Tag: police accountability

Public Safety Fizz: “Less-Lethal” Weapons Restrictions Move Forward, Heat Wave’s Impact on Prisons Examined, County Searches for New Police Oversight Head

The Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County (Flickr: Brewbrooks; Reproduced with a Creative Commons License)

1. The Seattle City Council’s public safety committee voted out the latest version of legislation limiting the Seattle Police Department’s use of ‘less-lethal weapons’ on Tuesday, sending the embattled bill to the full council with a ‘do pass’ recommendation. If adopted, the bill would prohibit SPD from using five ‘less-lethal’ weapons, including blast balls, and place new restrictions on officers’ use of tear gas, pepper-ball launchers and pepper spray.

Last summer, the council passed an ordinance that would have prohibited police officers from using tear gas, pepper spray, blast balls and other ‘less-lethal’ weapons for crowd control.

After the US Department of Justice warned that the bill might lead officers to resort to more serious uses of force to control protests, Federal District Court Judge James Robart—who oversees reforms to SPD as part of an ongoing agreement between the US Department of Justice and the city of Seattle known as the consent decree—issued a temporary restraining order preventing it from taking effect. The version of the bill that passed on Tuesday reflects months of input from Seattle’s police oversight bodies, the DOJ, and the monitoring team appointed by Judge Robart to act as the eyes and ears of the consent decree.

Responding to the monitoring team’s concerns that the original bill would prevent officers from targeting small groups of people committing acts of violence at protests, the new bill outright bans less-targeted weapons such as blast balls and ultrasonic cannons while allowing officers to use more targeted weapons against individual people. The ordinance would also allow SPD to use pepper spray and tear gas to move crowds when twelve or more people in the crowd are engaging in violence—a legal standard that SPD might be able to skirt because of the difficulties of measuring the scale of violence within a crowd after the fact.

Although the committee voted to send the bill to the full council, that won’t happen immediately. Instead, Herbold opted to wait for the results of a hearing before Judge Robart on August 10 to review Seattle’s compliance with the consent decree, giving the council an opportunity for the council to hear more feedback on the bill.

2. Washington’s Office of the Corrections Ombuds (OCO), the oversight agency for the state’s Department of Corrections, issued a brief report on Tuesday describing conditions inside the Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County during the record-breaking heat wave two weeks ago.

Meanwhile, the DOC is also preparing to address Washington’s falling prison population—4,000 empty beds statewide, and a more than 50 percent decline in new prisoners since last year—by closing some units.

An OCO staffer who visited the prison on June 28 found substantial differences between conditions in the four different units they visited. In the prison’s Intensive Management Unit, temperatures in hallways remained below 80 degrees; in contrast, the investigator, Matthias Gydé, found cells in the Twin Rivers Unit, which houses more than 800 people, in which some surfaces reached nearly 100 degrees.

The unit-to-unit variations in temperature were partially the result of inconsistent cooling systems across the prison system. The Intensive Management Unit is outfitted with an HVAC system, whereas the Twin Rivers Unit relies on a vent that pumps air from the building’s roof to cool its common areas and cells. Gydé also noted that the Twin Rivers Unit’s skylights and cell windows contributed to the high temperatures. The DOC relaxed rules to allow inmates to cover their windows, but the skylights in the building’s common areas remained uncovered during the heat wave. Continue reading “Public Safety Fizz: “Less-Lethal” Weapons Restrictions Move Forward, Heat Wave’s Impact on Prisons Examined, County Searches for New Police Oversight Head”

Council Reviews New Version of “Less-Lethal” Weapons Ban

Seattle Police Officers fire tear gas at demonstrators on Capitol Hill in June 2020 (via Chase Burns on Twitter)

By Paul Kiefer

Seattle City Council member Lisa Herbold introduced the latest version of legislation intended to restrict the Seattle Police Department’s use of so-called ‘less-lethal weapons’ against demonstrators during a public safety committee meeting on Tuesday, more than a year after the council first began its efforts to limit SPD’s crowd control arsenal. The proposal would restrict the use of tear gas, pepper-ball launchers and pepper spray by SPD officers responding to protests and outright ban five other ‘less-lethal’ weapons, including blast balls.

If passed, the proposed legislation would replace an ordinance the council passed in June 2020, which SPD never implemented, that would have prohibited police officers from using tear gas, pepper spray, blast balls and other ‘less-lethal’ weapons for crowd control.

Shortly after the ordinance passed, US District Court Judge James Robart—who oversees reforms to SPD as part of an ongoing agreement between the US Department of Justice and the city of Seattle known as the consent decree—issued a temporary restraining order preventing it from taking effect. The order came in response to a warning from the US Department of Justice that any law preventing officers from using ‘less-lethal’ weapons against crowds might make officers turn to more serious uses of force, including hitting protesters with batons.

In the aftermath of Judge Robart’s restraining order, city council members turned to Seattle’s police oversight bodies—the Office of Police Accountability (OPA), the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), and the Community Police Commission (CPC)—and the team appointed by the federal court to monitor the city’s compliance with federal court orders to rework the legislation.

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The updated bill that Herbold introduced on Tuesday reflects the latest round of feedback from the DOJ and court-appointed monitoring team, who began an informal review of the draft legislation in February. In their recommendations to the council, the monitoring team emphasized that SPD officers need to be able to use targeted crowd control weapons against people committing acts of violence within larger peaceful protests, and that SPD will need additional time to adjust to any new restrictions on less-lethal weapons.

In its current form, the bill would ban officers from using “disorientation devices” like blast balls or ultrasonic cannons under any circumstances, with the exception of flash-bang grenades, which would still be available to SWAT teams. It would also allow officers to use pepper spray and tear gas to move crowds of protesters, but only in response to a “violent public disturbance”—a legal term to describe violence committed by a group of twelve or more people. Continue reading “Council Reviews New Version of “Less-Lethal” Weapons Ban”

State Goes on Offensive to Save Capital Gains Tax, Police Oversight Group Considers Candidate Forum, and Compassion Seattle Plays Victim

1. Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a motion Tuesday seeking to have a Douglas County judge throw out two lawsuits against the capital gains tax. Ferguson argues in his motion that the plaintiffs filed the suits for political reasons and don’t have grounds to sue because they don’t know yet if they’d be subject to the tax.

The capital gains tax bill (SB 5096) imposes a 7 percent tax on profits of $250,000 or more from the sale of intangible financial assets, such as stocks and bonds. The bill would go into effect in 2022, but the state would not collect taxes until January 2023. Roughly 7,000 Washington taxpayers would be subject to the tax, which would generate $415 million for the state in its first year.

Three days after the legislature passed the bill, the Freedom Foundation, a conservative think tank, challenged the law in court. Less than a month later, former attorney general Rob McKenna, along with the Washington Farm Bureau, filed a second lawsuit against the bill. Both suits were filed in conservative Douglas County.

The lawsuits say taxing capital gains is unconstitutional because capital gains are property, and all property must be taxed at a uniform rate in Washington because of a 1933 state Supreme Court decision.

However, Democrats have argued that the capital gains tax is an excise (sales) tax, not a property tax, because it is triggered by the sale of financial assets.

Ferguson argued that the plaintiffs have asked the court to settle a political dispute, rather than a legal one, noting that they “are suffering no legal harm from the tax they challenge and ask this Court to issue a purely advisory political opinion.” He also argued that the lawsuits are preemptive and speculative, since the plaintiffs don’t know whether they’ll even have to pay the tax when it goes into effect in 2023.

The state Supreme Court is also hearing arguments for a lawsuit against the state’s 2019 bank business and occupation tax (HB 2167), which was also filed by McKenna. Washington State Solicitor General Noah Purcell argued at the court on May 25 that state law prohibits lawsuits against taxes until they have gone into effect. If the court sides with Purcell, the lawsuits against the capital gains tax might have to wait until state residents actually pay the tax, which wouldn’t be until 2023 at the earliest.

State Sen. Jamie Pedersen (D-43, Seattle) said that if the court dismisses the lawsuits, it will only delay the inevitable: having the state Supreme Court reviewing the law. Democrats want the court to review the tax because they believe the court would overturn the previous ruling declaring income a form of property, which would blow the doors open for an income tax.

The next hearing for the cases is set for July 13 at 10am, with Douglas County Superior Court Judge Brian Huber presiding.

2. The future of the Seattle Police Department is front-and-center in the upcoming elections, but some members of Seattle’s Community Police Commission (CPC)—the branch of the city’s police oversight system tasked with gathering community input on police reforms—are wary of wading into electoral politics.

Reverend Harriet Walden, the commission’s longest-serving member, also opposed the candidate forum. “It’s not part of our mission,” she said.

During the CPC meeting Wednesday, CPC communications director Jesse Franz described plans that are already underway for a general election forum that the CPC plans to co-host alongside a community organization involved in criminal justice reform, such as Choose 180 or Community Passageways.

But some prominent members of the commission pushed back on the plan. Suzette Dickerson, who will represent the CPC during contract negotiations with the Seattle Police Officers Guild next year, argued that hosting a candidate forum was outside the scope of the CPC’s responsibilities. From her perspective, the commission’s role is to be a sounding board for Seattle residents’ opinions on reforms to SPD; “stepping into the political arena,” she argued, would undermine public trust in the commission.

Reverend Harriet Walden, the commission’s longest-serving member, also opposed the candidate forum. “It’s not part of our mission,” she said, adding that she isn’t confident that the CPC would allow community groups opposed to downsizing SPD to have a voice in the forum. “I think that we’re headed down a path to help social engineer the defunding the police department,” she said.

The commission’s current leaders, however, supported the idea. “To me, holding a candidate forum seems within the scope of ensuring that the community is informed about what accountability may or may not look like, in particular candidates minds,” said CPC co-chair LaRond Baker.

Though the CPC can’t endorse candidates, the commission is not a neutral player in the police oversight sphere: It recommends reforms to SPD and Seattle’s police oversight system. Recent CPC recommendations have included a ban on tear gas and removing limits on the number of civilian investigators in the Office of Police Accountability. The success of those recommendations depends on the support of the mayor, the council, and the police chief, which gives the CPC a clear stake in the outcome of the election.

“Opponents have been using increasingly violent tactics against our signature collection teams,” the solicitation for funds claims. “We must persevere, and we need your help to ensure we reach 33,060 signatures by June 25.”

3. In a fundraising email Tuesday, the Compassion Seattle campaign, which is gathering signatures to get its charter amendment on homelessness on the November ballot, claimed that several of its paid signature gatherers have been attacked by people who oppose the initiative.

“Opponents have been using increasingly violent tactics against our signature collection teams,” the solicitation for funds claims. “We must persevere, and we need your help to ensure we reach 33,060 signatures by June 25.” Continue reading “State Goes on Offensive to Save Capital Gains Tax, Police Oversight Group Considers Candidate Forum, and Compassion Seattle Plays Victim”

Can the the Seattle Police Department Consent Decree Be Fixed?

Dr. Antonio Oftelie speaks to the Seattle Community Police Commission in May 2021.

By Paul Kiefer

On Tuesday, the Seattle City Council rejected a proposal to cut $2.83 million from the Seattle Police Department’s budget, bringing an end to a months-long debate and raising questions about whether federal oversight is the right path toward reforming the department.

For almost a decade, SPD has been under federal oversight through an agreement with the US Department of Justice called a consent decree. The consent decree, which Seattle entered in 2012, was supposed to ensure that SPD corrected a pattern of using unjustified force and racially biased policing, among other reforms.

But after nearly a decade, a growing contingent within city government and activist circles are questioning whether the consent decree is capable of changing SPD for the better.

Earlier this week, Councilmember Lisa Herbold was unable to pass legislation cutting millions from SPD’s budget thanks in large part to opposition from SPD and the court-appointed monitor tasked with tracking reforms, Dr. Antonio Oftelie. Herbold initially prosed cutting $5.4 million from the police budget to offset SPD overspending in 2020, and to channel resources to next year’s participatory budgeting program. 

When the plan finally fizzled on Tuesday, many who support additional cuts to the department’s budget blamed Oftelie and the consent decree. “We are seeing the consent decree being wielded as an obstacle to community demands to divest from policing and invest in community safety,” said Angélica Cházaro, a University of Washington professor and organizer with the activist group Decriminalize Seattle, “when in reality the surest way to address issues of racial profiling, use of force, and other violations of constitutional rights by cops is to reduce police power and contact and ensure that communities have what they need to be safe, survive, and thrive.”

“Seattle, as a city, has never come forward to the monitoring team to offer a new solution to a problem. My sense is that if the city could design some alternative response solutions and had plans to show how those were real solutions, then the court and DOJ would be amenable to that.”—federal monitor Antonio Oftelie

Herbold has occasionally joined those critics. During a public safety committee hearing on May 25, for example, she commented that she “often feels hampered by the consent decree because it requires us to get court approval before making any changes.”

Oftelie, however, argues that dismissing the consent decree as an obstacle overlooks its unused potential. At its most basic level, Oftelie told PubliCola, the agreement establishes “a floor” for new policies, better training, and more “constitutional” policing. “Everything can be built on that floor. If Seattle wants to be innovative and transformative, there’s room,” he said. Those reforms could include the creation of a larger-scale civilian unit to respond to mental health crises, or stricter regulation of police officers’ off-duty work.

And while the consent decree outlines a way to add new language to agreement that reflect newer priorities for reform, Oftelie says that Seattle hasn’t taken advantage of that provision.

“Seattle, as a city, has never come forward to the monitoring team to offer a new solution to a problem,” he said. “Some parties in Seattle say, ‘we can’t do something because the consent decree won’t allow it. Or they’ll say, ‘we want the consent decree to do something that it’s not doing at the moment.’ My sense is that if the city could design some alternative response solutions and had plans to show how those were real solutions, then the court and DOJ would be amenable to that.”

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We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

In order to propose a revision to the consent decree, the mayor and the council would need to agree about the goals and details of the change. Some simpler changes, like replacing out-of-date and ineffective technology used to flag officers who are more likely to use excessive force, would only require the city to identify better software; others, like adjusting the consent decree to require a large-scale civilian crisis response program, would require lengthier debates and pilot programs to produce a workable proposal for the court and DOJ.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office did not respond to PubliCola’s request for comment about whether her office would support any changes to the consent decree. Herbold, however, said that she is open to proposing changes to the consent decree—so long as the changes aren’t up to the council or the mayor’s office.

Continue reading “Can the the Seattle Police Department Consent Decree Be Fixed?”

Police Chief’s Reversal of Misconduct Finding Reveals Flaws In Accountability System, Advocates Say

An SPD cruiser carrying Lt. John Brooks (center) orders protesters to disperse from a Capitol Hill intersection in October 2020.

By Paul Kiefer

During a meeting of Seattle’s Community Police Commission on Wednesday, police oversight officials expressed concerns about Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz’s decision to overturn an Office of Police Accountability misconduct finding against SPD lieutenant John Brooks, who directed officers to use tear gas, blast balls and pepper spray to clear a mostly peaceful crowd of protesters from the area near SPD’s East Precinct on June 1, 2020.

During a discussion of the case between the commission and Office of Police Accountability (OPA) Director Andrew Myerberg, CPC co-chair Erin Goodman said Diaz’s ability to unilaterally reverse the findings of a misconduct investigation reveal a fundamental flaw in Seattle’s police oversight system. “It makes us all question the strength of the accountability system as a whole,” she said.

Myerberg’s office ruled that Brooks was responsible for directing officers to use crowd-control weapons against protesters despite inadequate evidence of a threat. Diaz disagreed with Myerberg’s decision, and in a letter to Mayor Jenny Durkan and City Council President Lorena González announcing his decision last week, he argued that it’s unfair to judge the decisions of the officers at the protest in hindsight, and that someone at a “higher level of command authority” was responsible for SPD’s missteps.

Last Thursday, Diaz wrote a post following up on his letter on the department’s blog, announcing that he would hold someone accountable for the incident, and that “additional information has surfaced which was not included in the OPA investigation.”

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If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

But without any clarity about who Diaz will discipline or when he will discipline them, CPC members remain concerned that his decision to absolve Brooks means that no one will face consequences for tear-gassing peaceful protesters. “There were a lot of people who were harmed that day,” said Reverend Harriet Walden, a longtime CPC commissioner, during the meeting on Wednesday. “It makes it difficult for those of us who try to work collaboratively with SPD.”

In fact, Diaz’s reference to “additional information” about SPD’s protest response on June 1 only added to the CPC’s concerns. “Did you get the sense that SPD withheld information from your office during your investigation?” Goodman asked Myerberg during the meeting. Continue reading “Police Chief’s Reversal of Misconduct Finding Reveals Flaws In Accountability System, Advocates Say”

Police Accountability Leader Asks SPD to Phase Out Routine Traffic Stops

Image by Erik Mclean via Unsplash.

By Paul Kiefer

Citing concerns from community members and police officers about the dangers of police traffic stops, Seattle Inspector General Lisa Judge sent a letter to Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz on Tuesday asking him to start phasing out traffic stops for “civil and non-dangerous violations”—violations that, unlike DUI or reckless driving, do not endanger the public.

Judge, whose office conducts audits of systemic problems within SPD and issues policy recommendations, cited half a dozen well-known examples of traffic stops that turned fatal. Her list included a traffic stop for a suspended license on Aurora Avenue North that led to an SPD officer fatally shooting 36-year-old Iosia Faletogo on New Year’s Even in 2018; Faletogo’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city in March.

“Stopping a person is a significant infringement on civil liberty and should be reserved for instances when a person is engaged in criminal conduct that harms others,” Judge wrote. “Stops for government-created requirements like car tabs, with nothing but a potential monetary penalty, do not justify the risk to community or to officers.”

Judge also noted that even non-fatal traffic stops can undermine public trust in police officers. Traffic stops are the most common type of encounter between police and civilians—SPD issued nearly 28,000 traffic infractions in 2019 alone—and Black and Latino drivers are far more likely to be injured or killed during routine traffic stops.

SPD isn’t required to act on Judge’s letter, nor is the letter a fully formed policy proposal. Judge’s office will need to conduct more research into best practices for phasing out low-level traffic stops.

However, Judge told PubliCola that she believes the issues she raised in her letter require an urgent response. “Rather than taking to time for a painstaking audit, we have a practice of sending an ‘alert letter’ to SPD to get the ball rolling quickly.” This isn’t the first issue Judge has flagged for SPD: In February, her office sent letters to Diaz urging him to clarify his department’s vehicle pursuit guidelines and to reconsider how his officers respond to people experiencing mental health crises while carrying knives.

Judge is not alone in pressuring police departments to scale back the use of traffic stops: during the final weeks of this year’s state legislative session, state senator and King County Executive candidate Joe Nguyen (D-34, West Seattle) introduced a long-shot bill that would prohibit police officers from stopping drivers for eight minor civil violations. Nguyen told PubliCola in April that he hopes the issue will return to the surface during next year’s session.

If SPD follows Judge’s recommendation, Seattle would join a growing number of cities across the country—both small and large—taking steps to reduce the risks posed by traffic stops to both officers and civilians. In 2020, the New York State attorney general recommended that New York City’s police department phase out traffic stops for minor violations after officers shot and killed a driver in the Bronx whom they had stopped for a seatbelt violation in October 2019. More recently, after Brooklyn Center, Minnesota police officer Kimberly Potter shot and killed 20-year-old Duante Wright during a traffic stop last month, Brooklyn Center’s city council voted to prohibit police officers from stopping drivers for minor traffic infractions and non-felony offenses or warrants, instead assigning that responsibility to a new civilian department.

Police Chief Diaz on Why He Hasn’t Fired Any Officers for Excessive Force

Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz

By Paul Kiefer

On Wednesday, Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz announced his decision to overturn the Office of Police Accountability’s (OPA) findings in one of the most prominent misconduct cases of last summer’s protests. The case centered on the Seattle Police Department’s use of blast balls, tear gas and pepper spray against protesters at the intersection of 11th Ave. and Pine St. on the evening of June 1, 2020, after an officer attempted to yank a pink umbrella out of a protester’s hands.

The chief’s decision to overturn the OPA’s finding of excessive force against Lieutenant John Brooks, who gave the order to use the weapons against protesters, sparked an outcry from police accountability advocates and activist groups. The Community Police Commission, one of Seattle’s trio of police oversight bodies, called Diaz’s decision “detrimental to community trust in SPD and Seattle’s entire police accountability system,” particularly because he offered no detail about how he would hold decision-makers at a “higher level of command authority” responsible in lieu of Brooks.

In a conversation with PubliCola last week, Diaz said he does not want his decision to absolve Brooks of responsibility to overshadow his record as a disciplinarian. Since becoming interim chief in September 2020, Diaz has fired eight officers for misconduct, and two more officers retired to avoid termination; Diaz displays their badges in a wooden box on his desk.

“If there’s an officer-involved shooting and the officer has a history of complaints from years past, we’re going to say, ‘we’ve trained you, we’ve done everything we can for you and you’re still not getting it. That might end up reaching the level of termination.”

Of the ten officers Diaz has fired or would have fired, nearly all violated SPD’s policies prohibiting dishonesty or biased policing; among those officers was Sina Ebinger, who retired in lieu of termination after lying about misusing SPD’s Navigation Team to pick up her trash, as well as a 911 dispatcher who told a Black caller that “all lives matter.

But Diaz has not yet fired any officers for using excessive force, despite the flood of use-of-force complaints stemming from last year’s protests. Diaz told PubliCola that when compared to dishonesty, the disciplinary standards for excessive force are generally less harsh. “A lot of inappropriate use of force cases are incidents in which an officer put hands on a person or did something that didn’t cause an injury, but could still be excessive,” he said. “That doesn’t mean the officer was dishonest about it—they documented the incident, and they explained why they thought their actions were appropriate, but their supervisor disagreed.” Continue reading “Police Chief Diaz on Why He Hasn’t Fired Any Officers for Excessive Force”

What Became of the Legislature’s Big Plans for Police Reform?

Washington State Capitol (Creative Commons)

By Paul Kiefer

At the beginning of the legislative session in January, police accountability appeared to be front and center on many legislators’ agendas. By the time the session ended last Sunday, lawmakers had narrowed a broad array of police reform proposals to a core list of bills that expands the state’s role in police oversight and tactics, although some efforts to address gaps in police oversight—particularly police union contracts—fell short.

The agency that will play an enforcement role in the legislature’s police reform efforts is the state’s Criminal Justice Training Commission (CJTC), a group of civilians and law enforcement officers appointed by the governor that has the power to issue—and revoke—licenses to work as a law enforcement officer in Washington. On Sunday, the legislature sent a bill to Gov. Jay Inslee that will expand the CJTC’s authority to investigate officers for misconduct and suspend or revoke their licenses, a process known as decertification.

The legislation, originally sponsored by Senators Jamie Pedersen (D-43, Seattle) and Manka Dhingra (D-45, Bellevue), empowers the commission to discipline officers at their own discretion; under prior state law, the CJTC had to wait until a law enforcement agency fired an officer before considering whether to revoke the officer’s license, which allowed problematic officers to transfer to new agencies to escape consequences for misconduct.

Lawmakers passed new restrictions barring police officers from firing at moving vehicles, prohibiting judges from issuing so-called “no-knock warrants,” and limiting the contexts in which officers can initiate car chases or use off-leash police dogs.

The law will also require law enforcement agencies to report any serious use-of-force incidents to the commission, as well as any misconduct allegations or criminal charges of which their officers are found guilty. The commission would use that information to identify officers whose misconduct is serious enough to merit disciplinary action, including decertification.

Notably, the bill will alter the CJTC’s makeup, reducing the number of law enforcement representatives on the commission from ten to six and increasing the number of community representatives from two to seven. In total, the commission will grow from 16 to 21 members; other additions include a civilian police oversight expert. Members of the public will also be able to search a new CJTC database to track officers’ disciplinary and employment history. Continue reading “What Became of the Legislature’s Big Plans for Police Reform?”

The C Is for Crank: God Doesn’t Care How You Protest

By Erica C. Barnett

Before a press conference last week responding to the guilty verdict in the trial of George Floyd’s murderer, Mayor Jenny Durkan handed the mic over to the Rev. Leslie Braxton, pastor of New Beginnings Christian Fellowship church in Kent, “for a prayer and some words of wisdom.”

Braxton, who is Black, had the unenviable job of setting the tone for a government press conference responding to a rare case of justice delivered in a system that continues to allow police to kill Black men and women with impunity. Durkan and SPD responded to the protests sparked by Floyd’s murder last year with an overwhelming show of force, and by barricading two police precincts behind concrete walls.

In his remarks, Braxton urged protesters to be peaceful and obey the law. “There’s no reason for anyone to burn anything, to loot anything, or be unnecessarily confrontational,” he said. He asked God to “be with us all, and let us all behave in such a way that might make others think that we know you ourselves.”

Later, interim Seattle police chief Adrian Diaz provided some secular reinforcement to Braxton’s plea: The police had no problem with demonstrations, he said, but “we cannot let the city burn.” 

The same afternoon, in a press release, Durkan declared a citywide prayer. “The City of Seattle – in coordination with faith leaders – will be hosting a citywide prayer and moment of silence at 7 pm,” Durkan announced.

Seattle has not “burned,” either last week or last summer. Nor is this the first time the city has participated in an state-sanctioned prayer—a right the US Supreme Court effectively upheld in 1983, when it found that prayer at government meetings was “deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country.”

However: Just because the mayor of Seattle has the right to hold a prayer at a press conference, and just because she can declare a citywide prayer, that doesn’t mean she should.

Enoka Herat, Police Practices and Immigration Counsel for the ACLU of Washington, said Durkan’s call to worship was a distraction from the real issues facing elected leaders and SPD, including police violence and racial bias in policing.

Any prayer that conscripts God to advocate for a government directive or discourage civil disobedience against objectionable policies is inherently political, a violation of church-state separation in spirit if not law.

“Whether, when, and how to pray is a deeply personal decision, and the government should not intrude on it,’ Herat said. “The city should be putting its energy into eliminating the racial injustice inherent in the way it currently polices its communities.”

Washington state is one of the least religious states in the country, with about half the population saying they don’t practice any religion. In another poll about religious affiliation, only about half of Seattle residents even nominally identified as Christian, and 37 percent had no religious affiliation. Continue reading “The C Is for Crank: God Doesn’t Care How You Protest”

Findings Against Former Police Misconduct Investigator Highlight New Oversight Challenges

Protesters gather at Seattle City Hall on June 3, 2020 (Bruce Englehardt via Creative Commons)

By Paul Kiefer

As protesters began to trickle away from a Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Seattle on May 30, 2020, an unmarked Seattle Police Department cruiser waited at an intersection near  department headquarters while a small crowd of demonstrators crossed the street. “God, I fucking hate these people,” said one of the officers in the cruiser as the crowd passed.

A small gap opened in the crowd as the traffic light switched to yellow. The cruiser’s driver—a sergeant, and the most senior of the four officers in the car—flashed the car’s warning lights and accelerated towards the protesters in the crosswalk. A few marchers dove to safety, barely escaping the cruiser as it passed. Onlookers watched as the cruiser sped away. Inside the car, an officer laughed.

Now, misconduct allegations against the sergeant, and how the city handled them, help illuminate how the last year’s protests have pushed the city’s police oversight bodies into uncharted waters.

The case of a sergeant who drove through a crowd of protesters is an unusual example of an OPA staffer being investigated for misconduct—and a unique example of an OPA employee facing an investigation unrelated to their work with the oversight office.

Within months of the incident, the sergeant took a new position as a misconduct investigator with SPD’s Office of Police Accountability. At the time of his transfer, the sergeant’s disciplinary record didn’t raise any red flags. While OPA Director Andrew Myerberg has a hand in deciding which officers transfer to and from his office, he said he wasn’t aware that the sergeant had driven through a group of marchers at the start of last summer’s protests, so he gave his approval to the new arrival.

Then a witness filed a complaint with the OPA about the near-hit-and-run, calling the sergeant’s actions “completely unprofessional and terrifying.” Although the sergeant wasn’t an investigator when he drove the cruiser into the crowd, his case is an unusual example of an OPA staffer being investigated for misconduct—and a unique example of an OPA employee facing an investigation unrelated to their work with the oversight office.

The OPA handed the investigation into the sergeant’s misconduct to a relatively new office: Seattle’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG), an oversight agency that conducts audits of systemic or policy-based problems within SPD—and, in cases like that of the sergeant, investigates misconduct complaints against OPA staff.

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The OIG’s ability to investigate OPA staff may help reveal some of OPA’s own vulnerabilities. As mandated by the city’s contract with the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild—Seattle’s largest police union—nine of the OPA’s 11 investigators are sworn police officers. The sergeant’s case revealed an inevitable challenge for the OPA: officers who transfer to the office from other roles in SPD may carry baggage, including a history of misconduct, that isn’t immediately apparent to the OPA director.

OIG’s ability to investigate OPA staff relatively quickly could improve Seattle’s police oversight system, but only if the OPA director has the power to remove problematic investigators from their staff. Whether the OPA director can successfully exercise that authority remains untested.

The sergeant also argued that his driving decisions weren’t a problem because they “worked out”—he hadn’t injured any demonstrators.

The OIG is not the first agency to investigate misconduct by OPA staff, but its creation by the Seattle City Council in 2017 vastly improved the efficiency of those investigations. Until 2017, Seattle’s Human Resources Department (or, in some cases, a private attorney) investigated most complaints against OPA staff. That structure was significantly slower than other misconduct investigations, in part because the investigators lacked significant experience in police oversight.

In findings released on April 7, Inspector General Lisa Judge ruled that the sergeant who drove through the crowd on May 30 had violated SPD’s standards for professionalism and safe driving. His decision to drive through a group of demonstrators, she wrote, “put an exclamation point on the community sentiment being expressed during [last summer’s] protests,” as did his failure to chastise his passengers for laughing as protesters dove to avoid their car. Continue reading “Findings Against Former Police Misconduct Investigator Highlight New Oversight Challenges”