Tag: protests

Findings Against Former Police Misconduct Investigator Highlight New Oversight Challenges

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

By Paul Kiefer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Investigations into Police Conduct at Protests Provides Window into Office of Police Accountability

Protest at 11th Avenue and Pine Street on Capitol Hill in June 2020 (Creative Commons)

By Paul Kiefer

Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability (OPA) is less than halfway through the 142 investigations it launched into the Seattle Police Department’s response to last summer’s protests—the result of nearly 20,000 individual complaints. Since September, the office has closed 55 of those investigations.

Relatively few of the investigations resulted in the OPA finding an officer guilty of misconduct significant enough to merit discipline: The office only ruled that officers seriously violated department policy in 12 cases. Some involved well-publicized incidents. For example, the OPA ruled that an SPD officer breached department policy when he threw a tear gas canister at an NBC news crew in Cal Anderson Park on June 1, hitting correspondent Jo Ling Kent in the arm. Of the 12 officers involved in those incidents, SPD has issued written or oral reprimands to six, including the officer who threw the tear gas canister at the news crew. The other six officers await a disciplinary decision from Interim Police Chief Adrian Diaz.

But the OPA isn’t limited to deciding whether or not an officer needs discipline. The office’s rulings on protest-related misconduct allegations have been a window into the OPA’s toolkit—and into the strategic thinking of its director, Andrew Myerberg.

Training Referrals

In about 20 percent of protest cases, Myerberg recommended “training referrals” instead of discipline. A training referral directs SPD to re-train an officer on the specific policy or practice they violated; the OPA typically issues the referrals to first-time offenders.

In one case, an officer received a training referral for having his body-worn video camera off when he fired a pepper ball at a reporter reaching into her bag at a protest on Capitol Hill; after watching the bodycam footage from a nearby officer, the OPA concluded that SPD couldn’t hear the reporter identify herself as press, and believed she was reaching into her bag for something to throw at him. Another officer was referred to training after insinuating that he would ticket a bicyclist who questioned why SPD officers were using a Seattle Public Schools property as a staging ground.

La Rond Baker and Erin Goodman, the co-chairs of Seattle’s Community Police Commission—one of the OPA’s counterparts in the city’s police accountability system—said it was unclear that training referrals are having their intended effect. “We believe there needs to be a critical conversation both about the effectiveness of these trainings, and the negative effects limited disciplinary sanctions might have on the culture of the Seattle Police Department and public trust in Seattle’s accountability system,” they told PubliCola in a joint statement.

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Myerberg says that the OPA hasn’t collected data about how well the training referrals work—for example, by tracking whether officers who go through mandatory training break the rules again—because of staffing restraints. “We have anecdotally looked at behavior changes,” he said, adding that his office hasn’t seen any noticeable patterns of repeat offenses.  Nevertheless, the OPA hasn’t formally reviewed the recidivism rates of officers who receive training referrals.

He also argues that issuing training referrals for first-time offenses that aren’t serious uses of force, bias incidents or dishonesty is a matter of fairness. Recommending more serious consequences for those first-time offenses wouldn’t be appropriate, Myerberg said, because “there’s no other employer that would hold their employees to that high a standard,” particularly given the unusual pressures of officers’ jobs—though, as police accountability advocates pointed out routinely over the past year, no other employer gives its employees the right to detain or kill. He added that issuing training referrals is an opportunity to push SPD supervisors to take a more active role in correcting officers’ behavior and department culture.

 

Management Action Recommendations

In some cases—like that of the British journalist who SPD officers arrested at Cal Anderson park last July—the OPA ruled that officers acted in line with department policy, but that their actions pointed to flaws in policy or training (rather than in the officers’ judgment). When those situations arise, Myerberg can issue a “management action recommendation” to suggest changes to the department’s policy manual and training curriculum.

Since September, Myerberg has issued eight of those recommendations. Those include a recommendation that SPD train its officers to make fewer misdemeanor arrests at protests to avoid escalating tensions, and that the agency screen its social media posts for accuracy. Current SPD policy only requires the department to screen tweets about shootings by officers and other incidents in which police kill or seriously injure people. Continue reading “Investigations into Police Conduct at Protests Provides Window into Office of Police Accountability”

Judge Sanctions Seattle for Violating Order Limiting Use of Weapons Against Protesters

Protesters face Seattle Police officers at a protest in May 2020 (Creative Commons)

 By Paul Kiefer

On Thursday, US District Court Judge Richard Jones issued a decision on the penalties Seattle will face for violating a court order he issued last summer to restrict the Seattle Police Department’s use of “less-lethal” weapons at protests. Jones ordered the city to pay $81,997 to cover the attorneys’ fees for Black Lives Matter Seattle King County (BLMSKC), the plaintiffs who sued the city in September 2020 for violating the court order.

In his decision, Judge Jones rejected two of the city’s arguments—that SPD officers did not violate the injunction, and that if they did so, the violations were minor—while also barring the city from introducing “new facts justifying the violations” after Jones found the city in contempt of his order.

The city’s attorneys tried to introduce new evidence to justify their actions during the protests, a request Judge Jones wrote would turn the city’s control over the most relevant evidence—body-worn video and officer testimony— into “both sword and shield. A shield because, during the contempt proceedings, the City would only introduce the evidence that it sees fit and would ask the Plaintiffs and the Court to consider only that limited record.” Allowing BLMSKC, “out of fairness,” to obtain use-of-force reports and body-worn video that would support its point of view would mean “that these proceedings would be endless,” Jones wrote.

But Judge Jones’ ruling was not a resounding victory for BLMSKC and its legal team, which included attorneys from the ACLU of Washington, Seattle University Law School’s Korematsu Center, and the Seattle law firm Perkins Coie.

Though Jones swatted away arguments from the city’s attorneys that he should reverse his ruling that found the city in contempt of a federal court order, he also turned down sanctions BLMSKC proposed as tools to keep SPD in line with the court order in the future: requiring SPD to send BLMSKC use-of-force reports and body-worn video from “any incident in which SPD uses less-lethal weapons against protesters” within five days of the incident.

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Additionally, Jones slashed the city’s requested attorney’s fees by 65 percent, arguing that many of the attorneys’ hours were “excessive, redundant or unnecessary.”

Last June, BLMSKC filed the lawsuit that led Judge Jones to issue a temporary injunction prohibiting SPD officers from using blast balls, pepper spray, tear gas and other crowd control weapons against nonviolent protesters. After Judge Jones issued his initial injunction, BLMSKC returned to his court again in July to argue that SPD continued to use crowd control weapons against peaceful protesters; in lieu of a court hearing, the city’s attorneys and BLMSKC agreed to expand the injunction to explicitly forbid SPD officers from targeting journalists, medics and legal observers, as from using crowd control weapons to move nonviolent crowds.

But after SPD used crowd-control weapons, including flash bangs, against protesters in August and September, BLMSKC sued the city for violating the court order a second time. When Judge Jones ruled in BLMKSC’s favor in December, he pointed to four clear, documented cases in which SPD officers used blast balls and pepper spray in ways that violated his order by “a clear and convincing margin.” In that decision, he added that four well-documented violations were probably not the full extend of SPD’s breach of the court order; however, because the city didn’t provide body-worn video footage from several protests in August and September, he couldn’t confirm any other cases of misconduct. Continue reading “Judge Sanctions Seattle for Violating Order Limiting Use of Weapons Against Protesters”

Activists Criticize SPD Process for Approving Protest Policy Changes

By Paul Kiefer

On Tuesday night, Seattle’s Community Police Commission held a town hall to field responses to the Seattle Police Department’s proposed changes to their use-of-force and crowd management policies. The meeting was a rare opportunity for activist leaders to ask SPD representatives about the department’s policies and tactics; during a tense two-hour conversation, those activists pointed out that the lack of access to SPD leadership is itself a barrier to accountability.

Some of the proposals include the creation of a special team to investigate use of force at protests and allowing officers to use pepper-ball launchers as an alternative to blast balls, which can hurt protesters standing near the person an officer is trying to target. (The policies would not entirely prohibit officers from using blast balls.)

The CPC’s last public event was 2015, when the commission hosted a gathering to hear the concerns of protesters who had joined the post-Ferguson Black Lives Matter protests in Seattle. Tuesday’s gathering took a very different form: instead of public comment, the town hall paired a panel of police accountability and abolition activists—Nikkita Oliver, Travonna Thompson-Wiley of Black Action Coalition, Le’Jayah Washington from Colorful Communities and Braxton Baker from the Seattle Group for Police Accountability—with three SPD representatives.

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The CPC arranged the town hall at the last minute; SPD had previously planned to stop taking public feedback by January 8, but the CPC pushed the deadline back to make time for the event.

SPD Assistant Chief Lesley Cordner, who presented the proposed changes to the CPC in December, said the goal of the policy changes is to reduce SPD’s “footprint” at future protests and “target individual law-breakers” in a crowd instead of breaking up otherwise peaceful protests. According to Cordner, the changes would bring the department’s official policies up-to-date with tactical adjustments SPD made after last summer’s protests.

However, any formal changes to SPD’s policies require the approval of the federal judge that oversees the department’s reform efforts. To get that approval, SPD first needs to solicit feedback from the city’s accountability agencies and the public. Before the CPC arranged the town hall, SPD only planned to gather public feedback through an online form posted to their blog in December.

In her initial remarks, Cordner told the panel that SPD reviews and reworks its policies every year; she added that the department considers public input for every round of policy changes, though she didn’t explain how the department has gathered that input in the past.

Cordner’s comments caught the panelists off guard. “I find it pretty flagrant that SPD is parading this as some kind of accountability audit if this is the typical process that happens yearly,” Oliver said. “It’s concerning that I haven’t heard of this policy revision process before,” added Baker. “Because if it wasn’t for [advocacy by the CPC and other accountability groups], this town hall wouldn’t have happened.”

Others criticized SPD for releasing more than 100 pages of proposed policy revisions less than a month before the deadline for civilians to submit their feedback. “BIPOC communities were given only a scrap of time to put together their thoughts on the policy changes,” said Thompson-Wiley. “Meanwhile, the department has already started making the changes.”

At the end of the two-hour town hall, Boatright and the other SPD representatives told the panelists that they would “think hard” about their criticisms of the policies, though they did not give any indication that they would adjust their proposed revisions in light of the criticism.

Baker, however, ended his comments by calling for SPD to extend its deadline for feedback once again. “One town hall isn’t enough,” he said. “We need to hear from the victims who were affected by these policies before we can approve them.”

Seattle Seeks Reversal of Contempt Order in “Less-Lethal” Weapons Case

By Paul Kiefer

On Monday, the office of city attorney Pete Holmes asked Federal District Court Judge Richard Jones to reverse his December 7 ruling that the city acted in contempt of a court order restricting the Seattle Police Department’s use of force at protests. In a motion filed with the Federal District Court of Western Washington, Holmes argued that Jones’ initial ruling held the city to an unreasonable standard for compliance with the court’s orders, and that the court lacked strong evidence to support the contempt ruling.

Judge Jones’ ruling was the result of a lawsuit filed in late September by a group of plaintiffs, chiefly Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County (BLMSKC), who alleged that SPD had failed to rein in its officers’ use of “less-lethal” weapons—particularly blast balls—at protests in the late summer and early fall. Specifically, the plaintiffs accused SPD of violating an injunction Judge Jones issued in July restricting officers’ use of force against peaceful demonstrators, journalists and legal observers.

In his December 7 decision, Jones didn’t accept the plaintiffs’ arguments outright, but he ruled that four clear instances in which SPD officers violated his injunction by using weapons such as blast balls “indiscriminately” against protesters was enough to place the city in contempt. Jones also noted in his ruling that these four documented cases were probably not the extent of SPD’s violations of his orders.

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

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

After Judge Jones ruled the city in contempt, the court gave BLMSKC and the other plaintiffs four days to propose sanctions for the city. Their proposals were mild: the plaintiffs suggested that the court require the city to distribute copies of Judge Jones’ December 7th opinion to all SPD officers, “accompanied by clear instructions about what conduct is prohibited”; send use-of-force reports to the plaintiffs within five days of any incident in which SPD uses less-lethal weapons against protesters; and pay the plaintiffs’ attorney fees, which totaled $263,708.

Continue reading “Seattle Seeks Reversal of Contempt Order in “Less-Lethal” Weapons Case”

Community Police Commission Questions Proposed SPD Policy Changes

 

A commercially available pepper-ball launcher, one of the “less lethal” weapons SPD wants to use for crowd control. Image via Amazon.

By Paul Kiefer

Members of Seattle’s Community Police Commission (CPC), one of three city-level police accountability bodies, expected to spend an hour of their Wednesday morning meeting asking questions of Seattle Police Department Assistant Chief Lesley Cordner, who appeared at their last meeting to present an array of changes the department has proposed for its crowd management and use-of-force policies. Those proposed changes include the creation of a special team to investigate use of force at protests and allowing officers to use pepper-ball launchers to target individual protesters they believe are breaking the law as an alternative to blast balls, which can hurt protesters standing nearby.

But Cordner’s second appearance before the CPC did not go as planned; in fact, she didn’t appear at all. Instead, a post appeared on SPD’s Blotter blog on Wednesday night inviting questions and suggestions from the public about the proposed revisions.

SPD first announced plans to revamp some of its policies in a blog post in late October, responding to both public criticism of the department’s response to Black Lives Matter protests and recommendations from the city’s police oversight agencies, including the CPC. In that post, SPD said the policy changes are intended to reduce the visible police presence at protests “when safe and feasible”; to ensure that journalists, legal observers and medics can work freely during protests; to prioritize de-escalation; and to create “new strategies to address individuals taking unlawful actions in otherwise lawful crowds.” The post also claimed that the department had already made “significant changes” to their crowd management tactics; the policy revisions would theoretically cement those changes.

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If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter. Earlier this month, we took a look back at just some of the work we’ve been able to do thanks to generous contributions from our readers, but those pieces represent just a handful of the hundreds of stories we’ve published this year.

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

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

Any proposed revisions to SPD’s policies have to undergo a review and revision process that involves the CPC and other oversight bodies, namely the Office of Police Accountability, the Office of the Inspector General, and the Department of Justice, which oversees reforms at SPD through an arrangement called a consent decree. SPD didn’t share the draft policy revisions with the CPC until shortly before Cordner’s introductory presentation at their meeting on December 2, so commissioners sent a list of questions about the policy to SPD on Tuesday, December 15, in advance of Cordner’s scheduled appearance the following day.

The questions were uniformly critical of SPD’s proposed policy changes. Commissioners saw little overlap between SPD’s proposals and the list of policy recommendations they issued in August. One of the questions pointed out that the revised policies would still allow SPD to use blast balls, which the CPC has pressed the department to abandon since 2016. Another noted that the revisions would actually add a weapon—a pepper-ball launcher, which is akin to a paintball gun—to SPD’s arsenal instead of removing weapons. (SPD told PubliCola on Thursday that some specialty units were already allowed to use pepper-ball launchers; the new policy would only expand the number of officers authorized to use them). A third asked why the revised policies didn’t raise the requirements for SPD to issue a dispersal order at protests, despite both the CPC and OIG raising concerns about unreasonable dispersal orders since last summer. Continue reading “Community Police Commission Questions Proposed SPD Policy Changes”

Police Accountability Agencies to Review SPD’s New Protest Policies

By Paul Kiefer

At the end of October, after months of criticism from the city council, police oversight bodies and protesters, the Seattle Police Department announced in a blog post that they had “undertaken significant changes” to their protest management tactics. The post promised that SPD would reduce its visible presence at demonstrations to help quell tensions; that their officers would respect the roles of journalists, legal observers and protest medics; and that their protest response would focus on de-escalation and, when necessary, target individual law-breakers instead of largely law-abiding crowds.

But for more than a month, that promise of changes to SPD’s use-of-force and crowd management tactics seemed hollow. To have any real significance or consequence, the changes need to be enshrined in SPD’s policy manual. An crucial early step in that process took place last Wednesday, when SPD Assistant Chief Lesley Cordner appeared before the Community Police Commission (CPC), the civilian oversight body tasked with providing input on police reform, to present a slate of proposed changes to SPD’s protest response and use-of-force policies.

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If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter. Earlier this month, we took a look back at just some of the work we’ve been able to do thanks to generous contributions from our readers, but those pieces represent just a handful of the hundreds of stories we’ve published this year.

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

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

The proposed changes include an update to the manual emphasizing the importance of the right to protest and  acknowledging that “the unlawful acts of some members of a crowd do not automatically turn an assembly from peaceable to unpeaceable.” They would also create a special team to investigate use of force at protests; specifically forbid officers from placing their knee on the neck of a person they’re arresting (a response to a well-publicized incident at a protest on May 30th); and allow officers to use pepper-ball launchers to target individual protesters they believe are breaking the law as an alternative to blast balls, which can hurt protesters standing nearby.

Other proposed revisions would require SPD command staff who lead protest responses (incident commanders) to provide explanations after the fact for any decision to issue a dispersal order to a crowd, and requires the incident commanders a “reasonable effort to ensure that the order is heard or received.”

According to Cordner, the department brought the tactical changes into the field before consulting with Judge James Robart, the federal district court judge who oversees police reforms mandated by a 10-year-old settlement agreement between Seattle and the Department of Justice known as a consent decree. Any changes to SPD’s use-of-force or protest management policies require Robart’s stamp of approval. Cordner’s presentation to the CPC is a step in that direction: the CPC, as well as the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) and the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), will review the proposed changes and suggest edits before a final draft of the policy revisions goes before Robart.

In response to last summer’s protests, the CPC, OPA and OIG issued their own recommendations for changes to SPD policy. During her presentation, Cordner claimed that the proposed changes to SPD policy reflected many of the accountability partners’ recommendations, including those the CPC issued in August.

That is only nominally true:  the current draft revisions do not include many of the OPA and OIG’s most crucial recommendations, including a wholesale end to the use of tear gas for crowd control and greater restrictions on when SPD can declare an unlawful assembly. For its part, the CPC generally avoided suggesting specific policy changes; Cordner called the one clear policy proposal included in the CPC’s recommendations—that SPD document every decision to issue a dispersal order and make the documents public within 24 hours of an incident—an “infeasible” proposition.

The CPC will have a chance to ask Cordner questions about the current draft revisions during their regular twice-monthly meeting on December 16 and will respond and suggest their own changes next year. The OPA and OIG will also have opportunities to weigh in on the proposed changes. Both offices began reviewing SPD’s protest response policies to identify areas for improvement during last summer’s protests; those reviews will play a crucial role in shaping their suggested policy revisions.

After the CPC issues a response, they will work with SPD, the OIG, the OIG and other accountability leadership to piece together a final slate of policy revisions. That final draft will go before Judge Robart in early 2021; if he approves to the changes, SPD’s policies could catch up with what they say are already their current tactics next year.

 

Federal District Court Judge Finds Seattle in Contempt of Crowd Control Injunction

By Paul Kiefer

On Monday, Federal District Court Judge Richard Jones found the city of Seattle in contempt of an injunction he issued in June forbidding the Seattle Police Department  from using force against peaceful protesters. According to Durkan spokesperson Kelsey Nyland, the ruling is the first contempt finding against the city in recent memory; within the next week, the court will begin considering possible penalties.

The contempt finding is the latest development in a protracted legal battle between the city and Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County (BLMSKC). Judge Jones first issued the injunction after BLMSKC and a group of individual plaintiffs, represented by attorneys from the ACLU of Washington, Seattle University School of Law’s Korematsu Center, and Seattle law firm Perkins Coie, sued the city and SPD for using excessive force in its response to the first wave of protests last summer. In June, Jones sided with BLMKSC and issued a temporary injunction prohibiting officers from using a variety of “less-lethal” weapons, including blast balls, pepper spray, tear gas and rubber bullets, against nonviolent protesters.  He also found that some officers had used force in response to the message of the protests themselves, not any perceived threat to their safety or to property.

A month later, BLMSKC returned to his court to ask Judge Jones to find SPD in contempt of the injunction after the department allegedly targeted journalists, medics and legal observers at a Capitol Hill protest on July 25. That motion never received a hearing; instead, the city’s attorneys and BLMSKC agreed to expand the injunction. The expanded court order explicitly prohibited SPD from targeting journalists, medics and legal observers, and it restricted officers’ use of less-lethal weapons even further; for instance, it forbade officers from using these weapons to move crowds.

Judge Jones’ new finding is the result of a second motion for contempt that BLMSKC filed against the city at the end of September. In the motion, the group’s attorneys alleged that SPD officers violated the new, more restrictive injunction during their responses to protests in August and September, including at a rally for Summer Taylor, a Seattle protester who died after being struck by a car, on August 26 and at a protest outside the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) headquarters on August 7.

David A. Perez, a partner at Perkins Coie, said in a statement after the ruling: “This ruling reaffirms that the basic principle that protesters have a right to exercise their First Amendment freedoms without fear that the City will retaliate with violence, and serves as a reminder that the City cannot violate the Court’s orders without consequences. We will continue to take violations of the Court’s orders seriously.”

“Asking the Court to find the City in contempt was not an easy decision on our part.  But after witnessing repeated and blatant violations of protesters’ constitutional rights, we had to act.  This ruling reaffirms that the basic principle that protesters have a right to exercise their First Amendment freedoms without fear that the City will retaliate with violence, and serves as a reminder that the City cannot violate the Court’s orders without consequences. We will continue to take violations of the Court’s orders seriously.”

According to Robert Christie, an outside attorney representing the city in the case, SPD’s actions were justified. In his arguments at a hearing on November 18, Christie said SPD officers were instructed to use less-lethal weapons in response to threats to their safety. The city’s legal team also argued that it wasn’t SPD’s fault if individual officers disobeyed the injunction. To shore up their claim, the team filed declarations from SPD commanders who described briefing their officers on the injunction before they responded protests.

In his ruling on Monday, Judge Jones categorically dismissed the city’s argument that it wasn’t liable for the actions of individual SPD officers. After calling the city’s arguments “novel and innovative,” he pointed out that “the City has already agreed that violations by individual officers are nonetheless violations of the [injunctions]” when it agreed to both previous court orders, setting the stage for his contempt findings.

Judge Jones’ decision to find the city in contempt rests on four instances in which the court determined that individual SPD officers used less-lethal weapons in violation of the court’s orders. Three of those violations involved officers using pepper spray and blast balls indiscriminately against protesters. In the final case, Judge Jones noted that SPD Lieutenant John Brooks, who frequently coordinates the department’s protest response, ordered an officer to use a blast ball to “create space” between officers and protesters; that, the judge wrote, was not a justified use of force.

While acknowledging that SPD’s tactics had become “more restrained” since June, Judge Jones was quick to emphasize that the four clear, documented violations were more than enough to justify his contempt ruling. “They were not at the boundary, overstepping ever so slightly or ‘technically,'” he wrote. “They violated the substantive terms of the Orders by a clear and convincing margin.” He added that the four clear violations were probably not the full extent of SPD’s breach of the court’s order, pointing out that the city hasn’t yet provided body-worn video footage from several protests that might reveal other misconduct.

Seattle is now the second city found in contempt of a federal court order limiting police officers’ use of force in protest management. On December 1st, U.S. District Court Chief Judge Marco Hernandez found the city of Portland in contempt of a similar injunction he issued on June 26th; that order also stemmed from a lawsuit against the city by a group of protesters at the beginning of last summer.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the city have until December 11th to send a proposal for consequences to the court, and the city can file a response to those suggestions before December 18th. If the court imposes a fine on the city, those dollars will come from the Judgment and Claims Fund, into which multiple departments—including SPD—pay each year.

Mayor Asks for Year-End SPD Budget Boost, Budget Chair Responds: “I Don’t Believe This Is the Time”

Image via Seattle City Council Flickr page.

By Erica C. Barnett

Mayor Jenny Durkan has asked the city council to lift more than a dozen restrictions on Seattle Police Department spending in 2020 so that SPD can pay for overtime expenses accrued this year, including—as the fiscal note prepared by the executive City Budget Office describes it—”exceptional budget pressures due to the utilization of overtime in response to on-going protests and demonstrations and increased separation pay-outs as officers have left the force late in the year.”

As part of the city’s 2020 rebalancing package, the city council passed a resolution that said the council “will not support any budget amendments to increase the SPD’s budget to offset overtime expenditures above the funds budgeted in 2020 or 2021.”

This year’s fourth-quarter supplemental budget includes additional police expenditures in 2020 that would add more than $5 million in SPD spending to the rebalanced budget the city adopted in August—a budget Durkan unsuccessfully vetoed over the issue of police funding. The legislation indicates that the mayor’s office believes some of that money will be reimbursed by FEMA as part of a COVID relief package.

The legislation would also lift a number of provisos relating to out-of-order layoffs, in recognition of the fact that layoffs will be subject to bargaining and can’t happen this year, so the officers who would be subject to layoffs must keep getting paid through the rest of 2020. The council acknowledged earlier this year that this was a possibility.

The legislation has to go through the budget committee, and ordinarily would be sponsored by the budget committee chair. But there’s a problem: The budget chair, Teresa Mosqueda, tells PubliCola that she does not “believe this is the time to lift the provisos or allow for additional spending authority” for SPD. During Monday morning’s council briefing, Mosqueda elaborated: “As this council has [made] very clear, we… want to make sure that we’re interrupting the process and the practice of SPD specifically coming back to ask for overtime dollars.”

SPD, Mosqueda said, made it clear earlier this year that they would fund overtime, as well as jobs the council has directed SPD to cut through “out of order” layoffs, through its existing budget; the resolution and provisos were a way of making sure that they did so. To come back now and ask for money—more than $3 million—violates both the letter and the spirit of the 2020 budget (which Durkan attempted, unsuccessfully, to veto), Mosqueda says.

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“It’s no secret to the mayor or to the police department that council passed a resolution during our summer budget process that said the council will not support any budget increase … above the funds budgeted for 2020 or 2021,” Mosqueda told PubliCola on Sunday. “No other department is coming back to council and asking for additional spending authority or to [tell us] that they’ve already spent all their money and need reimbursement.”

The mayor’s office countered on Monday that the city council should have expected the additional spending request, given the magnitude of the cuts included in the mid-year budget revision. “In 2020, the Mayor and Council cut roughly $23 million from the SPD’s budget mid-year,” mayoral spokeswoman Kelsey Nyland said. “I don’t think it’s a huge leap to imagine the SPD – or any department – would have trouble making its budget under those circumstances.”

Nyland noted that in addition to excess overtime (which, she said, Interim Police Chief Adrian Diaz has partially addressed by transferring detectives from specialty units to patrol), the department had to pay unanticipated extra separation pay and vacation payouts as more officers than anticipated have left the department. “One thing that’s important to remember is that attrition actually costs a lot more than people realize,” Nyland said. “When an officer leaves, it doesn’t translate exclusively to salary savings for the SPD.”

Continue reading “Mayor Asks for Year-End SPD Budget Boost, Budget Chair Responds: “I Don’t Believe This Is the Time””

Morning Fizz: Will Durkan Veto the Council’s Budget?

1. Will Mayor Jenny Durkan veto the city council’s budget?

It may seem early to start asking whether the mayor will reject the council’s revisions of her 2021 budget proposal, since the council is only at the midway point of the budget process. But as the potential amendments and substantive policy changes add up, it’s clear that the council is intent on restoring funds to  housing, grassroots community safety projects, and COVID relief—which means cutting into the mayor’s flagship priority, a $100 million “equitable investment” fund for “investments in BIPOC communities,” in the last budget before the next mayoral election.

Durkan first floated the concept of funding “$100 million in community-driven programs for Black youths and adults” at the height of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, when every day produced new allegations of police brutality and overreach. A more detailed proposal came in September in the form of a plan to spend “$100 million on BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color] communities. Specifically, Durkan proposed setting $100 million aside in next year’s budget until a task force appointed by the mayor comes up with recommendations for spending it.

To pay for such a large line item in a year of budget cuts, Durkan’s budget plan relies on revenues from the JumpStart payroll tax, which the council allocated to COVID-19 relief and homelessness and housing projects.

Separately, Durkan’s plan also eliminates $10 million the council allocated this year to scale up community-led alternatives to policing. And it “abandons” $30 million that was allocated to equitable investment projects during the sale of the Mercer Megablock property and spends these “flexible funds” on “critical City services in the 2020 Revised Budget and 2021 Proposed Budget.”

The clawback of the Megablock proceeds is perhaps the clearest case of a promise broken. Just last year, Durkan stood in a vacant lot in South Lake Union—at the time, one of the largest and most valuable publicly owned properties in the city— and announced that proceeds from the $143 million sale would help fund affordable housing and other projects that combat displacement in gentrifying areas. “I believe that years from now, people will look back at this chance and say we seized an incredible opportunity to make our City better by reinvesting the proceeds directly in housing across Seattle,” Durkan said at the time.

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This funding promise was one reason progressive groups like Puget Sound Sage did not vocally oppose the project, council member Lisa Herbold noted Thursday. She joined council members Tammy Morales, Andrew Lewis, and council president Lorena González in supporting a proposal by Kshama Sawant to restore funding for the projects promised as part of the Megablock sale last year.

2. Herbold’s proposal to create a new “duress” defense for some people facing misdemeanor charges won’t be heard until after the council adopts the 2021 budget. On Wednesday, González said council staffers were already overloaded with more than 120 budget amendment requests from members.

She also questioned whether Herbold’s proposal—which Herbold says would save the city money by reducing the number of jail beds it has to pay for—is truly budget-related. And she suggested it might not actually save much money, because former mayor Mike McGinn signed a long-term jail contract that commits the city for 30 years to paying for jail beds that they aren’t using now. Continue reading “Morning Fizz: Will Durkan Veto the Council’s Budget?”