and police themselves, as well as the state attorney general’s office. Second, and more controversially, the bill would allow police to use force when someone runs away from a so-called “investigative detention,” a type of police stop that only requires an officer to suspect a person of a crime, a lower standard than having probable cause for arrest.

The bill is part of a broader effort by Goodman and other Democratic lawmakers to revisit and refine a set of sweeping police reform bills that passed in 2021. This year’s bills, which also includes a proposal to allow officers to use force to detain people for involuntary mental health treatment, are a response to a year’s worth of backlash from law enforcement and Republican lawmakers, who claim the reforms have emboldened criminals and hamstrung police. The most controversial of last year’s police reform laws outlined a strict standard for when police can use force, allowing force only when officers have probable cause to make an arrest or when necessary to prevent a serious physical injury to themselves or another person.

“We know people of color and young people are more likely to be stopped, and we know they’re more likely to run away, even when they haven’t done anything, because they are intimidated by police officers.”—Enoka Herat, ACLU of Washington

Goodman’s proposal to allow police to use force to stop someone from running away from an investigative stop wouldn’t restore a power that police had before 2021. Instead, it would allow police to use “reasonable” force in an entirely new context after attempts to de-escalate a situation have failed. “Irrespective of the situation, police cannot use excessive force,” Goodman said. “That isn’t changing.”

Police accountability advocates, however, say allowing police to use force to stop someone from running away from an investigative stop is a recipe for trouble. “Hinging the law on flight from a stop is especially problematic,” said Enoka Herat, a police policy specialist with the ACLU of Washington, “because we know who it would harm. We know people of color and young people are more likely to be stopped, and we know they’re more likely to run away, even when they haven’t done anything, because they are intimidated by police officers.” Herat also warned that the bill might give officers too much leeway to decide what counts as “fleeing,” making it difficult for civilians to successfully sue officers for using force inappropriately.

Goodman sees his proposal as a middle ground between protecting civilians and allowing police to enforce the law. He argues that since state law still allows police officers to use force to arrest someone for obstruction of justice, a crime that can include running away from an investigative stop, his proposal would make it possible for fleeing suspect to avoid adding an arrest for obstruction to their record, if police decide they did not commit any crime.

Brian Smith, the Chief of the Port Angeles Police Department, also testified on Tuesday that Goodman’s bill could help resolve the “angst and confusion” that has made some officers unwilling to arrest suspects for obstruction when they try to flee a stop; officers would more frequently prevent people from running away from stops, he said, if they could use force more freely. Continue reading “Bill to Allow Police to Use Force Against Fleeing Suspects Could Face Constitutional Challenge”

Proud Boys Hoax Only Most Recent SPD Disinfo Effort, Council Member Deflects Questions About Anti-RV Eco-Blocks, and More Questions about Police Dogs as “Less-Lethal” Weapons

A person rests on top of a concrete ecology block, one of thousands used to prevent RVs from parking on the street in industrial areas throughout the city
A person rests on top of a concrete ecology block, one of hundreds used to prevent RVs from parking on the street in industrial areas throughout the city

1. A series of fake radio transmissions by Seattle police officers in June 2020 that described a group of armed, far-right extremists wandering through the downtown core “improperly added fuel to the fire” during a tense summer of citywide racial justice protests and clashes with police, according to Office of Police Accountability (OPA) Director Andrew Myerberg, whose office released its investigation of the incident on Wednesday.

The transmissions were a part of a misinformation campaign conceived by Brian Grenon, then the captain of the Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct. The transmissions came only hours after officers evacuated the precinct at the instruction of Assistant Chief Tom Mahaffey. In an interview with the OPA, Grenon explained that the ruse was intended to convince demonstrators that the department had “more officers out there doing regular stuff” at a time when SPD was stretched thin. Grenon didn’t seek approval for the campaign from then-police chief Carmen Best or Mahaffey, nor did he tell his subordinate officers what to say.

The lower-ranking officers chose to describe a group of armed Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group known for street brawls that featured prominently in the attack on the U.S. Capitol last January, gathered near Seattle City Hall. In interviews with the OPA, the officers said that they had never taken part in a disinformation campaign before.

City council public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold noted, however, that SPD has faced scrutiny over disinformation in the recent past. In 2019, the OPA launched an investigation into an officer who lied to a driver suspected of a hit-and-run; though the incident only damaged a group of parked cars, the officer claimed that the crash left a person in critical condition. Less than a week later, the driver died by suicide after agonizing over the incident, believing he had killed someone.

While Washington state law allows police officers to use a ruse while undercover, to gather information for investigations and to address “an exigent threat to life or public safety,” the same law prohibits ruses that are so “shocking” that they lack “fundamental fairness.” In the 2019 case, Myerberg ruled that the officer’s ruse was not necessary or appropriate, and that it likely led directly to the driver’s suicide. SPD suspended the officer responsible for the ruse for 6 days, and Myerberg recommended that SPD begin training officers on ruses, “including when they are appropriate and when they shock fundamental fairness.”

On Wednesday, Herbold noted that SPD has yet to fully implement Myerberg’s recommendation, and said she has asked Myerberg to issue a new recommendation, specifying that officers need to document any ruses so that investigators can review their appropriateness.

Although Myerberg noted that the Proud Boys ruse likely contributed to some protesters’ decisions to arm themselves, it appears that none of the officers involved in the ruse will face discipline. Grenon and another commander who supervised the effort have since left SPD, and Myerberg held that while the four lower-ranking officers who took part in the ruse exercised poor judgment, their supervisors were to mostly to blame.

“I stepped down from my responsibilities at Fremont Brewing to run my campaign and, to avoid conflict of interest, I formally separated from Fremont Brewing after the election.”—City Councilmember Sara Nelson, in response to an email from Rev. Bill Kirlin-Hackett, Vehicle Residency Outreach program

2. When new Position 9 City Councilmember Sara Nelson took her oath of office Tuesday afternoon, she emphasized her experience as the co-owner of Fremont Brewing, referring to herself as “the first small business owner on City Council since 2009.” (Jan Drago, who owned a Häagen-Dazs franchise on the Ave, retired that year).

In an email responding to a homeless service provider’s concerns about Fremont Brewing’s use of large concrete “ecology blocks” to obstruct parking on the streets surrounding its Ballard brewing facility, however, Nelson said she no longer has anything to do with the business, which she co-owns with her husband, Matt Lincecum, and could not respond to any requests for Fremont Brewing to remove the obstructions.

“I stepped down from my responsibilities at Fremont Brewing to run my campaign and, to avoid conflict of interest, I formally separated from Fremont Brewing after the election,” Nelson said in an email to the Rev. Bill Kirlin-Hackett, head of the city-funded Vehicle Residency Outreach program. “This is why I haven’t spoken to any reporters about this matter and why I must decline to engage in discussion with you now. For current information about SDOT’s enforcement of complaints of street use violations, I have referred inquiries to [the public information officer] at SDOT (copied).”

Kirlin-Hackett’s initial letter asked Nelson to “now abide as a sitting Councilmember [with] what the law requires; that is removing the ecology barriers that surround your brewery.” In his response to Nelson’s email, Kirlin-Hackett wrote, “I know it is a very usual thing for those elected to want to wash their hands. But it’s clear by your response you know this is a problem and violation of the law. If you read the letter from SDOT I sent, you’ll know their very problem is their inability to have the support of the Executive or Council in how to apply the law.”

Many property owners in industrial areas, including several in the blocks immediately adjacent to Fremont Brewing, have placed ecology blocks in the public right-of-way to prevent people living in RVs (which, under Seattle law, can only park overnight in industrial areas) from parking on the street. The use of ecology blocks to obstruct parking is illegal, but SDOT has not enforced the law, opting instead to send warning letters to businesses, including Fremont Brewing, that use the blocks to deter RV parking.

SDOT’s laissez-faire approach to street use has not extended to RV owners themselves; shortly before the most recent snow and ice storm, the city showed up with tow trucks to remove a group of RVs from West Green Lake Way, part of a sweep that also forced people camping in the area to move their tents to a different part of the park.

Nelson did not immediately respond to questions Thursday about what her “formal separation” from Fremont Brewing entails.

3. A Seattle police officer shot and killed a man suspected of burglarizing a South Seattle home on Wednesday afternoon after the man killed a police dog and stabbed the dog’s handler, Officer Anthony Ducre, in the face.

The dog, named Jedi, was previously at the center of a lawsuit against the city of Seattle by a woman he attacked during a training exercise in a Tukwila parking lot in January 2020. At the time, SPD was using the parking lot as part of a training course for K-9 units. Ducre was leading Jedi through the course on a long lead and lost sight of him around a corner; there, Jedi found a woman taking a break from her job in a nearby building and—acting on training—bit her leg. The woman, Valerie Heffernan, later settled with the City of Seattle for $225,000. Continue reading “Proud Boys Hoax Only Most Recent SPD Disinfo Effort, Council Member Deflects Questions About Anti-RV Eco-Blocks, and More Questions about Police Dogs as “Less-Lethal” Weapons”

Investigators Find No “Clear-Cut” Anti-Homeless Bias in Viral Bike Crash Case

By Paul Kiefer

More than three years have passed since a driver hit a Real Change vendor who was riding his bicycle near the parking lot of the Grocery Outlet in the SoDo neighborhood. At the time of the crash, the vendor, whom PubliCola is calling John to protect his privacy, was living in a RV in the neighborhood.

Last month, Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability (OPA) finished its investigation into misconduct allegations against Evan Pitzner and Dane Hagan, the two Seattle police officers who arrived on the scene and, according to John’s account, targeted and mocked him for being homeless.

John didn’t file a complaint with the OPA himself, but several members of the public did after watching a viral video—edited and released by Real Change in 2020—that showed Pitzner and Hagan chuckling as John sat injured on the pavement nearby. Neither officer will face discipline for the incident. The OPA didn’t sustain any of the allegations against Hagan, and while investigators concluded that Pitzner behaved unprofessionally, he resigned from SPD before investigators could interview him about the incident.

At the heart of the complaints against Pitzner and Hagan, were allegations of anti-homeless bias—allegations that the OPA dismissed as unprovable. For John and the Real Change staffers who first took issue with the officer’s comments, the OPA’s ruling raises questions about how Seattle’s police oversight system defines and punishes bias—especially bias against people experiencing homelessness.

“In downtown, officers are so busy that they don’t have time to stop you for small stuff. In SoDo, I once had an officer walk away from a [traffic stop] to stop me for not wearing a helmet. They just wouldn’t leave homeless people alone, even if you kept your space clear and minded your own business.”

Although he never spoke with the OPA, John says he has no doubt that Pitzner and Hagan treated him differently because he was homeless. “It was obvious,” he said.

Pitzner and Hagan were among the last responders to arrive at the scene. A team of field officers from the state Department of Corrections (DOC) witnessed the crash and had stopped the driver nearly a block away, and paramedics from the Seattle Fire Department were assessing John’s injuries when the officers showed up. When paramedics told Hagan that John described feeling pain “everywhere,” he repeated “everywhere” out loud while pretending to write on his notepad. His pen never touched the page.

The DOC officers told Pitzner and Hagan that both the driver and John were at fault for the crash. The driver left without a citation, though the state later revoked his driver’s license; Pitzner reasoned that the driver’s advanced age, not “malintent,” was to blame. He cited John for not wearing a helmet.

Then, as a sheriff’s deputy dragged John’s bicycle—a Lime Bike—out of the street, Pitzner wondered aloud whether the bike was stolen. “Do you really want to know?” the deputy asked. “Yes, because it’s a felony,” Pitzner replied. (Stealing an item worth more than $750 is a Class B felony in Washington state.) John claims that he borrowed the bike from a friend who used the Lime app to rent it.

Hagan and Pitzner set off to a nearby store to find security camera footage of the crash. Inside, the officers struck up a conversation with a customer and a cashier about rising crime in SoDo. “We keep this area pretty thick with officers anyways because there’s a lot of crime that happens down here, associated with people—we don’t like to draw correlations,” Hagan commented. “There’s also not a drug and housing status correlation either, apparently… as I’m told,” he added, apparently referring to the concentration of homeless people in the neighborhood.

Meanwhile, John was sent to Harborview Medical Center, where he says he underwent surgery on his knee. He left the hospital a few days later with a walker, three fractured ribs, and an unrelenting pain in his neck. “I couldn’t raise my head—I had to look at the ground for two years,” he said.

“I don’t like that [Pitzner] brought up the bicycle, because it seems immaterial. But maybe Pitzner has seen a lot of bicycle theft cases. Given the limitations of the complaint, it’s really hard to subjectively identify whether he asks if the bike is stolen out of bias or if he just has good investigative instincts.”—OPA Director Andrew Myerberg

From John’s perspective, Pitzner and Hagan didn’t conceal their bias against him. “Why did they automatically categorize me as suspicious?” he asked. “Why would they automatically assume I stole that bike?” The officers didn’t ask John directly whether he had stolen the bicycle, and they didn’t pursue the issue further.

John added that police officers had stopped him more than a dozen times in SoDo, including nearly a half-dozen times for not wearing a helmet while riding a bicycle. “It was hard to avoid in that neighborhood,” he said. “In downtown, officers are so busy that they don’t have time to stop you for small stuff. In SoDo… they just wouldn’t leave homeless people alone, even if you kept your space clear and minded your own business.”

OPA investigators disagreed. “The fact is that he wasn’t wearing a helmet while crossing an intersection and got into a collision,” said OPA Director Andrew Myerberg. “Given that fact, I can’t see how we could ever prove that the citation was biased.”

Tiffani McCoy, the advocacy director for Real Change, pushed back on this interpretation. “We had a person injured on the pavement in a crash, and the driver didn’t stop. A hit-and-run is a felony, but the officers took a more respectful tone with the driver and let him go without a citation—he just lost his license. Instead of worrying about [John’s] injuries, they focused on whether he was wearing a helmet. Why is that the priority? Why did they show him so little respect and care?” Continue reading “Investigators Find No “Clear-Cut” Anti-Homeless Bias in Viral Bike Crash Case”

Sawant Recall Down to the Wire, No Charges for Cop Who Rolled Bike Over Protester, Long Waits for Non-Emergency Calls

1. The results of a second day of vote-counting in the Kshama Sawant’s recall election substantially closed the gap between pro- and anti-recall votes, leaving Sawant within 250 votes of victory. On election night, with an unusually high number of ballots counted, Sawant was behind by 6.4 percentage points. Ordinarily, that would be an easy margin to make up, since later ballots tend to strongly favor left-leaning politicians and issues, but in this instance, the election-night vote represented far more ballots than usual, meaning that some of the “late” ballots that would typically be counted in the days after an election were included in the Tuesday tally.

On Wednesday, as King County Elections counted more last-minute ballots from drop boxes, the tide turned strongly in Sawant’s favor. About 62 percent of more than 7,100 votes counted Wednesday favored Sawant. Despite this trend, the election remained too close to predict, for a couple of reasons. First, King County Elections said it expects to count just 1,200 more ballots, total. Assuming that estimate is correct, Sawant will need to win around 60 percent of those ballots to narrowly prevail. That’s lower than 62 percent, but there is one potential reason for caution: Many of the ballots that will be reported Wednesday are ballots that were mailed in before election night, which could end up favoring Sawant by a smaller margin than the ones reported Wednesday.

The second reason for caution is that, according to the elections office, the signatures on 656 ballots have been challenged, which can happen when a signature does not match the one the elections office has on file or if a voter fails to sign the envelope when they submit their ballot. The next “drop” of votes arrives at 4pm today.

2. Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz ordered an officer to serve a seven-day unpaid suspension for rolling his bike over a prone protester’s head during a protest on Capitol Hill in September 2020. The suspension came in response to an Office of Police Accountability (OPA) investigation that found the officer used unreasonable force and violated SPD’s professionalism policies.

The protester, Camilo Massagli, was wearing a hard hat and lying in the street to create a barrier between a line of police officers with bicycles and a group of Black Lives Matter demonstrators. A widely circulated video of the incident shows the officer, Eric Walker, rolling his bicycle over Massagli’s head without attempting to lift his wheel. Massagli was not injured, and officers later arrested him for failure to disperse and obstruction.

In interview with the OPA, Walter insisted that he did not intend to run over Massagli’s head. “Such a belief, even if convincingly articulated and strongly held,” the OPA investigators wrote in their findings, “cannot serve to overcome the clear video evidence in this case.” Ultimately, investigators ruled that Walter had no justification for rolling his bicycle over Massagli, and that he did so intentionally.

OPA Director Andrew Myerberg and Walter’s superiors recommended the seven-day suspension, both because of Walter’s misconduct and the damage the incident did to SPD’s public image. The Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, which represents Walter, is appealing his suspension. Walter also may be able to break his suspension into smaller portions to serve over multiple weeks.

The incident spurred a criminal investigation by the King County Sheriff’s Office, which didn’t find probable cause to charge Walter with assault; the Seattle City Attorney’s Office also did not bring charges against Walter. The sheriff’s detective assigned to the case reasoned that Massagli—a well-known figure during last summer’s protests—might have lain down in the street in hopes of provoking police officers to use force, and that the incident was not a clear-cut case of excessive force because “rolling a bicycle tire over someone would not necessarily be expected to cause someone pain.”

Massagli also chose not to pursue charges, telling the sheriff’s office that he does “not recognize the legitimacy of any U.S. court or police department” and doesn’t believe in using the criminal legal system as punishment.

The OPA also recommended that SPD supervisors reprimand another officer for hitting a protester with his bike during protests on Capitol Hill last fall. 

3. Seattle’s Community Safety and Communications Center, which houses the city’s 911 dispatch center, is struggling to answer calls to its non-emergency line, prompting more than a quarter of callers to hang up after long waits. Non-emergency calls range from noise complaints to reports of suspicious activity. The call center, which moved from the Seattle Police Department to the CSCC in June, has struggled to manage call volumes while short-staffed; in November, the center had 30 vacancies on its roughly 130-member staff, including 10 positions left vacant by dispatchers who lost their jobs in October when the city began firing employees who refused to get vaccinated.

In the final week of November alone, nearly 30 percent of callers to the non-emergency line didn’t reach a human being, waiting an average of five minutes before hanging up. Callers transferred from 911 operators to the non-emergency line were even more likely to give up before reaching a person: 35 percent of transferred callers hung up, waiting an average of 7.5 minutes.

The CSCC has reported that Seattle’s temporary hiring incentive program, which offers $10,000 bonuses to new police officers and 911 dispatchers—and $25,000 to officers and dispatchers who transfer from other agencies—doubled the number of applications they received to fill vacant positions. For now, callers to the non-emergency line will hear a pre-recorded message suggesting alternative ways to seek help during the center’s peak hours.

—Erica C. Barnett, Paul Kiefer

New Audit Points to Shortcomings in How SPD Punishes Misconduct

Seattle Police Department cruiser parked outside of Union Station in Seattle's International District
(Paul Kiefer: PubliCola)

By Paul Kiefer

A year-long audit of Seattle’s disciplinary system for police officers by the city’s Office of the Inspector General identified an array of shortcomings in how the Seattle Police Department hands out discipline and flags misconduct in officers’ records.

Among other discoveries, auditors revealed that SPD supervisors aren’t able to track when officers work highly paid overtime hours while suspended for misconduct, and that the officers’ misconduct records don’t appear to have an impact on whether their commanders decide to promote.

The OIG’s audit focused on the steps that follow a misconduct investigation by the city’s Office of Police Accountability, starting with how SPD decides to discipline officers who violates department policies.

The OPA director and SPD supervisors are responsible for choosing a range of possible consequences for an officer’s misconduct based on a review of past discipline for similar cases, but the police chief has the final say in how to discipline an officer. According to the audit, between 2018 and 2021, police chiefs chose the least-severe discipline in nearly half of all cases. When presented with a range between suspending and firing an officer, the chiefs—during the period the auditors looked at, Carmen Best and Adrian Diaz, along with short-term acting chiefs—chose suspension in every case the OIG reviewed.

At least six officers who hadn’t completed their suspensions were able to work enough overtime hours to offset the financial impacts of their suspensions, the OIG found. In one case, the auditors discovered that an officer worked nine hours of overtime on a day when they were supposed to be suspended.

If the police chief decides to throw out the OPA’s findings altogether, city law requires them to explain their decision in detail to the mayor, city council, and the city’s police accountability bodies. This happened in May, when Interim Chief Adrian Diaz overruled an OPA investigation that pinned responsibility for a widely criticized use of tear gas against protesters in 2020 on a well-known lieutenant. However, the chief is not required to explain his reasoning if he decides to ignore the OPA’s disciplinary recommendations. While the OIG acknowledged that it is rare for a chief to ignore discipline recommendations, the auditors warned that “a future chief may be able to undermine the accountability system and public trust” by ignoring discipline recommendations with impunity.

The OIG’s auditors also pointed out that basing discipline on similar misconduct cases has disadvantages. Some cases of misconduct are too novel to find an easy point of comparison, Judge said, and relying on disciplinary standards from a decade ago makes it difficult to adjust penalties to reflect new public concerns about police misconduct. While a police chief could decide to impose harsher consequences for some types of misconduct, such as excessive force or reckless driving, the auditors warned that police unions would likely challenge stricter discipline by appealing to an arbitrator: a tactic that frequently works in the union’s favor.

According to Judge, police departments have to find a balance between a uniform, transparent set of disciplinary standards and having the flexibility to handle the unpredictable moving parts in many police misconduct cases. “There probably isn’t a ‘right’ system for deciding how to discipline officers,” Judge said. Even departments that set well-defined standards for how to discipline officers run into problems, she added. “If the system involves classifying an officer’s misconduct on some kind of severity scale, you still wind up with supervisors finding a way to classify their officers’ misconduct as more- or less-severe.”

Of the 50 officers promoted to sergeant within SPD in the past three years, the auditors found that 13 had recent records of misconduct, including several who had recently been suspended.

The OIG refrained from suggesting any changes to SPD’s disciplinary system, citing the imperfections in other models the department could adopt. “We run into a challenge when we make recommendations,” Judge said. “Our job is to identify systemic problems within the department, but once we cross the line by telling them how to remedy it… We would just be grading our own work.”

The OIG’s audit also discovered that officers with histories of misconduct rarely have trouble rising through the ranks. Police chiefs promote officers based on their scores on a competency exam, and the auditors found few signs that Diaz or his recent predecessors—including acting chiefs—chose not to promote officers based on their disciplinary records. Of 50 officers promoted to sergeant between 2018 and 2021, the auditors found that 13 had recent records of misconduct when they were promoted, including several with recent suspension at the time of their promotions.

Some small policy violations may never appear on an officer’s record. The OIG’s auditors found that the OPA, with support from SPD commanders, frequently opts not to uphold misconduct allegations against officers for technical or inadvertent errors—failing to turn on a body-worn video camera, for example. Instead, the OPA often requires such officers to go through retraining, allowing the officer to walk away without the policy violation on their record. Until 2019, the OPA also had the option to hold officers responsible for minor misconduct without recommending any discipline; the office abandoned that strategy after SPOG overwhelmed the city with grievances about the OPA’s decision to mark officers’ records for minor misconduct. Continue reading “New Audit Points to Shortcomings in How SPD Punishes Misconduct”

Mayoral Candidates Spar on Public Safety, Being “From Here”; Anti-Vax SPD Exodus Averted

1. Seattle Mayoral candidates Lorena González and Bruce Harrell faced off once again on Sunday during a public safety-focused forum hosted by the ACLU of Washington and moderated by Sean Goode, the director of the Seattle-area youth diversion nonprofit Choose 180.

The forum was a chance for the two candidates to get into the weeds on issues like police oversight, union contracts, and the logistics of civilian emergency response.

But anyone looking for detailed, specific responses to questions about these issues—not to mention the city’s use of the King County Jail, plans to increase or decrease SPD funding, and under what circumstances police should use lethal force—might have come away disappointed.

During this and earlier debates, Harrell pointed out that he sponsored a 2017 ordinance requiring officers to undergo anti-bias training. González, who voted for the legislation, said that “passing the ordinance didn’t result in a less biased police force,”

Still, the forum did highlight significant differences between the candidates’ overall approach to public safety and policing, and their level of comfort grappling with thorny issues like police defunding. While Harrell has said he would hire more officers and González has said she would cut the size of the force, neither gave many specifics about how they would reach those goals.

González said she has no interest in a “carte blanche increase in SPD’s budget,” adding that her plans for funding alternatives to police aren’t about “hiring more officers of a different kind”—a slap at Harrell’s statement that he would “build a new kind of officer” at SPD and field new teams of unarmed officers, similar to SPD’s existing Community Service Officers.

Both candidates said they would support additional officer training—in González’ case, “increased training around deescalation to prevent violence in the first place,” and in Harrell’s,  “extensive retraining” to “change the culture in the police department.” González described Harrell’s training plan as “having officers watch a video of George Floyd’s murder and sign a pledge to do better”—a reference to his campaign promise to ask “every sworn police officer in Seattle to watch the 8 minutes and 46 seconds of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis and voluntarily sign an open letter stating: The Inhumane Treatment of Fellow Human Beings Will Not Be Tolerated In Seattle.”

Harrell seemed to suggest that because he grew up in Seattle (unlike González, whose parents were migrant farmworkers in Eastern Washington), and because he has Black sons (González has a mixed-race daughter), he has “skin in the game” that his opponent lacks.

Harrell’s belief in anti-bias training runs deep—during this and earlier debates, he pointed out that he sponsored a 2017 ordinance requiring officers to undergo the training. The law, he said, also required the collection of data on showing “who was stopped, who was frisked, who gets tickets, [and] if there’s racial profiling occurring.” González, who voted for the legislation, said that “passing the ordinance didn’t result in a less biased police force,” and argued for shifting funds toward alternatives she argued will lead to “true community safety,” like programs that focus on early intervention, youth employment, and neighborhood economic development.

The two also differed strongly on whether the consent decree—a decade-old agreement between Seattle and the US Department of Justice that places a federal judge in charge of overseeing reforms to SPD—is an “obstacle” for elected officials trying to divert money from the police department to alternative public safety programs.

From González’ perspective, the federal court’s oversight has become more onerous and less useful. “The city is now required to send most of our police budget changes to the court for approval, and I don’t believe that’s what the consent decree was originally intended to do,” she said. Harrell initially offered a one-word answer to Goode’s question about the consent decree—”nope”—but when pressed to elaborate, he commented that he doesn’t “see it as a barrier or a strength—it’s just the letter of the law.”

2. Harrell began the virtual forum by showing viewers a black-and-white photo of his childhood baseball team, saying, “These men… are the fathers and mentors of the Black community.” He followed up during the forum with two more photos—one of himself and his friends in college, including one who “became a Seahawk,” and one of his father “in the 1960s, when I was born right here in Seattle.”

In several instances, Harrell seemed to suggest that because he grew up in Seattle (unlike González, whose parents were migrant farmworkers in Eastern Washington), and because he has Black sons (González has a mixed-race daughter), he has “skin in the game” that his opponent lacks. “While I appreciate my opponent’s answer, this is this is personal for me and my family. I have two Black sons that have been in the city their entire life. And so when I hear this information [about police brutality], it is not anecdotal for me.”

González didn’t counter this suggestion directly, but pointed to her work as a civil rights lawyer working on behalf of victims of police violence and the fact that “I have lost family to police violence. … And I want to work towards having a city [where] parents don’t have to fear if their black or brown babies are going to come home tonight.”

2. As of Monday, only about two dozen SPD employees had not turned in proof that they are fully vaccinated, indicating that most of the 140 holdouts left on Friday were making a point. Continue reading “Mayoral Candidates Spar on Public Safety, Being “From Here”; Anti-Vax SPD Exodus Averted”