Tag: protests

OPA Releases First Findings from SPD Protest Response Complaints

SPD officer seen placing his knee on a demonstrator’s neck on May 30 (Screenshot from video by Matt McKnight, Crosscut)

By Paul Kiefer

On Friday morning, the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) released the first set of five completed investigations into alleged misconduct by Seattle Police Department officers during the protests that followed the murder of George Floyd in May. These investigations amount to only a tiny fraction of the OPA’s remaining protest-related caseload. The office consolidated more than 30,000 complaints it has received about SPD’s response to demonstrations into more than 100 separate investigations.

The documents released Friday included two investigations stemming from high-profile incidents during the first days of the protests: One in which an officer was accused of kneeling on two demonstrators’ necks during an arrest downtown on the night of May 30; and a widely-publicized incident in which an officer pepper-sprayed an seven-year-old child earlier the same day.

OPA Director Andrew Myerberg only found evidence to sustain two of the four complaints that stemmed from the nighttime arrests. Based on video of the incident, Myerberg concluded that the officer had only kneeled on the neck of one of the demonstrators and instead kneeled on the other demonstrator’s head.

In an interview on Thursday, Myerberg said that “a knee on the head is not against [SPD] policy,” but added that “it’s not encouraged, and [officers] aren’t trained to do it.” Kneeling on a demonstrator’s neck, however, is now against department policy; at the time of the arrest, those restraints were only “strongly discouraged.”

If the OPA had been able to conclude that the officer had intentionally used a neck restraint to restrict the protester’s breathing, the office would have been able to recommend more serious disciplinary action. Myerberg said the SPD policy manual defines a prohibited neck restraint as the intentional application of pressure to a subject’s neck for the purpose of “controlling a subject’s movement or rendering a subject unconscious.” Myerberg said he couldn’t disprove the officer’s claim that he had unintentionally placed his knee on the man’s neck, but he did determine that “what the officer did was not proportional or necessary, because even if inadvertent, the risk of harm is pretty substantial.”

Therefore, the OPA concluded that the officer had unintentionally violated the department’s use of force policy. The OPA also sustained a complaint that the same officer had inappropriately cursed at and threatened demonstrators, calling one woman a “bitch” and telling a fellow officer that he would “fuck up” another demonstrator.

Interim Chief Adrian Diaz will now be responsible for determining how to discipline the officer for both offenses. ”

The OPA also sustained a professionalism complaint against a different officer for an  incident in which the complainant filmed him saying, “I have a hard-on for this shit and, if they cross the line, I will hit them” while responding to a demonstration. The officer in question admitted his wrongdoing to the OPA‚ saying he said he had been quoting a movie (“Top Gun”).

His admission of wrongdoing opened the door for Myerberg to make use of a new disciplinary track for SPD officers called rapid adjudication, which began as one of the accountability reforms proposed by former OPA Auditor and retired Judge Anne Levinson in 2014 and adopted in 2018 as part of the Seattle Police Officers Guild contract.

In a rapid adjudication case, the officer accepts a disciplinary action and waives the right to an investigation or an appeal, saving the city and themselves from an investigative process that could last up to 6 months. The goal of rapid adjudication, or RA, Levinson said, “was to create a department in which officers can admit their mistakes and acknowledge responsibility. Typically, union contracts prioritize due process‚ officers have the right to investigations, for instance—so there wasn’t room for officers to admit wrongdoing.”

In this case, the officer will only receive a written reprimand. At the moment, Myerberg’s office doesn’t measure the efficacy of disciplinary actions in changing officers’ behavior, but he hopes they will start tracking that data in the future. “We could look at recidivism,” he says, adding that a punishment as minor as a written reprimand could still incentivize good behavior because multiple reprimands are grounds for the department to suspend or terminate an officer.

Myerberg’s office did not sustain the complaint against the officer who pepper-sprayed the seven-year-old, concluding instead that the officer had not intended to spray the child and therefore hadn’t violated department policy. The OPA wasn’t able to interview the child or his father (who was pepper-sprayed alongside his child) after the family’s legal counsel didn’t respond to the OPA’s interview requests.

However, based on body camera footage and officer testimonies, the OPA found that the father and child were standing behind a woman who was trying to wrestle away an officer’s baton; when that woman ducked, the pepper spray hit the child. The bodycam footage also appeared to disprove the father’s claim that he and his child had been praying with members of their church just before the incident: the footage showed the father yelling obscenities at officers in the lead-up to the incident.

Because a picture of the child crying after being pepper-sprayed circulated widely on social media, Myerberg expects the OPA’s findings in that case to be unpopular, but he also doesn’t believe his office has legal grounds to push for disciplinary action against the officer. Instead, he said, the City Council’s crowd control weapons ordinance—the subject of an ongoing court battle—could provide recourse in similar situations in the future.

Because the ordinance bans the use of several less-than-lethal weapons (including pepper spray) in crowd-control scenarios, Myerberg said that in the future, “officers could be liable even for unintentional harm.” It would not, however, open the door to retroactively punish the officer for pepper-spraying the child on May 30.

The OPA also declined to sustain complaints in two other cases. In one, protesters alleged that an officers violated the department’s use of force policy by pushing them back with batons; one complainant added that because of his sexual orientation, the officers’ aggression “seemed homophobic.” After reviewing the bodycam footage, Myerberg found no reason to conclude that the officers had used excessive force, nor did he find evidence that the officers acted out of bias.

The second case arose from a complaint that an SPD officer pushed down an elderly man on Capitol Hill on May 30th. The person who filed the complaint, however, heard about the incident second-hand, and Myerberg’s office couldn’t find any witnesses or video evidence of the incident to back up the complaint.

The OPA will continue to release protest-related findings on a rolling basis. Myerberg’s office has not given a timeline for the next sets of investigations, but the OPA website includes a dashboard showing the progress of demonstration-related complaint investigations.

Nonviolent Protests at Officials’ Houses Are Protected Speech. Political Leaders Want to Shut Them Down.

“Pyrotechnic explosives” recovered by police executing a search warrant after recent protests

Elected officials and the police chief of Seattle, who holds the most powerful unelected position in city government, have come together in opposition to a form of behavior that all agree is inexcusable, reprehensible, and violates “every democratic principle that guides our nation.”

No, I’m not talking about teargassing and shooting rubber bullets into the bodies of protesters, or the fact that the budget for the police department dwarfs that for human and social services. I’m referring to the fact that protesters are showing up at officials’ homes—specifically, the homes of most city council members, the mayor, the county executive, and Police Chief Carmen Best—to demonstrate for police defunding and against police violence, including the violence against protesters that helped spur the current protest movement.

Over the last few weeks, the mayor, council members, and their surrogates have suggested repeatedly that protesting outside these officials’ houses, in and of itself, is a violent act that exists beyond the bounds of “decency” and civility. They have maintained, further, that spray-painting the street in front of people’s homes—an act that has recent local precedent at the Capitol Hill Organized Protest, where slogans briefly filled pavement and walls in a neighborhood where hundreds of people live—is an act of violence. (The fact that people in the CHOP area live in apartments, as opposed to the officials who own one or more houses, speaks volumes about which Seattle residents these officials believe have a right to peace and quiet in their homes.)

This weekend, the Seattle Times also condemned the protests, saying that “nighttime marches to council members” are not a legitimate form protest but a form of “bullying” and “intimidating” that is “downright Trumpian.”

To give just one example: A recent email from the Neighborhoods for Safe Streets PAC, which was originally formed in opposition to bike lanes on 35th Ave. NE, suggested that protesters who left “‘defund the police’ literature” at Juarez’s doorstep were “trespassing” and engaging in “illegal intimidation tactics.” (For the record, leaving campaign or other political literature at people’s doors is very common, especially during elections, and is not illegal.)

This weekend, the Seattle Times also condemned the protests, saying that “nighttime marches to council members” are not a legitimate form protest but a form of “bullying” and “intimidating” that is “downright Trumpian.”

And just yesterday, police Chief Carmen Best applauded residents of rural Snohomish, some of them reportedly armed, for blockading roads with pickup trucks and prohibiting protesters from walking down public streets toward “a residence” she owns in the town.

“My neighbors were concerned by such a large group, but they were successful in ensuring the crowd was not able to trespass or engage in other illegal behavior in the area, despite repeated attempts to do so,” Best wrote in a letter demanding that the city council denounce the protests. “These direct actions against elected officials, and especially civil servants like myself, are out of line with and go against every democratic principle that guides our nation.” Best’s letter concluded by accusing protesters of “engaging in violence and intimidation.”

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In fact, the practice of protesting at powerful elected and unelected officials’ homes has a very long tradition in the United States, going back at least to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. The principle behind protests of this kind over the decades has been that people feel unable to access their leaders through “ordinary” means, such as requesting meetings and showing up at City Hall, so they take the protest to their houses.

In Seattle, the tradition of protesting outside leaders’ homes has recent precedent in the SHARE/WHEEL protests of 2009, when activists demanding funds for bus tickets camped overnight at city council members’ houses, in 2012 when homeless advocates showed up at then-mayor Mike McGinn’s house, and in 2016 when Black Lives Matter protesters set up shop outside former mayor Ed Murray’s house to protest his support for a new youth jail.

Then as now, some officials—including then-council member Bruce Harrell—came out to talk to the protesters and listen to their concerns, an act that defused the situation considerably, since, again, one motivation for showing up at people’s houses is frustration at not feeling heard.

Today, protests at elected leaders’ homes aren’t just normalized—they’re typical. As much as Seattle likes to see itself as unique in both our political progressiveness and our collective response to injustice, protesters are gathering outside the homes of local officials in cities across the country—from St. Petersburg, FL to New York to San Francisco. To watch these protests is to watch a norm shifting in real time: Standing outside elected officials’ houses and waving signs or painting on the street was a phenomenon that wasn’t all that common—until now, when it very much is. Continue reading “Nonviolent Protests at Officials’ Houses Are Protected Speech. Political Leaders Want to Shut Them Down.”

FBI Says There Was Specific Threat Against East Precinct; Durkan Letter Dodges Protesters’ Three Demands

This morning, city council president Lorena González and public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold said they were both briefed last week by police chief Carmen Best on what the chief had previously described as “credible threats” to the east police precinct in early June, and that the chief described the threats as generalized threats to government buildings in cities up and down the East Coast rather than a specific threat to bomb, burn down, or otherwise damage the East Precinct. Best cited the alleged threats in June as one of the reasons police needed to keep protesters away from the building using tear gas, pepper spray, and eventually physical barricades in the area that became known as CHOP.

“I had heard that it was general threats to all city facilities, which would obviously include the police precinct, but it would also include City Hall and sewer facilities and all other facilities owned by the city of Seattle,” González said. “These were generalized threats, as opposed to specific threats to the East Precinct, that were garnered as the result of what would seem like a generalized bulletin that was received by police chiefs of all cities, not just Seattle.”

“These were generalized threats, as opposed to specific threats to the East Precinct, that were garnered as the result of what would seem like a generalized bulletin that was received by police chiefs of all cities, not just Seattle.”—City Council president Lorena González

However, a spokesman for the FBI in Seattle said the threat was specific to the East Precinct, not a general threat against city buildings. “While I cannot get into specifics of threats, it would be accurate to report we did share intelligence regarding threats to the East Precinct,” the spokesman said. And the mayor’s chief of staff, Stephanie Formas, says the police chief “was provided both direct information from the Seattle FBI Special Agent in Charge confirming that, not only were government and law enforcement facilities known targets along the West Coast —including Seattle; but that the East Precinct was specifically included in these threats” as well as the West Precinct in Belltown. Formas pointed to an apparent arson attempt on June 12, when a man from Tacoma was arrested for lighting a fire outside the precinct building. That fire was quickly put out by people in the area.

“Not only were government and law enforcement facilities known targets along the West Coast [but] the East Precinct was specifically included in these threats.”—Stephanie Formas, chief of staff for Mayor Durkan

A month after the heads of the city’s Race and Social Justice Initiative “change teams” sent a letter to Mayor Jenny Durkan asking her to substantively address the demands of protesters, Durkan has responded, with a letter outlining many of the same actions the mayor has highlighted in her press appearances since George Floyd’s murder sparked protests against police violence in late May. The letter from Durkan summarizes what she sees as actions she’s taken to address protesters’ demands; the fact that it does not directly respond to the demands in the letter suggests that she still does not take those demands entirely seriously, and sees incremental changes, such as additional staff for the groups that investigate police misconduct, a sufficient response to the protests that continue to rage across the city.

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The change teams are groups of city employees tasked with monitoring the implementation of the city’s Race and Social Justice Initiative. The letter from the team leaders asked Durkan to defund the Seattle police by 50 percent, protect and expand community safety investments in Black and brown communities; stop removing homeless encampments and cut police from the city’s Navigation Team; and release all jailed protesters, among other demands. The list is less radical than the demands made by some protesters, and the effectiveness of the Change Teams is a matter of debate within the city, but their action items were similar enough to protesters’ high-level demands that the mayor’s response can serve as a proxy response to those demands.

Durkan’s letter, which is dated July 6, first listed a number of actions the city has already taken, including: “A full review by [the four police accountability authorities] of the crowd management policy,” an investigation by SPD’s Office of Professional Accountability of misconduct complaints related to the protest, a new policy (proposed and passed by the city council) banning police from covering their badge numbers with “mourning bands,” and a request that the city attorney not charge protesters arrested and jailed for minor offenses, such as obstruction and failure to disperse.

None of these action items are a direct response to the the three primary demands from protesters, which are: Defund the police by 50 percent; reinvest in Black and brown community safety; and release all protesters who have been jailed.

The mayor also described a number of future actions that have already been announced, including $100 million in still-undefined investments in BIPOC (Black, indigenous, and other people of color) communities, accelerating the transfer of several city-owned properties to community groups as part of the Equitable Development Initiative, cutting $20 million from the police department budget (a proposal that, in reality, would cut just $5 million more than the reduction Durkan had already proposed before the protests), and a greater role for “community leaders” in negotiating the next police contract.

None of these action items are a direct response to the the three primary demands from protesters, which are: Defund the police by 50 percent; reinvest in Black and brown community safety; and release all protesters who have been jailed. Continue reading “FBI Says There Was Specific Threat Against East Precinct; Durkan Letter Dodges Protesters’ Three Demands”

After CHOP Sweeps, Mayor Durkan Says City Will “Memorialize” Protests, “Reimagine Policing”

This post originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

About 10 hours after Seattle police officers moved in to remove barriers, tents, artwork, and people from the Capitol Hill Organized Protest area this morning, Mayor Jenny Durkan, police chief Carmen Best, and other department heads called a press conference to explain their actions.

There was a lot to unpack. Why did the mayor issue the executive order in the pre-dawn hours, a time when most people living in tents in the area (and most reporters) would be asleep? Will the city prevent protesters from gathering at the East Precinct building in the future, and are they planning to use force? What will happen to the art and community gardens? Why did the city expel members of the media from CHOP, when the press is explicitly allowed to remain in an area after an order to disperse?

Durkan did get into a few specifics. For example, the mayor said the city would consider “memorializing” the protests by creating space for “a new garden, a speakers’ corner, or new art,” and would add a “community room in the East Precinct and things in and around Capitol Hill and the East Precinct.” It’s unclear how a community room could fit into the cramped layout of the East Precinct, leaving aside whether anyone would want to go there.

For the most part, though Durkan’s comments focused on lofty, nonspecific goals, like “statewide reforms,” “generational change,” and “investing in community.” The word “reimagine” appeared no fewer than seven times in Durkan’s 12-minute statement. “I will continue to refocus our energy on the hard but critical work to answer the voices demonstrating and demanding change, to reimagine, with Chief Best, what policing looks like in our city, and to invest in the true health and safety of our communities,” Durkan said.

Best, characteristically, described the CHOP in near-apocalyptic terms. “If you have watched the news footage you have seen how absolutely devastating the damage to this neighborhood is,” she said. Walking around the perimeter of the area, she said, “I was just stunned by the amount of graffiti, garbage, and property destruction.” She described residents and business owners coming out of their homes, like survivors of a natural disaster, to “profusely” thank her officers. “We don’t even know how much trauma” the protests caused to residents and business owners in the area, she said.

Durkan has reportedly been at odds with Chief Best in recent weeks, but there was no sign of division this afternoon. Instead, Durkan effusively praised the police chief and her officers (who Durkan described, in an apparent slip of the tongue, as “troops”), calling her “one of the best leaders in this country on policing” and crediting her “very steady hand” for this morning’s relatively smooth removal of tents, people, and barricades from the CHOP.

Durkan said she was expediting assistance to businesses in the area that experienced property damage or lost revenues, and had already spoken to the city attorney’s office about expediting their tort claims so that they could get financial reimbursement quickly. “I heard very clearly from them the pain of seeing their businesses close, the graffiti on their walls, calling back their employees but not yet able to open,” she said.

Asked whether she bore any responsibility for the two young men who have died in shootings in the area, Durkan declined to answer the question directly, calling the deaths “regretful” and saying that she hoped to meet with the victims’ family members. “We’ll have lots of opportunities to do after-actions on what people could have done at what junctures,” she added.

Best said the police would welcome peaceful protests outside the reopened East Precinct, but “there’s not going be lawlessness.” The police force is under a federal court that bars them from using “less lethal” weapons such as tear gas, pepper spray, and blast grenades, and the city council passed legislation barring the use of such weapons last month.

Earlier this week, city council public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold wrote a blog post revealing that Best had confirmed that one of the police department’s primary reasons for setting up heavily fortified barricades around the East Precinct was not true. The chief and mayor had previously claimed the FBI had informed them of specific threats to bomb or burn down the East Precinct. In fact, Herbold revealed, what Durkan previously described as “credible threats” were actually “a generalized assessment of threat to ‘police and government structures’ in Portland, San Francisco, and Seattle.”

The mayor and police chief have had to walk back a number of false or misleading statements about the protests, including claims that armed guards were forcing people to hand over ID and pay a bribe to enter (not true) and that police used force against protesters because one threw an “incendiary device” (it turned out to be a candle.) This afternoon, Best was not ready to let the threats to the East Precinct go. There were “threats to police precincts and to government facilities,” Best said. “We verified that and that information came from our local special agent in charge at the FBI.” 

The area that used to be CHOP will be closed to anyone who isn’t a resident or business owner for the next 10 days, Best said. According to at least one report on social media, police are requiring people to show identification to enter their own homes or businesses—exactly the scenario police department officials accused protesters of setting up last month.

SPD Chief Who Accused CHOP Protesters of Extortion Racket Calls Sawant “Irresponsible” for Putting Out Dubious Information

Assistant Seattle Police Chief Deanna Nollette

Deanna Nollette, the Assistant Seattle Police Chief who told reporters that SPD had received “incredibly credible” reports that someone wanted to burn down the East Precinct, sent an email this morning to city council member Kshama Sawant excoriating for putting out information that was unconfirmed.

Nollette, who declined to provide any details about her claim that the precinct was in imminent danger, also pushed out the narrative that the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (known at the time as CHAZ) was guarded by armed forces engaged in an extortion racket, an assertion that the police department was later forced to retract.

Her email accused Sawant of politicizing two recent shootings by suggesting that they may have been perpetrated by right-wing agitators, and called Sawant “irresponsible” for using “this crime to advance your own narrative.”

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Sawant is an elected official who represents the district in which CHOP is located; Nollette, who promoted an equally political narrative by suggesting that people protesting against police violence were engaged in an illegal protection racket and that the protests themselves were putting the precinct building in danger, is an appointed public servant.

Here is Nollette’s letter to Sawant in full:

Good Morning
I am the Investigations Chief for the Seattle Police Department and a Seattle resident. I read your comments on the Department’s homicide investigation for the shooting that occurred yesterday in the East Precinct neighborhood.
You speculate that it was a right wing hate crime. While it is early in the investigation we have not received ANY evidence that this is accurate. It is irresponsible of you to use this crime to advance your own narrative.
We are committed to a through, robust, and non biased investigation on the facts and evidence of the case (as we are on every homicide). Divisive rhetoric does not advance the investigation, calm the situation, or elevate the conversations about the underlying issues.
Should you have any evidence of your theory please contact me so that I can ensure the information is relayed to the case Detectives.
AC Deanna Nollette

Three people were shot in or near the CHOP, which covers six square blocks on Capitol Hill, over the weekend. In both cases, the victims were transported to the hospital by volunteer medics.

Mayor Jenny Durkan is meeting with a group of protesters this morning, reportedly to negotiate a deal that will completely or partially shut down the organized protest zone. Over the weekend, Durkan’s office issued a statement to reporters saying that she had met with “trusted messengers and de-escalators, led by Andre Taylor with Not This Time, to engage with many of the organizers. This work will continue and the City will be meeting with some of the organizers today on next steps. We believe there can be a peaceful resolution. Taylor has appeared alongside Durkan repeatedly at press conferences and events. The mayor’s office is expected to make an announcement about “next steps” later today.

Council Bans Use of “Less Lethal” Weapons and Chokeholds as Cop Funding Discussion Gets Underway

Police stand by during a recent encampment removal by the Navigation Team, which is made up mostly of Seattle police officers.

This story first appeared in the South Seattle Emerald.

The Seattle City Council voted unanimously today to ban the Seattle Police Department from owning or using so-called “less lethal” weapons such as blast balls, tear gas, and pepper spray for any purpose, and, in separate legislation, to ban the use of “chokeholds,” a term that includes various methods of restraining a person by cutting off their air supply or blood flow to their brain.

City council member Lisa Herbold, who chairs the council’s public safety committee, had proposed delaying the legislation barring less-lethal weapons for one week at the request of the Office of Police Accountability and the Office of Inspector General, which asked the council for one week to review the legislation and make recommendations. The OPA and OIG, along with the Community Police Commission, are the three accountability groups charged with implementing and overseeing police reforms required by a 2012 federal consent decree.

Delaying a week would not have allowed police to resume the use of blast balls, tear gas, and other weapons against protesters, thanks to a federal court ruling from Friday, June 12, barring the use of force against peaceful protesters for two weeks. However, council member Kshama Sawant, who sponsored the legislation, said on Monday morning that she was “at a loss to understand how any council member can play a role in delaying the passage of what is absolutely bare minimum legislation.” 

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If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

Sawant continued to inveigh against Herbold at the full council meeting at 2pm, calling an amendment that would allow police to use non-lethal weapons under circumstances unrelated to free speech or “crowd control,” such as subduing individual suspects, “nothing less than a racist amendment [and] a betrayal of the movement and the Black community.” Earlier, Sawant called the same amendment “horrific” and suggested that it would “create giant, truck-sized loopholes that will allow these weapons to be used in virtually any situation.”

Herbold’s amendment mirrored language adopted by the Community Police Commission in 2015 and in 2020 recommending a ban on these weapons specifically for crowd control purposes. The CPC, OIG, and OPA have not weighed in on whether less-lethal weapons should be banned outright, a move Herbold—a longtime advocate for police reform—said she worries could have unintended consequences.

Herbold didn’t directly address Sawant’s accusation, but did agree to withdraw the portion of her amendment to Sawant’s bill that would have allowed less-lethal weapons to be used for purposes other than crowd control. Her amendment, which ultimately passed, added language to Sawant’s bill asking the OPA, CPC, and OIG to “make a formal recommendation to the City Council on whether the Seattle Police Department should be reauthorized to use less-lethal weapons for crowd dispersal purposes” by August 15.

The council is sending the legislation to the Department of Justice, Federal District Court Judge James Robart, who presides over the consent decree, and court monitor Merrick Bobb, who was appointed to oversee the decree. The consent decree is an agreement, signed by the city in 2012, that committed the city to police reform after the federal court found a pattern of excessive force and racially biased policing. 

In early May, Mayor Jenny Durkan asked the judge to find the city in long-term compliance with federally mandated reforms, one of the final steps before the dissolution of federal oversight SPD. Less than three weeks later, George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis and police in Seattle responded to mostly peaceful protests with violent force. 

The discussions about less-lethal weapons are just the first phase of discussions about the size and purpose of the police department, which will continue on Wednesday at 2pm with a discussion in the council’s budget committee about proposals to defund the department and invest in community organizations that provide alternative approaches to community safety and prosperity.

 

Council May Take Cops Off Navigation Team; Durkan Distances Herself from Police Response to Protests

Outside Seattle’s East Police Precinct.

Before the murder of George Floyd sparked nationwide protests and calls to defund police departments, homeless advocates were calling on the city of Seattle to depolice the Navigation Team, the controversial group of police and civilian city staffers that removes encampments from public spaces. During a recent encampment removal in the International District, protesters lined up on both ends of a block guarded by dozens of police, live-streaming from just outside the barricades as homeless encampment residents shuffled slowly through.

Now, those advocates may get their wish, as city council member Tammy Morales cues up legislation that would remove cops from the team and refocus its efforts on outreach and services, not law enforcement. The legislation, which is still in draft form, would remove funding for any police presence on the Navigation Team. This would be a major policy and financial shift, since the city currently spends $2.6 million a year providing full-time police officers for the team, but it no longer seems as radical as it did even two weeks ago, when Police Chief Carmen Best insisted that encampments were so inherently dangerous that they required an armed response.

The Navigation Team, formed in 2017 under former mayor Ed Murray, was originally supposed to navigate people living in encampments to safer shelter, housing, and other services. To reflect this, the city adopted rules requiring the team to provide advance notice and offers of appropriate shelter to every person living in an encampment before removing it.  Under Durkan, however, the team has shifted its focus, using a loophole  in the rules that allows the immediate removal of any encampment that constitutes an “obstruction” to public use of a space. Because the term “obstruction” is ill-defined, Durkan’s Navigation Team has interpreted it to include any encampment in any part of a public park or other public space, a definition that encompasses most encampments.

Every year she has been in office, Durkan has expanded the number of police officers on the team. The council is currently doing an “inquest” of the police department’s budget in light of calls to defund the police and an estimated 2020 revenue shortfall of more than $300 million.

Via @MayorJenny

Durkan has paid lip service to the idea that police are not appropriate in every circumstance, but has not expanded those thoughts to apply specifically to her own police department. Similarly, her comments about the protests happening in her own city, against her own police department and administration, have mostly been vague and nationally focused, a strategy that has enabled her to grab nationwide headlines for anti-Trump sound bites while refusing to respond directly to protesters’ detailed demands at home.

On Friday, the mayor finally joined a protest for Black lives, nearly two weeks after other mayors across the country began doing so. The massive march, tens of thousands of people strong, was completely silent, which means that it was also the only march so far in which Durkan would not hear protesters shouting demands—chief among them that she defund the police department and invest in communities that have been victims of disinvestment and police violence.

The public knows about the mayor’s presence at at least some portion of the march because her social-media team posted photos of Durkan and police chief Carmen Best walking through the rain on Twitter. The text read: “Today at the @BLMSeattleKC silent march, community walks to abolish the school to prison pipeline, end biased policing, and undo centuries of systemic racism in our country. The march may be silent, but the message is loud and clear: #blacklivesmatter.” 

Durkan has consistently attempted to reframe protesters’ demands as primarily national or statewide, not local. But the movement to defund the police—which received a staggering $409 million in last year’s city budget—is moving forward anyway. Last week, the city council held the first meeting in a month-long “inquest” into the police budget, and Durkan held off on sending down her midyear budget revisions in order to make changes that may or may not be responsive to protesters’ demands.

The massive march, tens of thousands of people strong, was completely silent, which means that it was also the only march so far in which Durkan would not hear protesters shouting demands—chief among them that she defund the police department and invest in communities that have been victims of disinvestment and police violence.

Earlier this week, Seattle police made their way back into the East Precinct, which has been unoccupied since Durkan apparently ordered the police to open up the street to protesters and remove all “sensitive items” from the building. Since then an area of a few square blocks around the precinct—known as the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone—has been the site of a 24/7 protest/block party, featuring free food and water stands, community gardens, and a campground in Cal Anderson Park.

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Durkan has tried to make the best of the situation, which came about because police set up barricades around the precinct in early June and defended them with force, targeting protesters night after night with tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and other weapons. Publicly, she has said the protesters have a right to protest, and joked (rather dismissively) that the area around the precinct could turn into the site of a new “summer of love.”

In contrast, Best has said she was “angry” at the decision to take down the barricades and stop guarding the precinct, telling officers in a “leaked” video (which was posted publicly on the department’s Youtube page half an hour before the first reports about it appeared on local news) that in their absence, “armed guards” had posted up outside the precinct and were demanding money and identification from anyone who wanted to enter.

Best later walked these comments back, admitting that she had heard about them “anecdotally” and from social media—quite a turnaround for a chief who, just one week earlier, had asserted, “Social media is social media. It’s not news.”

At a press conference last week, there was an awkward moment when a reporter asked Best and Durkan whether they had confidence in each other. Best paused for a moment before responding, “Yes, I do. I’m standing here right next to her.” Durkan said that neither she nor the chief planned to resign and made a joke about having a “Thelma and Louise moment” with the chief—an odd reference, given that the two characters drove off a cliff because they were being chased by cops.

Despite this demurral, the fault lines between the chief and the mayor—who is up for reelection next year—have continued to grow. It’s worth remembering that Durkan did not want to hire Best in the first place, and did so only after community outcry over her decision to eliminate the only local candidate, and the only black woman on the list of contenders, from consideration. Whether the reason for the schism between the mayor and her police chief is based on real policy disagreements or political considerations, it’s increasingly obvious to anyone paying attention. And whether Durkan is angling for reelection or a federal appointment under Biden, it’s increasingly clear that she wants to distance herself from a police chief who continues to insist that her police force has nothing to examine or apologize for.

Council Looks Inside the “Black Box” of the Seattle Police Department Budget

Anyone needing evidence that demands to “defund the police” by redirecting half their budget into community organizations have gained traction should watch yesterday’s City Council budget meeting (conducted via Zoom and available online), where council members began the process of what budget chair Teresa Mosqueda has called an “inquest” into the Seattle Police Department’s budget. The forensic look at a budget that council members called a “black box” comes at a time when the mayor and council were already looking for about $300 million in cuts, thanks to a recessionary revenue shortfall that has blown a hole in this year’s budget, and will almost certainly produce an austerity budget in 2021.

Wednesday’s meeting was mostly a deep dive into that budget, which totaled $409 million in 2020. Much of the information came from prior to the police actions against protesters over the last few weeks, which involved what will likely be massive overtime costs, since officers were working 12-hour shifts, as well as unknown costs for the huge number of tear gas canisters, “blast ball” grenades, rubber bullets, pepper spray, and other weapons deployed against protesters.

Still, the look into the police budget was illuminating. Some highlights:

• The overwhelming majority—75 percent—of the police budget pays for personnel, and most of those are sworn officers. Despite a hiring freeze in every other city department, SPD has hired a net total of 23 new officers this year (that is, the force grew by 23 after accounting for attrition). This hiring is currently on hold due to a lack of funding (and despite an upsurge in interest because of the recession), but council central staffer Greg Doss said it could pick up again in the fall—unless, of course, the city council reaches agreement to slow or stop police hiring before then.

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• Sworn officers make dramatically more than their civilian counterparts at SPD, including those in positions the city council and Mayor Jenny Durkan have said are critical to police reform, such as community service officers. An average patrol officer, for example, earns a total compensation of around $150,780, not counting overtime. About 25 percent of that compensation consists of benefits, so a patrol officer’s annual salary is around $113,000. For a sergeant, that goes up to around $133,500.

In contrast, a parking enforcement officer with a total compensation of $96,850 actually takes home just over $50,000 a year, because benefits make up a full 48 percent of civilian SPD staffers’ salaries.

These six-figure salaries—which are significantly higher in practice for officers who, like the ones tear-gassing protesters on Capitol Hill last week, make extra money from working overtime—are worth considering in light of claims that it’s impossible to recruit officers from within Seattle city limits because they don’t make enough money to live here.

 

• More than a third of the budget for sworn officers goes to 911 response, a fact that Doss called “a statement of policy that the department is making.” Last year, Durkan announced the creation of a new emergency service called “Health One” to respond to non-emergency calls involving issues such as mental health and substance abuse. The program has never been expanded beyond downtown, however.

A common criticism of using armed officers to respond to 911 calls is that many of these calls are made because someone is in distress, not because there is a crime in progress. Many people call 911 in situations that demand trained mental health professionals or social workers, not armed officers with the authority to use deadly force against civilians.

• Overtime, mostly for sworn officers, costs the city about $30 million a year, although this year’s budget for policing protests could blow the lid off that number. In a typical year, about a third of that goes to providing security at events, including sports events. The city spends another $2.25 million a year on overtime for emphasis patrols in neighborhoods, an amount that has nearly doubled in the last year as Durkan has added more of these patrols. And security for the mayor herself costs another $393,000 a year.

• In a preview of upcoming presentations on what the police department’s overwhelming response to, and use of force against, protesters will cost the city, the police department provided a cost breakdown for every weapon and piece of protective equipment they use when responding to protests. Kevlar helmets? $531.02. Batons? $71.12 a pop. Those crazy-looking forearm plates that make cops tricked out in riot gear look like wannabe superheroes? A fairly affordable $22.99. “It seems that each officer goes out to each demonstration in about $900 in protective gear,” council member Tammy Morales observed.

The presentation, which you can read for yourself here, provides a baseline for the department budget and a framework for the council to start digging into how much SPD spent on the recent protests, from armored vehicles to overtime to weapons like tear gas, rubber bullets, and flash grenades. Next week, Mosqueda said, council will look at how other cities have moved toward community-based public safety models, followed by additional meetings on the 24th and July 1.

Another Day of Protests, Small Concessions from the City, and Calls for Systemic Change in Seattle

Community activist and former mayoral candidate Nikkita Oliver speaks at a rally in the Central District while two people film on their phones.

Protests against police brutality in Seattle have produced multiple lists of concrete demands from activists on the ground, the leader of the city’s civil rights department, and the three organizational pillars of the city’s police accountability structure. And while action from the city itself has been minimal—nightly curfews ended yesterday, police officers will display their badge number, and cops will stop using tear gas against protesters for 30 days—the protesters are far from done.

It’s hard to see the big picture while events are unfolding. We don’t have the benefit of hindsight or distance, and no one—even reporters with five streaming windows open on their laptops—can be everywhere at once. With that in mind, here are some snapshots of the last two days in Seattle.

• Mayor Jenny Durkan received significant credit for lifting a citywide curfew that was originally put in place at 5pm on May 30, but behind the scenes, the city council may have forced her hand. On Wednesday evening, the council was preparing a motion to lift the curfew on their own, and Durkan reportedly got wind of this information. Shortly after 7pm, Durkan lifted the curfew, saying that she made the decision after meeting with community leaders who told her they didn’t want anyone to be arrested for violating curfew. In fact, the community groups’ demands included the release of anyone arrested during the protests, including but not limited to anyone arrested for violating curfew.

The somewhat last-minute (or last-two-hours) decision to grant a minor concession to protesters was of a piece with Durkan and Chief Best’s announcement yesterday afternoon that they would change the policy on “mourning badges”—black bands that Seattle officers use to cover their badge numbers to mourn fallen officers, in this case a state trooper and Bainbridge Island police officer who died in March and April, respectively—so that the public could identify officers by their badge numbers, not just by their last name and first initial.

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The change to the mourning-band policy happened overnight, after both Best and Durkan said repeatedly that it could not “happen overnight.” Nonetheless, the change is a change in policy, not in legislation, so the council may choose to change the law itself to require that officers display both names and badge numbers, not just last names and first initials.

Durkan attempted to deflect criticism for the city’s motion to terminate a sustainment plan established as part of the federal consent decree, saying repeatedly that she did not support, and would not seek, the termination of the consent decree. However, the motion to terminate was a step toward just that. Yesterday, city attorney Pete Holmes withdrew the motion in response to police actions during the protests. Durkan has not spoken in detail about that decision, and her name was not on the announcement.

• The mayor made a small concession on the use of tear gas against demonstrators—she’s banning it for 30 days so that the Community Police Commission, Office of Police Accountability, and Office of Inspector General can review the use of tear gas and other chemical weapons, such as pepper spray, and make policy recommendations.

Those three groups, however, had already expressed their unanimous opinion that the city should stop using tear gas, full stop—asking the mayor and police chief Friday morning to “stop using CS gas, commonly known as tear gas” and calling it “a serious and indiscriminate use of force.” In a letter elaborating on their announcement, the three groups noted the adverse health impacts among people exposed to tear gas and to note that its use in warfare is banned by international convention.

A partial view of the crowd at Friday’s rally and march in the Central District. More photos available on Instagram @ericacbarnett.

 

The CPC asked the city to ban the use of blast balls, pepper spray, “and other projectiles” during demonstrations back in 2016. At a press conference on Friday, both Durkan and Best said that they were not aware of these recommendations, which were covered in the Seattle Times.

Later in the day, Office for Civil Rights director Mariko Lockhart—a Durkan appointee—sent an open letter to the city’s race and social justice “change teams” calling on the mayor to “immediately halt the use of militaristic law enforcement against demonstrators”; cut the police budget and “invest in community infrastructure within Black and Brown communities”; and stop sweeping homeless encampments and “shift funding away from the law enforcement component of the Navigation Team and invest more deeply in outreach, support services, and preventive strategies.

The leaders of the of the city’s Race and Social Justice Initiative Change Teams, as well as other groups representing Black and brown city of Seattle employees, are also drafting letters that will call for immediate changes to police use of force against demonstrators and significant longer-term changes to the way the city holds police accountable for violence against civilians.

• The mayor has often taken a defensive tone in responding to complaints about police brutality, the use of military-style weapons against large crowds of peaceful protesters, and requests for relatively minor policy changes like the use of mourning bands that cover badge numbers. For example, Durkan has emphasized the fact that the federal judge overseeing the consent decree “approved the crowd management plan” for back in 2017, “before I took office.”

Similarly, a letter from Durkan to city staff today recalled the mayor’s comments earlier that people “apparently” think that cops should display their badge numbers in addition to their last names and first initials. After centering her comments, as she has consistently, on large, systemic national issues (rather than the specific Seattle issues around which the protests have coalesced), Durkan wrote, “While Chief Best and I each have worked for decades for greater police accountability and a more just criminal justice system, we now hold positions where holding us accountable is also critical.” It’s the non-apology apology of conciliatory statements: We hear your concerns, but perhaps you didn’t realize that, actually, we’re on the same side.

• Late in the day, the leadership of the 43rd District Democrats created a petition calling on Durkan to resign, saying that she “has repeatedly used her powers to declare curfews that infringed on the First Amendment rights of protesters to peacefully assemble” and “failed to implement meaningful police reform to address police violence, specifically against Black and Brown communities (Durkan is up for reelection next year, assuming she decides to run). At this writing, it has more than 1,300 signatures.

Turning Points and Sticking Points in Seattle’s Protests Against Police Violence

The Community Police Commission met yesterday to discuss the recent actions by Seattle police during protests against police brutality.

This post originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

Seattle’s protests against police brutality, which began after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, continued into a sixth night on Wednesday as crowds moved throughout the day from City Hall in downtown Seattle to the Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct on Capitol Hill. And while it might seem as though little had changed since the night before, when police officers released tear gas and unloaded pepper spray, rubber bullets, and flash grenades on a crowd of hundreds of peaceful protesters, several things were materially different.

No, Mayor Jenny Durkan and Seattle’s police chief, Carmen Best, hadn’t budged on their commitment to a version of the protests in which a few “bad people” throw objects at police, forcing them to deploy chemical weapons indiscriminately against large crowds. If anything, the list of projectiles that the police claim have been deployed against them only grew throughout the day and now includes urine, feces, “cans of food” and a fire extinguisher.

No, the mayor and police chief have not backed down from their contention that asking officers to remove “mourning bands” that conceal their badge numbers is something that “can’t happen overnight. Asked about widespread calls to end the practice, Best responded, “we’re not going to do that right today,” but said SPD would come up with some way to make badge numbers visible in due time. During the meeting and throughout the day, Best herself wore a mourning band in the center of her badge, sending what could be seen as a message of solidarity to officers who continue to wear them during the protests.

When Durkan tried to refute complaints that she cried over broken windows downtown, but not about police violence in her own city, saying, “I cry for the generations that have been dispossessed…” longtime CPC member Rev. Harriet Walden cut her off.

And no, they wouldn’t commit to stop using tear gas and other chemical weapons against protesters or to try to focus their attention on the handful of people who are causing trouble. Although Durkan lifted the 9:00 curfew, which was supposed to be in effect every night until Saturday, by tweet at 7:05pm (so much for “don’t believe what you read on social media”), she and Best pointedly refused to commit the city to no longer using these weapons against protesters. At the CPC meeting Wednesday morning, Best said, “At the moment we don’t have another tactic to disperse large crowds when we have people throwing rocks and bottles. …I just don’t have an answer better than what we’ve got at our fingertips.”

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But there were some indications throughout the day that changes may be on their way, whether Durkan wants them or not. The first came at a morning meeting of the Community Police Commission, which was created to address unconstitutional policing in 2012, when Durkan was repeatedly cut off by commission members and staff when she attempted to use her time to speak in lofty terms about the ways in which the nation—not the city—had failed Black and brown Americans. When Durkan tried to refute complaints that she cried over broken windows downtown, but not about police violence in her own city, saying, “I cry for the generations that have been dispossessed…” longtime CPC member Rev. Harriet Walden cut her off.

“We are here because Mr. Floyd, bless his heart, has made it into heaven by being murdered,” but also to address what is happening in Seattle right now, Rev. Walden said. The protests against police brutality aren’t just about lofty American ideals or generations of institutional racism in America, Walden said; they are also about “how the officers escalated” their tactics against lawful, peaceful protesters, by responding to a few thrown bottles by tear-gassing entire residential neighborhoods and wrestling umbrellas away from demonstrators trying to protect themselves from pepper spray.

Roxana Garcia, a CPC staffer, said the commission has repeatedly pushed for reforms to the way police officers deal with civilians, but that those efforts have “been halted for the last three years by city leadership… So I encourage you all to start voting these folks out.” A few moments later, Garcia got specific. “If I can give you all a name, her name is Mayor Jenny Durkan.”

The second sign that something in the air had shifted came when Durkan agreed to come outside and address the crowd that had gathered to protest police brutality and present her and the chief with a list of demands. Durkan got off on the wrong foot with the crowd right away by drawing a parallel between her own Irish ancestors and that of enslaved Africans, saying, “I know, as mayor, that I have enormous privilege, and that my ancestors came here from Ireland to seek freedom, but that many black Americans’ ancestors came here in shackles.”After a brief speech about the need for systemic change at the national level, Durkan briefly responded to a question about mourning bands and went inside, followed by raucous boos.

Roxana Garcia, a CPC staffer, said the commission has repeatedly pushed for reforms to the way police officers deal with civilians, but that those efforts have “been halted for the last three years by city leadership… So I encourage you all to start voting these folks out.” A few moments later, Garcia got specific. “If I can give you all a name, her name is Mayor Jenny Durkan.”

Moments later, Oliver told the crowd that the mayor hadn’t addressed any of the group’s three demands—defunding police, reinvesting the money into communities, and the release of people arrested during the protests. “In fact, she told us about how her family immigrated to the US while black people came in chains!”

The third possible turning point came late in the afternoon, when city attorney Pete Holmes announced that the city would withdraw its motion to terminate a “sustainment plan” under the federal consent decree that the police department has been under since 2012, a step that would have begun a path toward lifting federal oversight. At the CPC meeting, Durkan insisted that the motion had nothing to do with lifting the consent decree—even accusing an attorney for the commission, David Perez, of lying when he Durkan was “trying to end the consent decree—but by this afternoon, her tone had changed.

In a press release after Holmes announced his decision, Durkan said, “I oppose being released from the Consent Decree at this time,” a position she said she had “discussed with” Holmes before releasing her statement. The city’s reversal, though somewhat technical, is a clear concession to police reform advocates who have disagreed with Durkan’s contention that “Seattle police officers have become a national leader in policing and de-escalation with a commitment to true and lasting reform,” as she put it when the city filed the motion to lift the sustainment plan last month.

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