Tag: police accountability

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; 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”

Assistant Chief Who Ordered Abandoning East Precinct Cleared of Wrongdoing

SPD East Precinct, June 2020

By Paul Kiefer

Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability released findings on Monday afternoon clearing former Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best and current Assistant Chief Tom Mahaffey of wrongdoing in the evacuation of the department’s East Precinct last June.

Questions about the decision to abandon the precinct swirled for more than a year without any clarity from the department until KUOW published an investigation in July that identified Mahaffey—the commander in charge of managing the department’s protest response on June 8—as the person who made the call.

OPA director Andrew Myerberg criticized SPD for being silent about the decision to abandon the precinct, writing that the decision created “a sense of distrust within community and the belief that there was something nefarious at play.” In a statement issued on Monday afternoon, City Council President Lorena González echoed the same frustration, writing that the OPA’s report “shows how SPD treated responsibility as a ‘hot potato’ that no one wanted to get caught holding… You can’t always predict the outcome of key decisions—and mistakes will happen—but the damage to public trust is made much worse when high-ranking SPD leaders play games of hot potato and fail to be forthright with elected officials, the media and the public.”

However, Myerberg also concluded that Best had the authority to delegate decision-making to Mahaffey. Similarly, he determined that Mahaffey’s decision to evacuate the precinct was based on the information available to him—including flawed claims from the FBI of a terrorist threat—and that his decision allowed SPD to temporarily de-escalate. “No one—including OPA—can say that [an] alternative strategy would have produced better results than those that occurred or that it would have prevented CHOP/CHAZ from forming,” he wrote, “just as no one can say this unidentified alternative strategy would not have resulted in more uses of force to disperse the crowd and, potentially, to rescue stranded and endangered officers left inside of the precinct.”

Assistant Chief Brian Grenon described panicked officers “ripping open lockers” and “kicking in doors” during a mad-dash attempt to gather all the weapons, computers and hard drives in the building. After supervisors intervened, the precinct’s officers departed for the West Precinct.

The OPA’s investigation, which relied on interviews with Best, Mahaffey and other SPD employees and members of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s staff, largely mirrored KUOW’s version of events, with two exceptions. In early June, with the East Precinct at the center of nightly protests on Capitol Hill, SPD leaders were increasingly anxious about the risk of an attack on the precinct. Protesters in Minneapolis had burned a police precinct to the ground less than two weeks earlier, and SPD leadership worried that the same thing could happen in Seattle.

Meanwhile, the department’s initial protest response, which relied heavily on barriers, fixed lines of officers in riot gear, and weapons like tear gas and pepper spray, only escalated the conflict on the streets outside the East Precinct. Continue reading “Assistant Chief Who Ordered Abandoning East Precinct Cleared of Wrongdoing”

Port Police Review Suggests Hiring, Use-of-Force Policy Changes

By Paul Kiefer

With the Seattle Police Department at the center of attention during city-wide protests in the summer of 2020, the Port of Seattle took the opportunity to launch a sweeping review of its own police department.

Although the Port Commission did not launch the review in response to public criticism of Port police, the department’s reputation was on shaky ground. When protests erupted at the end of May, Port police officers joined SPD during widely scrutinized clashes in downtown Seattle, and in June, the department placed its chief, Rodney Covey, on administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation into allegations that he discriminated against a Black officer.

A month later, with the department in the hands of acting chief Michael Villa, a task force led by the Port’s director of equity and the president of the Port’s Black employee resource group began sifting through the policies and practices of the Port police.

To steer the task force, the commission tapped national police consulting firm 21CP Solutions, a firm replete with former SPD leaders, including former Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole, former SPD Chief Operating Officer Brian Maxey, and former Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best.

The task force presented the final product of its year-long review to the Port Commission on Tuesday, offering a mostly positive assessment of the department with some notable suggestions for improvement.

Most of the group’s recommendations involved the department’s policy manual, which relies heavily on a service called Lexipol—a library of boilerplate law enforcement policies that subscribing agencies can modify to match local laws. The reviewers deemed many of Lexipol’s policies “overly complex and technical, hard to comprehend, [and] disjointed,” and noted what while the Port police can adjust the policies to make them easier for officers to understand, the department has modified only 45 percent of the Lexipol policies in its manual.

The task force also outlined a slew of changes to bring the department’s policy manual in line with statewide standards for law enforcement and the department’s on-the-ground practices.. Notably, Port police policies don’t currently require officers to de-escalate confrontations when feasible.

The review could not account for 11 uses of force by Port police officers during protests in downtown Seattle and Tukwila in May  2020, including the use of tear gas, in part because the Port police only started wearing body cameras this year, after a new state law forced them to do so.

When reviewing the remaining 90 incidents between 2018 and 2020, the consultants found that officers typically tried to use some de-escalation tactics even in the absence of an explicit requirement in their policy manual. Because of the lack of body-camera evidence to corroborate these officers’ accounts, the reviewers noted that their analysis was “only as deep as the reporting was accurate.”

The majority—75 percent—of these 90 incidents took place at SeaTac airport; the rest happened on or near Port properties in South King County, the Duwamish shoreline, and the Ship Canal.

More than half of the department’s uses of force involved trespassing calls, which are a rough proxy for responses to unhoused people on Port properties, particularly at the airport. The people on the receiving end in these incidents were disproportionately Black, whereas almost all uses of force against “members of the traveling public” at Port facilities involved white people, who were generally intoxicated, experiencing a mental health crisis, or both. While the reviewers largely avoided criticizing the officers’ decisions to use force, they raised concerns about two incidents in which officers used force to take people into custody for trespassing instead of simply allowing them to leave the airport.

In response, the task force recommended that the department shift away from a “police response to homelessness,” which they argued could also drastically reduce racial disparities in the department’s uses of force. The department recently hired a sworn officer with a background in social work to fill a new crisis coordinator position, which launched as a pilot last month. The goal, Villa said, is to “reduce the number of people experiencing homelessness at the airport” by referring unhoused people to services elsewhere in King County.

The report found that officers of color were more likely to report feeling undervalued and excluded from opportunities than their white coworkers; interviews with department staff later clarified that the officers’ concerns stem from perceived “cronyism” within a mostly white group of department staff. To address equity and fairness concerns, the task force recommended the department adopt formal policies to address conflicts of interest in the disciplinary process and reduce opportunities for bias during promotion decisions. The reviewers also suggested that the department develop a plan for recruiting Latinx and entry-level female officers; the department currently employs only one Latinx officer, and it has not hired a woman for an entry-level sworn position in three years.

The department has six months to create a plan to implement the recommendations. Deborah Jacobs, the former head of King County’s Office of Law Enforcement Oversight and one of the outside experts who participated in the review, believes the department is on firmer footing than other police departments that have faced similar reviews. “These aren’t the kinds of extreme issues we see in some other departments: these are fixable,” Jacobs said. But like all police departments, she added, the most intractable challenges—and the most difficult to pin down—are cultural. “As we have seen time and time again, culture eats strategy and policy for lunch.”

Court Upholds Firing of Cop Who Punched Handcuffed Woman, Sound Transit Board Delays CEO’s Contract Renewal, Debate Continues Over Disarming Suspects with Knives

1. The Washington State Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Wednesday that the court will not consider former Seattle police officer Adley Shepherd’s appeal of an earlier Court of Appeals decision that upheld his termination from the Seattle Police Department in 2016. The ruling ends a protracted legal battle with the city of Seattle that has loomed over the past half-decade of police accountability reform efforts in the city.

Former Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole fired Shepherd for punching a woman while she was handcuffed in the back of a patrol car during a late-night arrest in June 2014. Shepherd and his union, the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG), appealed her decision to an arbitrator, who sided with Shepherd, directing SPD to re-hire him and offer back pay.

Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes stood by Shepherd’s firing, asking the King County Superior Court to vacate the arbitrator’s decision—a rare challenge to the authority of arbitrators in police disciplinary cases, whose decisions are typically final. The city prevailed in both superior Court and the Court of Appeals, setting the stage for a longer-term struggle with the city’s police unions to limit arbitrators’ power to overturn disciplinary decisions made by police department leaders.

2. In an unusual move, the executive committee of the Sound Transit board decided to delay approving a one-year contract extension for agency CEO Peter Rogoff Thursday. The committee went into closed executive session for more than an hour before coming back into public session and bumping Rogoff’s contract renewal from the agenda. Rogoff makes a base salary of around $380,000 a year.

Sound Transit has spent the past 17 months debating the best way to cut costs in response to budget shortfalls and higher-than-anticipated cost estimates for key components of Sound Transit 3, the regional light rail and bus system expansion voters approved in 2016. After a number of tense public meetings, which included Rogoff, the board ultimately adopted a compromise plan spearheaded by King County Council member Claudia Balducci that would accelerate projects in order of priority if more funds become available in the future.

Because the discussion happened in executive session, no one is talking about what the committee discussed. Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick, speaking on behalf of board chair (and a University Place council member ) Kent Keel, said, “following the committee’s discussion in executive session today, the full Sound Transit Board will continue discussion of the contract at its September meeting,” on September 23.

“Chair Keel emphasized his responsibility to honor the confidentiality that always surrounds the contract review process prior to when the Board discusses its action in open session, and that nothing further can be shared at this time,” Patrick said.

3. Mark Mullens, the only police officer on Seattle’s Community Police Commission, was unusually vocal during a question-and-answer with Office of Police Accountability (OPA) Director Andrew Myerberg during Wednesday’s commission meeting. Myerberg came to the meeting to address the OPA’s investigation into the fatal shooting of 57-year-old Terry Caver by Seattle police officer Christopher Gregorio last May. After the OPA concluded that Gregorio failed to de-escalate during his confrontation with Caver, Interim Seattle Police Chief suspended Gregorio for 20 days and transferred him out of the department’s K9 unit—a rare outcome for police shootings in Seattle, which typically end without discipline. Continue reading “Court Upholds Firing of Cop Who Punched Handcuffed Woman, Sound Transit Board Delays CEO’s Contract Renewal, Debate Continues Over Disarming Suspects with Knives”

Oversight Group Recommends Policy Changes In Response to 2019 Shooting of Unarmed Man

Det

By Paul Kiefer

Concluding their investigation into a fatal 2019 shooting by King County Sheriff’s Office detectives, the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO) sharply criticized the sheriff’s office for failing to learn from a string of similar shootings and outlined 23 policy and training recommendations to prevent similar incidents in the future.

The recommendations accompanied OLEO’s report on the killing of 36-year-old Anthony Chilchott by plainclothes detectives.

In November 2019, Detective George Alvarez and his partner, Detective Josh Lerum, were driving an unmarked car when they spotted 36-year-old Anthony Chilcott, who was wanted for stealing an SUV and a pet poodle, parked next to a power station in rural southeastern King County. Earlier that day, Chilcott had evaded a Washington State Patrol officer, and the detectives were under instructions not to confront him directly.

Without consulting with Lerum or waiting for backup, Alvarez decided to pull within inches of Chilcott’s driver-side door, sparking a confrontation that ended with both detectives shooting Chilcott, who was unarmed, in the head. Neither detective was wearing a sheriff’s uniform, and witnesses at a bus stop nearby told investigators that they didn’t initially realize that the pair that rammed the SUV and broke Chilcott’s window with a sledgehammer and the butts of their handguns were police officers.

Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht fired Alvarez,for failing to follow basic de-escalation policies and for “extremely poor tactical and officer safety decisions” during the fatal confrontation near Enumclaw in November 2019. She reprimanded Lerum for failing to wear a protective vest and failing to identify himself as a police officer, but he remains on the force as a deputy.

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During a presentation before the King County Council on Tuesday, OLEO policy analyst Katy Kirschner said the sheriff’s office had failed to adopt adequate training and policies for plainclothes operations, and that these gaps contributed to Chilcott’s death. Kirschner also said the sheriff’s office hasn’t done enough to impress upon officers that “speculative or generalized fears” that a suspect could harm bystanders aren’t a justification for using force. “Top-down messaging is a key part of making these reforms work,” she said.

OLEO brought up similar points when it reviewed the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens by plainclothes sheriff’s deputies in 2017..

In their report, OLEO reiterated its longstanding recommendation that the sheriff’s office conduct in-person, recorded interviews with officers less than a day after a shooting or other serious incident. Currently, the King County Sheriff’s Office can only require officers to provide signed statements 48 hours after a serious incident; in the Chilcott case, Alvarez and Lerum didn’t provide statements until eight days after the shooting, and they weren’t interviewed until the sheriff’s office began an internal investigation eight months later.

“I don’t think I can overemphasize the importance of collecting statements from officers in a timely manner,” Kirschner said, adding that written statements are far less valuable than in-person interviews with an investigator, who can ask officers questions that might not otherwise come up. Continue reading “Oversight Group Recommends Policy Changes In Response to 2019 Shooting of Unarmed Man”

Vaccination Resistance at SPD Continues Amid COVID Spike; Harrell Turns Down Police Accountability Debate

1. The highly contagious Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus is spreading quickly in Washington, including within the Seattle Police Department. In the past three weeks, 29 officers tested positive for the virus, marking the highest increase in cases within the department since the beginning of the pandemic. SPD also saw cases spike in April, when roughly 20 officers tested positive for the virus.

The new spike also spurred a sharp increase in the number of officers in quarantine. At the beginning of August, only one officer was in quarantine; on Monday, 33 officers were isolating themselves. The number of officers in quarantine reached its peak in late November of last year, when 80 officers quarantined after exposure to the virus; those figures plummeted at the beginning of the year, routinely falling into the single digits.

This month’s increase in infections among police officers comes on the heels of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s decision to require all city employees to receive the COVID-19 before October 18, 2021 or risk termination. The city’s vaccination mandate sparked outcry from the coalition of city unions, including the two largest unions representing Seattle police officers, who argued that any decision that affects working conditions requires the city to come to the bargaining table to negotiate how the city implements the new rule.

In a letter to interim Labor Relations unit head Jeff Clark, coalition co-chair Shaun Van Eyk wrote that the October 18 timeline won’t leave enough time for the city to “bargain in good faith”; instead, his coalition demanded that the city not enforce the mandate until it completes negotiations with the unions.

Mike Solan, the president of the Seattle Police Officers Guild, is among the loudest critics of the vaccination mandate. In a letter published on his union’s blog on August 9, Solan claimed that more than half of his union’s members are vaccinated, though he suggested that mandating vaccination could prompt officers who have resisted the shot to leave the department in protest.

“SPOG is concerned for the safety and wellbeing of all of our members including those with personal vaccination beliefs,” he wrote. “Can Seattle now endure more losses of police officers due to Mayor Durkan’s vaccination order?” A week later, Solan clarified on his podcast that his objection to the mandate “isn’t about whether the vaccine works. That isn’t our lane.”

So far, SPD has been unable to track its employees’ vaccination status because of privacy rules, but the city’s vaccine mandate could provide a chance for the department to start collecting this data.

Van Eyk said Monday that intransigent conservatives aren’t the only ones who aren’t getting jabbed; some employees of color are hesitant, too, because they mistrust a medical system that has historically exploited African Americans and other BIPOC individuals.

2. The state auditor’s reported Monday that the city council’s controversial contract with the nonprofit Freedom Project to oversee the Black Brilliance Research Project last year was built on questionable foundations.

While the council’s decision to award the $3 million no-bid contract to the same organizations that lobbied for the funding didn’t technically break any state rules, state auditor Pat McCarthy wrote in a press release on Monday that “the city exercised only the bare minimum of accountability and transparency” while handling the contract.

The city council initially set aside dollars to pay for research about public safety spending priorities last fall at the urging of a fledgling coalition called King County Equity Now (KCEN); according to the auditor, the council decided long before awarding the contract that KCEN would receive city dollars to lead the research. But because KCEN wasn’t technically a nonprofit at the time, the council turned to South Seattle-based restorative justice nonprofit Freedom Project to handle finances while KCEN led research teams.

The arrangement allowed the council to award the contract to Freedom Project without a bidding process; in turn, KCEN hired Freedom Project as a sub-sub-contractor. But the collaboration between Freedom Project and KCEN collapsed shortly before the contract’s end in February of this year, driven partially by disputes about late payments to researchers.

In the review, the auditor’s office criticized the council for shaping the $3 million contract to fit KCEN’s proposals before awarding the contract. McCarthy also argued that the council agreed to accept deliverables that were too broad to be meaningful, leaving room for questionable spending and a final research report that didn’t provide a clear blueprint for launching the highly anticipated participatory budgeting process. “The City did not specify how the money would be spent, including requirements on administrative costs; a method for compensating community participants; research methodology requirements; and details on how the City would use the results,” McCarthy wrote in a letter to the council and Mayor Jenny Durkan last week.

McCarthy’s letter included recommendations for avoiding a repeat of the widely criticized Black Brilliance Research Project contract, including improving how the council documents its decisions about awarding contracts.

Meanwhile, budgetary and administrative disagreements about how to move forward with participatory budgeting have delayed the project—originally intended to begin in the spring of 2021—until next year.

3. Mayoral candidate and former city council member Bruce Harrell turned down an invitation from the Community Police Commission to participate in a general election debate that was supposed to happen in September, prompting the CPC to cancel the debate. The CPC is one of the city’s three police oversight bodies; among other duties, it recommends reforms and weighs in on policy proposals related to policing and police accountability.

Jesse Franz, the spokesman for the CPC, told PubliCola Monday that the CPC had planned to focus specifically on the mayoral election this year, and had no current plans to host debates in the races for city attorney and City Council positions 8 and 9.

As we reported last month, the CPC held a spirited debate over whether to host a candidate forum at all. Some members, including the Rev. Harriett Walden, contended that elections are outside the commission’s scope, while others, such as commission co-chair LaRond Baker, argued that the CPC’s role includes informing the public about potential leaders’ positions on public safety issues.

In a statement issued after PubliCola reported on Twitter that the debate was canceled, the CPC said that although “Bruce Harrell has declined our invitation to participate,” the commission “still hopes to find the best ways to educate and facilitate a community dialogue about the critical issues Seattle’s future mayor will face regarding public safety and police accountability. We hope to share those plans with you at a future date.”

Harrell’s campaign did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on Monday.