In May of 2017, serious changes to the Seattle Police Department’s oversight of its officers’ off-duty work appeared to be imminent.
For years, officers found off-duty work as security guards and traffic flaggers in Seattle through an opaque system rife with real and perceived conflicts of interest. Though officers leveraged the power of their department jobs to find high-paying work in their free time, SPD didn’t oversee how much its officers charged for their services, screen outside employers, or closely monitor officers’ adherence to department rules. The system was based on trust, and it often failed. As early as 2005, a Seattle Times investigation found that dozens of officers skirted department rules prohibiting them from working in bars and nightclubs, sometimes acting as bouncers, while supervisors looked the other way.
But even after some basic reforms, the world of off-duty employment remained a gray area in which officers’ duties to the public and loyalties to their employers were blurred. For a decade, police accountability experts, including the City Auditor and retired judge Anne Levinson, pushed the department and city council to intervene.
In June of 2017, the council passed a sweeping accountability ordinance that included the requirement—long championed by reform advocates—that SPD use civilians to independently manage and oversee its officers’ secondary employment in-house, with the goal of creating a transparent system that would give the city control over allocating contracts and setting prices at no cost to the public.
Four months later, then-police chief Kathleen O’Toole highlighted the urgency of those reforms by asking the FBI to investigate allegations that SPD officers, with the help of the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG), conspired to inflate hourly prices and intimidated business and property owners to stave off competition. As the FBI launched its investigation, then-mayor Tim Burgess doubled down on the reforms in the accountability ordinance, signing an executive order directing SPD to create a timeline and work plan for taking over management of officers’ off-duty work.
But more than three years later, SPD has made almost no progress toward managing its officers’ off-duty work, and the windows for corruption that sparked the FBI investigation in 2017 remain wide open. The death of those reforms after a change in leadership and a rush to reach a labor agreement with SPOG in 2018 is a lesson in how quickly city leaders can forget or abandon a widely supported reform.
More than three years after the city adopted a sweeping police accountability ordinance, SPD has made almost no progress towards managing its officers’ off-duty work, and the windows for corruption that sparked an FBI investigation in 2017 remain wide open.
Peter Nguyen, the labor negotiator who represented the city’s labor relations unit during bargaining with SPOG in 2018, says that the death of secondary employment reforms deserved more outcry than it received. At its core, he argued, SPD officers’ secondary employment stems directly from their primary jobs as police officers; therefore, Nguyen believes the city has the right to oversee how its police officers use their role as cops to make money in the private sector.
At the very least, Nguyen says, “we need to be assured that a police officer is not working too many off-duty hours or coming off of an all-night security stint and directly patrolling our streets while armed, fatigued, and judgement-impaired,” he said. He also said the current system could also create opportunities for officers’ off-duty loyalties to seep into their on-duty responsibilities. “How do we know that an on-duty officer doesn’t happen to over-patrol a business which pays them after hours as a form of kick-back?” he asked.
Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who chairs the council’s public safety committee, echoed Nguyen’s and other police accountability advocates’ concerns about overworked officers and the potential for conflicts of interest. “Who is regulating and coordinating those off-duty jobs, essentially running a private, for-hire police department?” she said, alluding to past litigation about officers connecting their friends on the force to high-paying off-duty jobs, creating a power and income imbalance within the department.
Under current rules, an SPD officer who wants to find work needs the department’s permission, which they receive by applying for a permit from the department. When working off-duty, SPD now requires officers to enforce the law and follow department policies, and SPD policy forbids officers with records of misconduct from holding secondary jobs.
Despite that policy, the department approved secondary employment permits for at least two officers who appeared on the King County Prosecutor’s Brady list—a list of officers with sustained findings of dishonesty, evidence of racial bias, or criminal charges or convictions—in 2019. Detective Franklin Poblocki, who joined the county prosecutor’s Brady list for lying to Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability during a misconduct investigation in 2018, received department approval for 23 permits in 2019 alone, 11 of them after the county added him to their Brady list in June of that year. Officer Wade Murray, who also landed on the prosecutor’s Brady list in 2019 for lying to the OPA, received approval for three off-duty work permits later that year.
The absence of an oversight office in the department has left other problems unaddressed. Department policy forbids officers from working more than 64 hours a week, including off-duty hours, to ensure that officers don’t come on duty overworked. But without an oversight office, officers are left to self-report their hours to the department; SPD has no easy way to double-check to ensure that they’re telling the truth.
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If an officer works too many hours in a week, or if they work an off-duty job without a permit from the department, they can be subject to an OPA investigation. However, according to OPA Director Andrew Myerberg, it’s hard for his office to catch violations of secondary employment policies. “If we’re going to come across secondary employment-related misconduct, it’s almost always tangentially,” he said. For example, the OPA sometimes discovers that an officer lacks a permit when a civilian complains about the officer’s behavior at an off-duty job.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, opportunities for an officer seeking off-duty work were boundless. A list of secondary employment contracts from 2019-2020 shows more than 300 officers—nearly a quarter of the force—working for dozens of private and public employers, ranging from Seattle Public Utilities to Dick’s Drive-In and the Paramount Theater. Because Seattle only allows sworn police officers to take traffic control jobs, many officers find work directing traffic outside busy downtown garages or at construction sites.
SPOG, which represents SPD officers, detectives and sergeants, sets the minimum hourly rates for its members’ off-duty work. The guild didn’t respond to PubliCola’s request for updated hourly rates, but a public document from 2019 listed a minimum hourly rate of $52 for an off-duty officer or detective working as a security guard and $55 for an officer or detective working in traffic control. However, because police officers have exclusive domain over traffic control jobs and can negotiate even higher rates, several downtown garage owners told the Seattle Times in 2017 that an officer demanded and received as much as $120 an hour. Continue reading “How Reforms for Off-Duty Police Work Died on the Vine”→
Labor leaders, police accountability activists and elected officials from across the state, including Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold, testified Thursday in Olympia about two state senate bills intended to restructure or streamline the disciplinary process for police. The testimonies from the labor leadership revealed the sharp divide between Seattle’s labor movement, which distanced itself from police unions in June, and the statewide labor movement, which continues to defend police union membership—in their words, both out of solidarity and for self-preservation.
The first bill, sponsored by Senator Joe Nguyen (D-34) and a dozen of his colleagues, would streamline the arbitration process that police union members use to challenge disciplinary rulings by empowering the state’s Public Employee Relations Commission (PERC) to choose the attorneys who decide the outcomes of appeals. Under the current statewide system, both employers and police unions have to agree on an arbitrator from a pool of private attorneys; that system is rife with delays.
The bill would also prohibit police union collective bargaining agreements from including conditions that violate or nullify state or local laws; that clause would prevent a repeat of the 2018 contract between Seattle and the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG) that nullified key elements of the sweeping police accountability ordinance the city council passed in 2017.
The second bill, sponsored by Senator Jesse Salomon (D-32) and five of his colleagues, would eliminate the arbitration process altogether and require officers to appeal disciplinary decisions to quasi-judicial bodies called civil service commissions, whose members are mostly appointed by mayors and city councils. Seattle already has its own Public Safety Civil Service Commission, but officers only appeal disciplinary decisions to that commission if their union has declined to support their appeal, which is rare.
The bill would also require departments to automatically fire any officers found guilty of a set of extreme offenses—including excessive force, hiding or falsifying evidence, and engaging in sexual contact with anyone in custody. And it would prohibit police union contracts from restricting accountability and oversight by, among other means, limiting the subpoena authority of civilian oversight bodies and allowing the sealing or destruction of officers’ misconduct records.
At their core, both Nguyen and Salomon’s bills would make law enforcement bargaining rules more distinct from the rules that govern any other employees. But to most of the labor representatives who testified at the hearing, the two bills are night and day. While Nguyen’s would limit the input of both unions and management in the arbitration process, Salomon’s would specifically limit the powers of police unions and the disciplinary appeal options for law enforcement officers.
Statewide labor leaders, including representatives from the Washington State Labor Council, argued Thursday that police accountability reforms that restrict the powers of police unions could have dire consequences for the power of organized labor in the state as a whole, threatening the due process and collective bargaining rights of all workers. Shaunie Wheeler James, the political director for Teamsters Joint Council 28 (and a member of the Port of Seattle’s Commission on Port Policing and Civil Rights), called the bill a “stalking horse for those with an agenda to undermine all workers.”
Several labor leaders dismissed the notion that the collective bargaining process and arbitration stood in the way of meaningful police reforms. State labor council president Larry Brown, for example, argued that the real barrier to reform is police management, who oversee training, hiring, and data collection about misconduct and use of force, rather than rank and file officers.
“Nothing in this bill addresses the police leadership—the chiefs, the sheriffs, and the training programs—that have allowed these culture problems to persist,” he said.
Only one labor representative testified in favor of Salomon’s bill: David Parsons, the president of UAW 4121—a union representing graduate, doctoral and postdoctoral student employees at the University of Washington.
Seattle-area labor leadership joined forces with police accountability advocates last summer, mostly notably in June, when the Martin Luther King County Labor Council expelled SPOG from their organization. That local shift was visible on Thursday, when representatives from the ACLU of Washington and Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County joined Parsons in supporting the bill, as did prominent police accountability expert and retired municipal court judge Anne Levinson and Fred Thomas, the father of a man killed by police officers in Fife in 2013 who is now a leader in police accountability lobbying group Next Steps Washington.
In contrast, both law enforcement and non-law enforcement labor lobbyists seemed cautiously optimistic about Nguyen’s bill. Joseph Kendo, the government affairs director for the WSLC, only balked at the proposal to limit the pool of arbitrators to nine members, which he said was too few to meet the statewide need. Washington State Fraternal Order of Police president Marco Monteblanco said the bill would provide officers a more consistent, unbiased arbitration process.
In early June, as Seattle residents protesting police brutality were being met daily with disproportionate and seemingly indiscriminate force by law enforcement, several current and former elected officials reached out to me asking what state legislators could do in the next session to strengthen accountability in law enforcement.
It was a question I welcomed. During two terms providing independent oversight for Seattle’s police accountability system, I had reviewed thousands of misconduct complaints and investigations, observed dozens of police trainings, conducted a special review of Seattle’s police disciplinary system, issued reports highlighting needed accountability system reforms, identified for the city in detail the provisions in the police contracts that had tilted the system and were detrimental to the public, and helped draft and secure passage of the 2017 police accountability ordinance.
And when a new Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) contract was ratified in the fall of 2018, over the unanimous objections of more than 30 community organizations, I provided expert witness testimony, explaining to the judge overseeing the federal consent decree the ways in which the contract threatened to corrode community trust and confidence. The judge agreed, finding the City partially out of compliance with the consent decree in May 2019 and directing the City to tell the court by that July how it planned to remedy the identified barriers to accountability.
A year later, in May 2020, the city had still not submitted its plan to the court and yet it asked the court to largely end the consent decree. Then the demonstrations began.
So when I was asked that question last June—with a governor, Senate and House leadership, committee chairs, and other legislators interested in police reform; many labor leaders no longer accepting the proposition that they couldn’t be both pro-police reform and pro-labor; and the city still out of compliance with the consent decree—it was clear that the time had come for the state to lead.
Several potential state-level reforms were already garnering public attention in our state and elsewhere, including truly independent investigations of deadly-force incidents; qualified immunity reform; demilitarization of police; reforms to the inquest process; elimination of no-knock warrants; and establishing a statewide public database on use of force.
But there are two other reforms I had recommended that have not gotten much public attention until recently: (1) Removing police accountability from the collective bargaining process; and (2) Strengthening the law for officer decertification to address serious misconduct. Each is critically important and long overdue.
First, the state must clearly exempt police misconduct and disciplinary systems from Washington collective bargaining law so that every local and state law enforcement agency can establish strong, effective, and transparent accountability mechanisms that serve the public as they should, rather than continuing to provide only as much accountability as police unions will accept.
Police are not the same as other public sector employees. Others aren’t required to carry and use guns. They haven’t been given broad discretion to take your liberty and sometimes your life. It’s why there is a separate accountability system to address misconduct. And it’s why there is a consent decree. The provisions in police contracts can have very different impacts on the public than similar provisions in other public sector contracts.
Across the country, police contracts no longer just address wage, benefits, and other subjects traditionally thought of as “working conditions,” as other labor contracts do. Instead, police contracts have been used to shield officers from accountability when misconduct occurs, diminish transparency, and preclude or weaken civilian oversight. It’s why I so strongly opposed ratifying Seattle’s police contracts in 2017 and 2018 and weighed in on behalf of the community to the federal court.
These barriers to accountability—and others—were brought to the attention of city officials, and many were addressed in the ordinance. And yet, unbeknownst to the public, the reforms never took effect because of what the city later agreed to in the police contracts.
Here are a few examples of provisions in Seattle’s police contracts that impede accountability and walk back reform efforts.
The contracts reinstated officers’ ability to appeal discipline through multiple routes, including to an outside arbitrator. (Eliminating this ability was a priority in the 2017 accountability ordinance). As reform advocates, chiefs, and local elected officials have seen in thousands of cases across the country, arbitrators routinely substitute their own judgment on discipline, overturning chiefs’ decisions, ordering officers who committed serious misconduct to be reinstated.
This weakens the chief’s power to hold officers accountable in line with public expectations, allowing arbitrators to overturn disciplinary decisions for any number of reasons, including minor procedural issues, even in cases where the chief’s decision is supported by a preponderance of evidence. It allows hearings to be closed to complainants, the public, and the media, and allows months, if not years, of delay before appeals are resolved. As of August, Seattle has 80 appeals pending, some going as far back as 2016.
What other barriers to accountability are buried in Seattle’s police contracts? If a complaint of misconduct involving dishonesty or excessive force is not made within a certain period of time, or if a complaint isn’t fully investigated within 180 days, the officer cannot be disciplined, regardless of the misconduct or the reason for the delay. How the days are counted is filled with vague conditions constantly subject to challenge.
There’s more. The burden of proof required to prove misconduct has been raised to an undefined “elevated” standard for any termination that results from misconduct that could be considered “stigmatizing” to the officer. Only certain misconduct complaint and investigation files are retained; others must be purged. Civilian oversight is limited when the alleged misconduct is criminal, even though these cases often involve the most serious types of misconduct. Civilian oversight subpoena authority has been narrowed. Officers are allowed to use vacation and sick leave when the discipline is supposed to be days without pay. Officers under investigation – and their union representatives – are allowed to withhold relevant information during the investigation and raise it later, as evidence to challenge discipline. Officers’ names must be redacted when case information is made available to the public.
And more. The long-recommended oversight of secondary employment (off-duty work as an officer) by independent, civilian management was never implemented. Instead, it was included in the SPOG contract and then rolled back. There are limitations on the number of civilian investigators. Different ranks are treated differently. And there are even contract provisions that require the public to pay for a large part of the union president’s salary.
These barriers to accountability—and others—were brought to the attention of city officials, and many were addressed in the ordinance. And yet, unbeknownst to the public, the reforms never took effect because of what the city later agreed to in the police contracts.
In court filings, the city argued that all these types of police contract provisions are commonplace. The success of police unions in embedding structural barriers to accountability across the country is thus ironically used as a reason to stifle reforms. The city also argues that the public and the judge should understand that police contracts continue to have these provisions because the nature of bargaining requires give-and-take. That is exactly the problem.
Police, like all employees, deserve contracts that provide for fair wages, benefits, and good working conditions. But there is no reason to continue to accept the argument that standards and practices to address police misconduct must be considered “working conditions” that cannot be determined by police management and local government leaders outside the bargaining process.
Police have been granted extraordinary powers to use discretion in a range of ways that have enormous impact on the public, including taking away liberty and the use of deadly force. Legal and procedural safeguards against police abusing these powers in ways that undermine public trust should not be subject to the give and take of bargaining. Nor should the public have to pay so that their community can receive constitutional, effective, and respectful policing.
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Second, the state must completely overhaul the law enforcement decertification law.
Washington is one of 45 states that require law enforcement officers to be trained and licensed (“certified”), with standards for revoking that license (“decertified”), as many other professionals must be
How and when decertification happens is fundamentally important to accountability. If an officer is fired or convicted of a crime, but not decertified, the officer can simply go to another law enforcement agency. Washington’s law for decertifying officers is limited in scope and riddled with loopholes that allow problematic officers to move from department to department with impunity or to avoid accountability if their agency does not act.
Back in early 2014, when providing independent oversight of Seattle’s police accountability system, I recommended that Seattle work with other cities and counties and the state legislature to overhaul the law. We also included reform of the decertification law in the city’s 2017 accountability ordinance. But the city never really took it on. So when asked what police reform the legislature should prioritize in the next session, significantly overhauling the decertification law was also at the top of my list. Senator Jamie Pedersen, Chair of the state Senate’s Law & Justice Committee agreed, and in early June offered to be the prime sponsor of a bill that will enact a wide range of reforms.
To really remedy the gaps and loopholes that make Washington’s law—and most all decertification laws in other states—so ineffective, improving one or two elements of the law is not enough. So I’ve recommended many changes, starting with making sure that the grounds for decertification cover the wide range of misconduct that should result in an officer losing their license.
On Wednesday morning, just before the council discussed options for cutting the Seattle Police Department budget by as much as 50 percent, senior deputy mayor Mike Fong sent a letter to council members urging them against such “blunt efforts.” Instead, Fong said, the council should approach the process of “re-envisioning policing” in a more “thoughtful” way, with a process of “structural reform” that would stretch well into 2021 and beyond.
“SPD has already spent half of its $400 million annual budget by now, so a $200 million cut (or 50% of SPD’s budget) would leave the department with zero budget remaining for 2020 and require the City to abolish the department,” Fong wrote.
A “$100 million reduction (or 25% of SPD’s budget),” he continued, “would mean immediate layoffs of up to 1,000 personnel leaving [police] Chief [Carmen] Best and the Seattle Police Department unable to conduct basic functions. In addition, it would be irresponsible to make immediate cuts without any conceivable mechanism to stand up alternative models to achieve community safety. … [T]he Executive does not think that simply making target cuts in SPD’s budget, without looking at the work or personnel being done/cut or the ability to have others do the work, will advance community safety.”
Durkan has consistently responded to demands that the city defund SPD by promising to “reimagine” the role of the police and brushed off protesters’ three high-level demands—immediately defund SPD by at least 50 percent, reinvest that money in community-based approaches to safety, and release all jailed protesters—as naive or unrealistic. Fong’s email, for example, says the cuts advocates are proposing are “not informed by any analysis or considerations of the underlying functions and services that SPD currently delivers.”
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Instead of immediate cuts, Durkan has proposed a multi-step process before making any kind of structural changes to the department, including community “engagement and further [interdepartmental] analysis [that] will lead to additional recommendations for SPD reforms and alternative models for service delivery,” as Fong’s letter puts it.
This commitment to further “reform” and a process of community engagement led by the city is unlikely to satisfy advocates and abolitionists pushing for immediate cuts and systemic changes. Nor is it likely to satisfy the council, which was talking on Wednesday about phasing in cuts of perhaps $85 million—”the back of the envelope figure,” according to council budget committee chair Teresa Mosqueda—to be coupled with investments in community-based programs, including a new 911 system that would replace police with community responders on non-criminal calls.
By arguing for a slower approach and emphasizing reform and “re-envisioning” (as Fong’s letter puts it), the mayor’s office is committed to an incrementalism that many on the council—which amends and approves the mayor’s budget—have already rejected. Durkan’s proposal to cut $20 million from the police budget this year, as I’ve reported, only represents an additional cut of $4 million over what she proposed to the council before protests against police violence broke out in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in May. As SPD has acknowledged, the department has already met all its hiring goals for 2020, so Durkan’s proposed cuts won’t impact the number of police on the streets.
Like most police departments, SPD is a unionized institution of highly paid workers who are generally resistant to cuts or policy changes. Even getting officers to move so-called “mourning bands,” black tape strips used to signify the death of a colleague (in this case, a member of the State Patrol who died in March), to a place where they do not obscure badge numbers has apparently been a major challenge, despite legislation requiring them to do so.
In his letter, Fong suggests that union rules that protect officers with seniority would lead to the department cutting “some of our younger and most diverse officers” first, “defeating the hard work done to recruit officers that reflect and serve their communities.” Advocates coming forward with proposals for systemic change are unlikely to be moved by such arguments, especially when they imply that community organizations have not thought their own priorities and proposals through.
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Former US attorney Jenny Durkan has been pigeonholed—unfairly, she says—as the “conservative” candidate in the race for mayor, where “conservative” is a term broad enough to include a longtime activist for LGBT causes, former Obama appointee, and advocate for supervised drug consumption sites. She’s caught flak for her style (too stiff and inauthentic, some say), her views on homelessness (more conservative than ex-mayor Ed Murray’s, by some measures) and her tendency to respond to questions in elliptical, lawyerly soundbites (many of which have been edited out of this interview, because nobody wants to read those.) As the candidate with the support of Seattle’s business establishment (as well as most of the local labor groups), she’s also widely considered the frontrunner in the race, and has enjoyed a large spending advantage over her opponent Cary Moon—in addition to outraising Moon in absolute dollars ($727,689 to Moon’s $231,331, of which $111,521 is Moon’s own money), a business backed political action committee, People for Jenny Durkan, has raised $124,600 so far for an independent-expenditure campaign on Durkan’s behalf.
I sat down with Durkan in September.
The C Is for Crank [ECB]: There has been a lot of talk by candidates this year about revisiting the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, particularly the amount of affordable housing developers should have to provide and whether single-family areas should be opened up to other types of development, like duplexes and row houses. Would you revisit any part of the HALA agreement?
JD: I never use the word ‘revisit.’ I think it is absolutely clear that we cannot bring on board the number of affordable housing units we need without the private sector participating strongly, and the only way you’re to do that is through a series of incentives. So I think we have to keep the part of HALA that is going to give us the ability to bring on more affordable housing, and as we roll it out, we have to make sure that there aren’t unintended consequences—that we aren’t impacting neighborhoods, communities, or families in ways that we didn’t think about.
I think we just have to make sure that we are looking at it how we implement it and make sure it makes sense. We’re getting two, three, four, five years away from when the deal was made and the marketplace is growing. So have we gotten that ratio of required housing and public benefit for housing right, or is there more room there? Should we have transportation impact fees? Should we have park impact fees? We don’t want to kill the development, because there’s no question that we’re going to get more dense, but as we do that, can we squeeze out of that growth the benefits we need [such as] affordable housing [and] transit-oriented development?
ECB: Do you think Murray made the wrong decision by taking a proposal to allow duplexes and other modest density in single-family areas off the table, and would you revisit that decision?
JD: I think it was the smart thing politically to pull that off the table, because I think the whole thing would have collapsed if the mandatory [affordable housing] fees collapsed. We would not have the resources to bring on anywhere near the affordable housing we need. To pull the rug out from under the deal and be left with nothing—it would have crushed us as city.
ECB: Murray also cut ties with the neighborhood district councils, which prompted quite a backlash from single-family homeowners who say their views are no longer being heard at City Hall. Would you restore city funding and support for those groups?
JD: I would have neighborhood councils. They’d be configured differently, but I think we suffer way too much from top-down right now, and part of the reason there is so much anxiety in neighborhoods and communities is the city has quit listening to the neighborhoods’ needs. I’ll give you an example. I was down in Rainier Beach the other day and I spent several hours with the community and youth down there, because when I was US Attorney, I’d helped them get a grant for youth violence prevention, and I wanted to get updated on what’s working and what’s not working. And they’ve done amazing things. Even with the huge amount of displacement, the increased violence, the deaths they’d seen, the community is fighting to maintain its place.
“What I hear from West Seattle, Ballard, Greenwood, Capitol Hill—everyone feels like they’re not being listened to, and I think you have to do that. Government exists to serve the people.”
But they’re not getting the help they need from the city, because the city has quit listening to them. From the activists to the kids, you will hear, ‘We think we’ve figured out a path out for youth violence prevention, for activating our corners, for having corner greeters, for empowering businesses, for helping bring business back here. I think that the support the city had historically given them has eroded. You can’t do neighborhood work from city hall. While you have to have a vision and policy that works for the whole city and move people beyond some of their own vested interests, you also have to listen to what they think the solutions are for their own communities and neighborhoods.
ECB: So did Murray’s decision to take some power away from the neighborhood councils make that harder?
JD: No, again, I really want to make clear that I don’t want to talk in terms of, ‘Do you agree with what Ed did?’ I’m telling you what I would do. I think you have to have a very vibrant Department of Neighborhoods that works with people in communities and listens to people and talks to people. As I understand it, in some neighborhoods, it became the same people showing up all the time, so it was a very limited spectrum of voices. My view is, the answer is not to shut down those voices—the answer is to bring more people in. Maybe not at the same room at the same time, but you can have more meetings at different times. You can have virtual meetings. You reach out in all the ways you can to get more voices in. What I hear from West Seattle, Ballard, Greenwood, Capitol Hill—everyone feels like they’re not being listened to, and I think you have to do that. Government exists to serve the people.
ECB: Opponents of supervised drug consumption sites have filed an initiative to ban the sites throughout King County. What’s your take on that lawsuit, and do you think Seattle will ever actually get a supervised-consumption site?
JD: I think the city of Seattle should consider joining that suit and challenge it in their own right. [Ed: Since our conversation, the city has expressed its intent to join the lawsuit.]
[Beyond that,] I don’t think they have the ability to stop the city from doing what it wants. If I’m mayor, we’re going to go ahead [with a supervised consumption site] and we’ll take the legal challenge, because the city of Seattle does not depend on King County for its rights. It has its own statutory rights, and one of those is to decide what it needs to do for the public health and safety of its people.
There’s no question in my mind that consumption sites are something we need to have as part of the health care response to a health crisis on our streets. Right now, we’re in a place where we give clean needles to people and tell them, ‘Go use it in the car, in the doorways, in the parks.’ It makes no sense. And for me, what’s most important is, if you read the task force recommendations, it’s not just a place where people can go and use drugs. It is a place where there will be health care workers, where they may get hooked up with addiction services and counseling and treatment. It may not ‘take’ the first time, the third time, the fifth time, the tenth time, but for somebody, it might eventually work, and that’s what we have to provide them, is that option. And they will never get it if they’re in the doorway or on the street corner.
“I think it was the smart thing politically to pull [allowing duplexes and row houses in single-family areas] off the table, because I think [HALA] would have collapsed.”
Right now, it’s being portrayed in such an unfair way. People might be surprised that a former federal prosecutor would say we should do this, but what is the alternative? I live downtown right now. My partner and I went out to dinner the night before last. In a three-block walk, we saw three different homeless people shooting up heroin, three who probably just had, and a couple of people looking to score. That’s in three blocks! What we’re doing right now is not working, and what we did in the ’90s didn’t work. I was in the front row. I was a criminal defense lawyer and saw that the war on drugs was really a war on addicts, and that’s who we locked up. And if we don’t have public health response to this crisis, we will end up in the same bad place. So we have to try things that are different. Will it work perfectly? Absolutely not. Is one site enough? Of course it’s not. But we have to show that there can be a different response that might work for some people some of the time.
ECB: Do you think the city has been moving in the right direction on homelessness, in terms of both encampment sweeps and the way the city spends its service dollars?
JD: I think what we’ve been doing on homelessness isn’t working. I think we have not done some of the really hard things we have to do to really move the dial. Number one is, we have to get real and we have to get forward-leaning on addiction services and mental health services.
I think the Navigation Teams are a mechanism for trying something different, and I think that from all the reports I’ve heard, from people who’ve been working with them, they’ve had some good successes. In my view, we have to get people out of tents and into treatment. When I talk to the various providers and the people working with the homeless, their estimates are that a significant majority of the hard-core chronic homeless are suffering either from mental illness, drug problems, or a combination of the two.
ECB: You’ve opposed opening up the police union contracts to observation and participation by the public. Given that the police department is still under a federal consent decree and the police union has been reluctant to institute reforms, why do you oppose opening up the contracts, and what would you do to increase transparency at SPD?
JD: There is no question, with Trump as president and the Janus decision coming down, that the right-to-work forces are going to be emboldened and they’re going to be coming after workers’ rights. In that context, I think it is irresponsible for anyone to say, ‘Let’s do their work for them and open up collective bargaining.’
Second, I’ve tried to talk to [reform advocates] and say, ‘Okay, what parts of police reform are they not doing because it’s against their contract?’ And the answer I’ve gotten back is, ‘Nothing.’ So the question of whether we can see what they’re bargaining is separate from the question of whether they’re doing it and if it’s effective. Going into police reform, we had a list of things we had to do, and so it wasn’t a question about, were they going to do them? A judge was ordering them to do it. So then the only part we aren’t seeing is what are we going to pay them to do it. And that all comes out when the city council has to vote on it, so there is more transparency than people think there is. My question would be, what things do people feel they don’t know?
“I’ve tried to talk to [reform advocates] and say, ‘Okay, what parts of police reform are they not doing because it’s against their contract?’ And the answer I’ve gotten back is, ‘Nothing.’ So the question of whether we can see what they’re bargaining is separate from the question of whether they’re doing it and if it’s effective.”
ECB: One thing we don’t know might be whether the city is going to pay cops a huge bonus just for wearing body cameras, for example.
JD: But we will know that when the contract gets presented and has to be voted on. We’re not in the room, but we set out the guiding principles—which I think the public has a right to do—and we see things that are going to be in the contract. Once we have the inspector general stood up, once we have the [Community Police Commission] more fully staffed, part of their function is going to be setting what those goals and policies are going to be. There will be transparency into that, because their job is to bring in the voices of the community and to report back. So we have built in already, I think, the ability to have more transparency, and I think some people just aren’t aware of it.
ECB: If the issue isn’t the police contract, then why do you think we’re stalled on police reform?
JD: I actually don’t think we’re stalled on police reform. I think we’re stalled on implementing some of the ordinances that I think will give greater civilian accountability. [Ed: The city can’t implement police-reform legislation until Judge James Robart signs off on the proposed reforms.] In terms of what’s actually happening on the ground—de-escalation policies, crisis intervention training, body cams—it’s all moving forward.
ECB: If that’s true, then how do you explain incidents where de-escalation training clearly didn’t work, like the shooting of Charleena Lyles?
JD: The Charleena Lyles thing shows us that reform is never done. Since the changes [requiring SPD officers to go through crisis intervention training], significant uses of force are down 60 percent in three years. That’s amazing. Charleena Lyles was a horrible, horrible crisis. I think we failed her as a society in so many ways even before the police got to the door. She had been living on the street, and she got into housing, but clearly still had issues with domestic violence, mental health issues, a single mom, and from what I can tell from the public record, about the only time she got provided services was when she was arrested and in jail. That’s the only time we as a society did anything for her. And so we have to change that equation where, if we are going to get people off the street and into housing, we also have to provide them the social services, the network, the support that they need day to day.
ECB: Your opponent has said she’ll expedite Sound Transit delivery to Ballard and West Seattle by loaning Sound Transit funds to build those segments more quickly. What would you do to help Seattle get its final two segments of light rail faster?
JD: The way we can best speed up ST3 is through accelerating the siting process. That’s the longest lead time that you have in these megaprojects, and we unfortunately tend to do those things very sequentially—environmental impact statement, community input, three different site alternatives, then SDOT weighs in… We can’t afford to do that. If I’m mayor, we’re going to try to do things, instead of sequentially, in collaboration. We know where the lines are going and there’s only so many locations that the transit stations can go. Let’s start doing the process now. Let’s not wait for all the alternatives. Let’s start engaging the noisy neighborhoods and the community voices now, and start having that robust dialogue. If you wait for two years, three years to engage, then you getting those intractable fights that seem to delay things forever. With these big projects, if you let them get away from you, they will get away from you. If you deal them at the beginning, you can impact how long they take.
Nikkita Oliver, an attorney, spoken-word poet, and educator who works for Creative Justice, a program that provides arts-based alternatives to youth incarceration, announced she was running for mayor back in early March, a month before allegations of sexual misconduct sidelined incumbent Ed Murray’s campaign, and two months before he announced he will not run for reelection. What once looked like a relatively simple choice between a popular incumbent and a social-justice advocate who promised to shake up the system has since become a free-for-all, with 13 candidates—including a former mayor, two state legislators, and an ex-federal prosecutor—in the race so far, with five more days remaining for other candidates (such as city council member Lorena Gonzalez, who would have to give up her council seat to run for mayor) to jump in.
Oliver is running as a representative of a new group called the People’s Party (city races are nonpartisan), which aims to “break down barriers and open doors for collective leadership that is willing, able, and experienced in divesting from practices, corporations, and institutions that don’t reflect the values and interests of our city,” according to its platform. Oliver argues for rent control, larger mandatory affordable housing contributions from developers than what is mandated by Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) and Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) programs, and restorative justice practices like mediation and restitution over incarceration. I sat down with Oliver at the Creative Justice Office at Washington Hall, in the Central District.
The C Is for Crank (ECB):Given that you aren’t raising money or hiring staff, some have raised questions about whether you’re actually hoping to win, or if you’re just running to lift up issues and raise questions. Can you talk a little bit about why you’re running and what you and the People’s Party hope to accomplish?
NO: Absolutely we’re running to win, but there’s also multiple lenses here. To become mayor would be incredibly transformative in and of itself. I’d be the first woman mayor in 91 years, the first woman of color mayor ever in Seattle, and I would certainly be someone who very progressively and honestly speaks to substantive issues, and I’m very well acquainted with the community.
But there are also all kinds of other wins. The conversation around housing and homelessness, around what economics looks like in our city, the gap between the rich and the poor, what does racial justice and equity actually look like—those conversations have been substantively pushed to a place that they would not have been pushed to if the People’s Party and myself had not joined in the race. And I think that’s an essential place for us to be. It’s challenging the unwillingness of our electeds to actually engage in talking about the substantive issues. They tend to talk about these things at the 30,000-foot level, and then they get into office, and what they promised doesn’t really happen.
ECB: You’ve focused on the issue of displacement, particularly in the Central District. What is your policy plan to prevent displacement? If you could erase HALA and MHA today, what would you replace them with?
NO: I don’t think it’s about erasing HALA and MHA. I think the real problem there is that the Grand Bargain [between social justice advocates and developers] really created a developer incentive to just build as much as they want to at whatever cost they want to, because they don’t have to actually invest in the communities that have been impacted by the very fast change that’s happened in our city.
The same areas have taken the brunt of that zoning over and over again, and there are solutions for that. Some of that’s [building] mother-in-law [apartments in single-family areas]. Some of that is simply saying to a neighborhood, ‘Look, our city is growing. We’re absolutely going to have to build some places, maybe somewhere in your neighborhood. Where would you want that density to go?’
What HALA and MHA does is, one, it doesn’t ask for enough in investment from developers in the city. It makes us very reliant on the private market to develop enough housing to meet the needs of the people who are already here and the people who are coming, and we just know from basic supply and demand that that’s going to increase the cost of housing. So yeah, we do talk a lot about displacement, because Seattleites of all colors and ethnicities and backgrounds have actually been displaced from the neighborhoods. So when we think about displacement, there’s making sure we don’t continue to push people out, and there’s finding ways to build enough housing fast enough that people could in theory actually come back.
And I think it’s a multifaceted strategy. It’s not just MHA and HALA. It’s also thinking about market intervention strategies, like looking at who’s buying what, what places are left unused, addressing the conversation about speculative capital and how that’s impacting our overall economy.
And also, if the city truly cares about ensuring that people have the right to stay, the city will get invested in building housing and will expand what our own housing authority is doing around providing affordable housing, as well as redefining what is affordable.
ECB: Did you support the housing levy?
NO: Which levy?
ECB: The one that passed last year, that will bring in $290 million to build affordable housing.
NO: Honestly I don’t remember.
ECB: It was a property tax levy that doubled the amount the city is spending to build affordable housing.
NO: That’s where we’re at, right? Using property taxes to pay for things. If we’re not asking developers to invest at a higher level, we’re going to have to continue to leverage the dollars of people that have already taken on the burden of what development is doing in our city instead of asking the developers to take their fair share of that burden.
The zoning issues do need to be differently distributed throughout the city. The same areas have taken the brunt of that zoning over and over again, and there are solutions for that. Some of that’s [building] mother-in-law [apartments in single-family areas]. Some of that is simply saying to a neighborhood, ‘Look, our city is growing. We’re absolutely going to have to build some places, maybe somewhere in your neighborhood. Where would you want that density to go?’
ECB: Having covered the issue for a long time, I think that for a lot of neighborhood activists, the answer would be, ‘Nowhere in my neighborhood.’
NO: And we’re going to have to deal with that, the same way communities of color are often pushed to continue being in conversations until we achieve a consensus or, in our case, typically a compromise. I think asking more wealthy, affluent communities to do the same is important.
ECB: The homeowners who don’t want density have gone so far as to sue the city to stop backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments, which are about the gentlest form of density there is. What makes you think you can work with them to reach a compromise?
NO: I think at either end, you’re going to have people with extreme [views]. You’re going to have people who say, ‘We want density everywhere, as much as possible,’ and you’re going to have people who say, ‘We want absolutely no additional density anywhere. That’s what the media talks about. Rarely do we see stories in the media about homeowners who have sat down and are willing to compromise in some areas, and I know those folks exist because we’ve had really great conversations with them, where what we’ve been told is the three things they want are: Input in the process, connection to the offices that are making the decisions, and preservation of the culture of their neighborhood, of the space, as much as possible. I don’t think that’s impossible. I don’t think it will be a time-efficient process. I think it can be a very effective process.
“I think we need to adjust that approach and trust that when folks in encampments ask for certain services, that those are the exact services that will help them do better.”
ECB: Murray says his approach to homelessness is a compassionate middle ground – clearing encampments periodically but offering people services and shelter while working to rebid all the contracts for homeless providers who that they’re focused on permanent housing. What is your critique of that approach?
NO: I think they’re absolutely sweeps. I’m sure there’s an attempt to offer services, but are they the services that people are asking for? The city doesn’t have any 24/7 shelters or storage spaces. One of the most damaging things about a sweep is that people lose all of their belongings, but also what we’re missing is the personal agency and self determination that is created when people develop an encampment, that they are, together, developing a community that’s self-regulated and is also creating a certain amount of stability for those community members, and when sweeps occur, they disrupt all of that.
These are intelligent folks. To figure out how to survive outside is no easy task. I think that when people see folks who are living in encampments, they tend to think that they don’t know what they need and to assume that their requests are maybe not the solution. I think we need to adjust that approach and trust that when folks in encampments ask for certain services, that those are the exact services that will help them do better. I think the city has to actually philosophically shift, in some ways, the way that we view houseless and homeless folks and also understand that there is a certain amount of self-determination that has to be honored in order for any solution and any services provided to actually be effective.
ECB: Mayor Murray has gotten quite a bit of credit for moving the city forward on police accountability and complying with the Justice Department’s consent decree. What’s your specific critique of the way the city has responding to DOJ’s directives and dealing with excessive use of force and biased policing?
NO: The Community Police Commission has made tons of recommendations, many of which are very good solutions for how to move forward, but the CPC has no teeth currently and can’t actually enforce those changes. There’s a lot of distrust of police in the neighborhoods that are highly overpoliced. We need to figure out how you give people a voice in the actual process. How do we help officers figure out how to better engage with actual community members? How do we get more officers on foot in neighborhoods? How do we get more officers at community events, not just as officers but as community members? A lot of our officers don’t actually function as community members, so then they are just police. The overpoliced communities, the most impacted communities, should get community input into the community policing project.
“In 2008, we saw burglaries go up, we saw more youth snatching people’s phones out of their hands, and it’s because they didn’t have access to resources. We’ve created a system where for some people, the only way to access those resources is to take them.
ECB: You’ve said that you’d like to get to a place where we don’t need police. What would that look like?
NO: I grew up in a place where, if I got in trouble, I literally got in trouble on every block until I got home, which meant that I just didn’t get in trouble too often anymore after the first few times. And that was how me and all my siblings and my cousins grew up. Over time, as communities become gentrified and more policed and there’s less relationships between neighbors, I think what we see is the decrease in that accountability and ownership for each other. So you might see your neighbor’s house getting broke into, but you’re not going to say anything because that’s not your house. That’s not how I was raised. I think gentrification has really began to decrease how much communities know about each other. Most people do not know their neighbors. So I think part of the culture shifting that has to happen in our neighborhoods is, how do we get neighbors to know each other? It sounds kind of corny, but in a lot of places, block parties play a major role in that. Just having resources for neighborhoods to get out and be around each other is very valuable.
I’m not an unreasonable abolitionist. But those things have to happen simultaneously. We can’t just get rid of police. It’s not going to work like that. We do need an infrastructure for how we address harm. But I don’t think police have to be the first resort. I think police can be the last resort. I also think we have a fire department and EMT services when there is an actual physical harm, and there are processes we can go through, first of all, to see if people want to be involved in a restorative justice process.
It also has to be coupled with an economic, job opportunity and education response. Some of the harms that we see are literally a response to not having access to resources, and we know this because when we see recessions happen, like in 2008, we saw burglaries go up, we saw more youth snatching people’s phones out of their hands, and it’s because they didn’t have access to resources. We’ve created a system where for some people, the only way to access those resources is to take them. I think we tend to look at abolitionists and say, ‘Oh, y’all just want to get rid of police,’ but what I really want is to create a healthy, just system where people have a lot of options.
Think about what happens when you put someone in jail for a property crime, and the trauma that jail causes, and the likelihood that they will actually recidivize after being released, but not for another property crime, most likely for a crime that’s categorized as violent. What it shows is that we’re actually using an ineffective system. We’re neither rehabilitating, nor are we getting the retribution that people seem to want, because what we’re doing is we’re actually creating the likelihood that we’re going to end up with more crime, and with more violent crime, from folks who hadn’t actually quite yet reached that level.
ECB: What do you think the media has gotten wrong about you?
NO: I think that they’ve labeled me as a protest candidate, and this is not about protest. It’s about transformation. It’s about, this is a system of inaccessibility and inequality that I’ve lived in my entire life, and other people in the People’s Party have as well, and instead of being complacent and giving in to it we continue to strive to be organizers who are solution-oriented. I think that the media has purposely tied to strip me of my merits and my credentials. It is easier to label me a Black Lives Matter leader, which I’m not. I’m black, so I do advocate for my life and the life of my family, but I’m also a lawyer and an educator, and I have worked very hard to get those credentials. I have done a lot of work in the community that has given me a lot of trust and respect with community members.
When you see the way that [fellow mayoral candidate] Cary Moon is talked about, she’s an urban planner, an engineer, and a civic leader. The term ‘civic leader’ has never been used for me, but I’ve probably been to more council meetings than most of the other candidates in the race. Is that not civic leadership? Is that not civic engagement? I think the media has played into a trope or a stereotypical narrative. It’s an easier box to put me in as a woman of color than it is to actually talk about me as a human being with merits and credentials and substantive work that I’ve done around education and juvenile incarceration and community development. I don’t ever get tied to substantive issues. I think it is an unfair characterization. It’s not unexpected, though.
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