On Friday morning, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office released a new report from the city’s Budget Office and the Seattle Police Department showing a record-breaking number of attritions from SPD in September. In that month alone, 39 officers and officers in training left the department — double the number of officers leaving in the next-highest month on record. Without an end to the ongoing hiring freeze (a part of the city’s COVID-related austerity), SPD and the Budget Office project the department to continue hemorrhaging sworn staff well into 2021, potentially exceeding the staffing cuts proposed by the City Council during the summer.
The pending staff shortage places the department at risk of falling further out of compliance with the conditions of the Federal consent decree, increasing the likelihood that SPD will remain under the supervision of the Department of Justice for years to come. (Federal District Court Judge James Robart, responsible for overseeing Seattle’s consent decree for the Department of Justice, already ruled the city partially out of compliance in 2019).
Dr. Antonio Oftelie, the new court-appointed monitor for the consent decree, told PubliCola that the consent decree required SPD to scale up its staffing to improve specialized investigation units, departmental audits, and use of force reviews. “The specialty units that are required by the consent decree will likely be the first to feel the effects of budget cuts and the loss of offices,” he said. “SPD’s ability to audit itself, its ability to develop policy, its force investigation team and training units are also required by the consent decree and are also put at risk if the department has a massive staffing shortage.”
Nikkita Oliver, an attorney, spoken-word poet, and educator who works for Creative Justice, a program that provides arts-based alternatives to youth incarceration, announced she was running for mayor back in early March, a month before allegations of sexual misconduct sidelined incumbent Ed Murray’s campaign, and two months before he announced he will not run for reelection. What once looked like a relatively simple choice between a popular incumbent and a social-justice advocate who promised to shake up the system has since become a free-for-all, with 13 candidates—including a former mayor, two state legislators, and an ex-federal prosecutor—in the race so far, with five more days remaining for other candidates (such as city council member Lorena Gonzalez, who would have to give up her council seat to run for mayor) to jump in.
Oliver is running as a representative of a new group called the People’s Party (city races are nonpartisan), which aims to “break down barriers and open doors for collective leadership that is willing, able, and experienced in divesting from practices, corporations, and institutions that don’t reflect the values and interests of our city,” according to its platform. Oliver argues for rent control, larger mandatory affordable housing contributions from developers than what is mandated by Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) and Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) programs, and restorative justice practices like mediation and restitution over incarceration. I sat down with Oliver at the Creative Justice Office at Washington Hall, in the Central District.
The C Is for Crank (ECB):Given that you aren’t raising money or hiring staff, some have raised questions about whether you’re actually hoping to win, or if you’re just running to lift up issues and raise questions. Can you talk a little bit about why you’re running and what you and the People’s Party hope to accomplish?
NO: Absolutely we’re running to win, but there’s also multiple lenses here. To become mayor would be incredibly transformative in and of itself. I’d be the first woman mayor in 91 years, the first woman of color mayor ever in Seattle, and I would certainly be someone who very progressively and honestly speaks to substantive issues, and I’m very well acquainted with the community.
But there are also all kinds of other wins. The conversation around housing and homelessness, around what economics looks like in our city, the gap between the rich and the poor, what does racial justice and equity actually look like—those conversations have been substantively pushed to a place that they would not have been pushed to if the People’s Party and myself had not joined in the race. And I think that’s an essential place for us to be. It’s challenging the unwillingness of our electeds to actually engage in talking about the substantive issues. They tend to talk about these things at the 30,000-foot level, and then they get into office, and what they promised doesn’t really happen.
ECB: You’ve focused on the issue of displacement, particularly in the Central District. What is your policy plan to prevent displacement? If you could erase HALA and MHA today, what would you replace them with?
NO: I don’t think it’s about erasing HALA and MHA. I think the real problem there is that the Grand Bargain [between social justice advocates and developers] really created a developer incentive to just build as much as they want to at whatever cost they want to, because they don’t have to actually invest in the communities that have been impacted by the very fast change that’s happened in our city.
The same areas have taken the brunt of that zoning over and over again, and there are solutions for that. Some of that’s [building] mother-in-law [apartments in single-family areas]. Some of that is simply saying to a neighborhood, ‘Look, our city is growing. We’re absolutely going to have to build some places, maybe somewhere in your neighborhood. Where would you want that density to go?’
What HALA and MHA does is, one, it doesn’t ask for enough in investment from developers in the city. It makes us very reliant on the private market to develop enough housing to meet the needs of the people who are already here and the people who are coming, and we just know from basic supply and demand that that’s going to increase the cost of housing. So yeah, we do talk a lot about displacement, because Seattleites of all colors and ethnicities and backgrounds have actually been displaced from the neighborhoods. So when we think about displacement, there’s making sure we don’t continue to push people out, and there’s finding ways to build enough housing fast enough that people could in theory actually come back.
And I think it’s a multifaceted strategy. It’s not just MHA and HALA. It’s also thinking about market intervention strategies, like looking at who’s buying what, what places are left unused, addressing the conversation about speculative capital and how that’s impacting our overall economy.
And also, if the city truly cares about ensuring that people have the right to stay, the city will get invested in building housing and will expand what our own housing authority is doing around providing affordable housing, as well as redefining what is affordable.
ECB: Did you support the housing levy?
NO: Which levy?
ECB: The one that passed last year, that will bring in $290 million to build affordable housing.
NO: Honestly I don’t remember.
ECB: It was a property tax levy that doubled the amount the city is spending to build affordable housing.
NO: That’s where we’re at, right? Using property taxes to pay for things. If we’re not asking developers to invest at a higher level, we’re going to have to continue to leverage the dollars of people that have already taken on the burden of what development is doing in our city instead of asking the developers to take their fair share of that burden.
The zoning issues do need to be differently distributed throughout the city. The same areas have taken the brunt of that zoning over and over again, and there are solutions for that. Some of that’s [building] mother-in-law [apartments in single-family areas]. Some of that is simply saying to a neighborhood, ‘Look, our city is growing. We’re absolutely going to have to build some places, maybe somewhere in your neighborhood. Where would you want that density to go?’
ECB: Having covered the issue for a long time, I think that for a lot of neighborhood activists, the answer would be, ‘Nowhere in my neighborhood.’
NO: And we’re going to have to deal with that, the same way communities of color are often pushed to continue being in conversations until we achieve a consensus or, in our case, typically a compromise. I think asking more wealthy, affluent communities to do the same is important.
ECB: The homeowners who don’t want density have gone so far as to sue the city to stop backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments, which are about the gentlest form of density there is. What makes you think you can work with them to reach a compromise?
NO: I think at either end, you’re going to have people with extreme [views]. You’re going to have people who say, ‘We want density everywhere, as much as possible,’ and you’re going to have people who say, ‘We want absolutely no additional density anywhere. That’s what the media talks about. Rarely do we see stories in the media about homeowners who have sat down and are willing to compromise in some areas, and I know those folks exist because we’ve had really great conversations with them, where what we’ve been told is the three things they want are: Input in the process, connection to the offices that are making the decisions, and preservation of the culture of their neighborhood, of the space, as much as possible. I don’t think that’s impossible. I don’t think it will be a time-efficient process. I think it can be a very effective process.
“I think we need to adjust that approach and trust that when folks in encampments ask for certain services, that those are the exact services that will help them do better.”
ECB: Murray says his approach to homelessness is a compassionate middle ground – clearing encampments periodically but offering people services and shelter while working to rebid all the contracts for homeless providers who that they’re focused on permanent housing. What is your critique of that approach?
NO: I think they’re absolutely sweeps. I’m sure there’s an attempt to offer services, but are they the services that people are asking for? The city doesn’t have any 24/7 shelters or storage spaces. One of the most damaging things about a sweep is that people lose all of their belongings, but also what we’re missing is the personal agency and self determination that is created when people develop an encampment, that they are, together, developing a community that’s self-regulated and is also creating a certain amount of stability for those community members, and when sweeps occur, they disrupt all of that.
These are intelligent folks. To figure out how to survive outside is no easy task. I think that when people see folks who are living in encampments, they tend to think that they don’t know what they need and to assume that their requests are maybe not the solution. I think we need to adjust that approach and trust that when folks in encampments ask for certain services, that those are the exact services that will help them do better. I think the city has to actually philosophically shift, in some ways, the way that we view houseless and homeless folks and also understand that there is a certain amount of self-determination that has to be honored in order for any solution and any services provided to actually be effective.
ECB: Mayor Murray has gotten quite a bit of credit for moving the city forward on police accountability and complying with the Justice Department’s consent decree. What’s your specific critique of the way the city has responding to DOJ’s directives and dealing with excessive use of force and biased policing?
NO: The Community Police Commission has made tons of recommendations, many of which are very good solutions for how to move forward, but the CPC has no teeth currently and can’t actually enforce those changes. There’s a lot of distrust of police in the neighborhoods that are highly overpoliced. We need to figure out how you give people a voice in the actual process. How do we help officers figure out how to better engage with actual community members? How do we get more officers on foot in neighborhoods? How do we get more officers at community events, not just as officers but as community members? A lot of our officers don’t actually function as community members, so then they are just police. The overpoliced communities, the most impacted communities, should get community input into the community policing project.
“In 2008, we saw burglaries go up, we saw more youth snatching people’s phones out of their hands, and it’s because they didn’t have access to resources. We’ve created a system where for some people, the only way to access those resources is to take them.
ECB: You’ve said that you’d like to get to a place where we don’t need police. What would that look like?
NO: I grew up in a place where, if I got in trouble, I literally got in trouble on every block until I got home, which meant that I just didn’t get in trouble too often anymore after the first few times. And that was how me and all my siblings and my cousins grew up. Over time, as communities become gentrified and more policed and there’s less relationships between neighbors, I think what we see is the decrease in that accountability and ownership for each other. So you might see your neighbor’s house getting broke into, but you’re not going to say anything because that’s not your house. That’s not how I was raised. I think gentrification has really began to decrease how much communities know about each other. Most people do not know their neighbors. So I think part of the culture shifting that has to happen in our neighborhoods is, how do we get neighbors to know each other? It sounds kind of corny, but in a lot of places, block parties play a major role in that. Just having resources for neighborhoods to get out and be around each other is very valuable.
I’m not an unreasonable abolitionist. But those things have to happen simultaneously. We can’t just get rid of police. It’s not going to work like that. We do need an infrastructure for how we address harm. But I don’t think police have to be the first resort. I think police can be the last resort. I also think we have a fire department and EMT services when there is an actual physical harm, and there are processes we can go through, first of all, to see if people want to be involved in a restorative justice process.
It also has to be coupled with an economic, job opportunity and education response. Some of the harms that we see are literally a response to not having access to resources, and we know this because when we see recessions happen, like in 2008, we saw burglaries go up, we saw more youth snatching people’s phones out of their hands, and it’s because they didn’t have access to resources. We’ve created a system where for some people, the only way to access those resources is to take them. I think we tend to look at abolitionists and say, ‘Oh, y’all just want to get rid of police,’ but what I really want is to create a healthy, just system where people have a lot of options.
Think about what happens when you put someone in jail for a property crime, and the trauma that jail causes, and the likelihood that they will actually recidivize after being released, but not for another property crime, most likely for a crime that’s categorized as violent. What it shows is that we’re actually using an ineffective system. We’re neither rehabilitating, nor are we getting the retribution that people seem to want, because what we’re doing is we’re actually creating the likelihood that we’re going to end up with more crime, and with more violent crime, from folks who hadn’t actually quite yet reached that level.
ECB: What do you think the media has gotten wrong about you?
NO: I think that they’ve labeled me as a protest candidate, and this is not about protest. It’s about transformation. It’s about, this is a system of inaccessibility and inequality that I’ve lived in my entire life, and other people in the People’s Party have as well, and instead of being complacent and giving in to it we continue to strive to be organizers who are solution-oriented. I think that the media has purposely tied to strip me of my merits and my credentials. It is easier to label me a Black Lives Matter leader, which I’m not. I’m black, so I do advocate for my life and the life of my family, but I’m also a lawyer and an educator, and I have worked very hard to get those credentials. I have done a lot of work in the community that has given me a lot of trust and respect with community members.
When you see the way that [fellow mayoral candidate] Cary Moon is talked about, she’s an urban planner, an engineer, and a civic leader. The term ‘civic leader’ has never been used for me, but I’ve probably been to more council meetings than most of the other candidates in the race. Is that not civic leadership? Is that not civic engagement? I think the media has played into a trope or a stereotypical narrative. It’s an easier box to put me in as a woman of color than it is to actually talk about me as a human being with merits and credentials and substantive work that I’ve done around education and juvenile incarceration and community development. I don’t ever get tied to substantive issues. I think it is an unfair characterization. It’s not unexpected, though.
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1. I sat down with Mayor Ed Murray at his campaign office last Friday, four days before he announced that he would not run for reelection. At the time, the mayor put on a game face, outlining what he saw as his path to victory and sounding very much like a man who planned to fight at least until the primary, where he would have faced a dozen or more opponents. I have no way of knowing what was going on in the mayor’s mind during that interview, or whether he had decided not to run (although sources close to the mayor tell me he made the decision sometime over the weekend), but there were moments when he seemed to dwell on the past—and the counterfactual world in which he still could look forward to easy victory. Here’s a bit of that portion of our conversation.
The C Is for Crank (ECB): Since the scandal broke, you went from a pretty safe race to a primary where you could have a dozen or more opponents by the filing deadline. You’ve made it clear so far that you aren’t dropping out of this race, despite the allegations against you. What is your path to victory at this point?
Mayor Ed Murray (EM): More opponents.
ECB: How does that help you?
EM: Well, that’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek. If the field gets so crowded, it allows me to be the person with the highest name recognition in the city—in good times as well as bad times —and I’m the one who’s actually producing. And our road to victory is to tell my story. It’s to go to every single one of these forums, every single one of these debates, and talk about what I did as a legislator, what I’ve done as mayor, why I’m one of the most liberal mayors in America, and how I get things done.
There are other aspects of this, [like] the [new] $500 limit [on campaign contributions], which is even lower than last time. We had a strong grassroots effort before and we’ll need a stronger one now that the limits have gone down. [And] we made a really clear decision that the people in the office would work and run the government, that people on the campaign side are still on the campaign side, and then we set up a group of folks who’ve been managing the allegations. So that’s basically how we’ve tried to deal with it.
ECB: Will responding to these allegations make it more difficult for you to concentrate on your job as mayor?
EM: A lot of the case itself involves issues that only lawyers can handle. Depositions will take up some time and a jury trial will take up time, but if everybody who’s ever been sued, whether elected or otherwise, had to stop their job, there’d be a lot of people not working.
ECB: Three of the last four mayors served just one term, and Nickels didn’t get a third. It seems obvious that you’re in an even more challenging situation.
EM: I would have said a month ago that I was in the best situation of any of us.
ECB: But this is the world you’re in now.
EM: [Pause] OK, sorry.
2. Homelessness director George Scarola and Seattle Police Department Lieutenant Jason Verhoff had good news for city council member Sally Bagshaw’s health and human services committee yesterday: Of 499 people the city’s new Navigation Team has contacted since it began doing outreach to unsheltered people and people living in encampments last month, 342, or about 69 percent, agreed to accept “some sort of services,” Verhoff said. “That’s a staggering number—staggeringly high,” Verhoff said. “That’s amazing, in my opinion.”
Bagshaw agreed, asking Scarola and Verhoff, “Who’s writing this up? This is a case study for somebody.” She continued, “Seriously—I would reach out [to the] University of Washington … and let people know this is going on. … I think that somebody is going to write their Ph.D. thesis on this.”
The lovefest continued as Verhoff recounted several stories of individual homeless people who were helped by the Navigation Team’s outreach efforts—a woman who commuted every day from the tent she shared with her husband in Seattle to her job in Redmond, until the Navigation Team found her a spot in a tent city in Issaquah; the man who “looked like a West Virginia coal miner” when the team first made contact with him but is doing well now that he’s “away from the addiction and the other drug users down there who might have contributed to his lifestyle”; and the man who was “very, very addicted to methamphetamine” but has reconnected with his mother and “by all accounts is no longer using meth.”
If you’ll indulge a bit of skepticism, I have few issues with these tidy stories. First, I’m not sure a tent in Issaquah is a marked improvement on a tent in Seattle, except that it reduces the commute of the woman living in that tent by some minutes. (In other words: We need abundant, low-barrier housing, not tents.) Second, addiction stories don’t typically end with “and then he moved back in with his mother and kicked meth”—meth addiction, in particular, typically requires lengthy, intensive treatment and often medical intervention, not just gumption and a new place to live. And finally, all of these success stories are so recent—the Navigation Team started doing outreach less than three months ago—that it’s hard to say whether these interventions will be successful in the long run, or even in the short-to-medium term. My hope is that the city will keep tabs on all those “contacts” for longer than the time it takes to put them on the path to a new tent or a room in Mom’s basement or a bed at the Union Gospel Mission. Real success is different for every person, but the one thing every success has in common is that it’s sustainable.
3. A few items of note from Murray’s April campaign reports, which he filed yesterday: In April, when it appeared he was still in the running, Murray raised less than half of what he raised in March—$30,468, compared to $69,054 a month earlier. That’s tens of thousands less than Murray spent in April on consulting from Sound View Strategies ($12,000), Strategies 360 ($34,500, including $4,500 for video production), and Northwest Passage ($21,000). Murray also spent $25,300 for the EMC poll that apparently helped convince him that he could not win. Murray’s April report also includes $775 in returned contributions from five campaign contributors.
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Last month, the Seattle Police Department and City Council member Mike O’Brien announced that the city would spend $2 million over the next two years to reinstate the mothballed Community Service Officer program and hire around a dozen new CSOs—unarmed SPD employees trained to respond to low-level calls, including minor property crimes, landlord-tenant disputes, runaway kids, and “nuisance” crimes like public intoxication. Over the course of 2017, a team of representatives from city departments, along with the independent Community Police Commission, will decide what the CSOs’ job descriptions will be, what kind of services they will and won’t provide, and even to whom they will report.
The CSO program, which lasted 33 years before it was shut down in 2004 under then-mayor Greg Nickels and his police chief Gil Kerlikowske, was originally launched in response to allegations of racially biased policing and excessive use of force against African Americans in the Central Area in the late 1960s. The goal of using unarmed officers was twofold: To deescalate tensions between SPD and Central Area residents, and to create a recruiting and training pipeline to hire more African American police officers. In practice, the CSOs did everything from mediating landlord-tenant disputes, to driving children home from court when their parents were taken into custody, to reuniting homeless youth with their families.
“It was sort of the civilian version of the fire department pulling cats out of trees,” says Lisa Daugaard, director of the Public Defender Association and co-chair of the CPC. “A lot of times, sworn officers with weapons are just not the right profile for those jobs.” Council member Tim Burgess, who served on the police force in the 1970s when the program was just getting off the ground, recalls that the program was “an attempt to have an arm of the police department that was not perceived as enforcement oriented, as a positive community relations effort.”
Community activist Nancy Amidei, who has worked with homeless youth in the University District since the ’90s, says that when the program was in effect, “no matter what was going on, you knew that if you called on them the situation would get defused, because everyone quickly learned that they don’t make arrests. … They managed to build up enormous trust among businesses, church people, and street youth” alike. In its heyday, the program boasted three dozen civilian officers, who carried radios instead of guns and could call for backup when they needed—which, according to the former CSOs I spoke to, was almost never.
“We could help you or we could hinder you,” says Michale Crooks, who worked as a CSO from 1993 to 2002. “We could get officers to deal with a situation if there was a problem, and so there was a certain authority that came along with it, even though we didn’t have the arresting powers or gun.”
Nearly 13 years after the CSO program ended, a lot has changed in Seattle. Crime, including property crime, has declined across the board since the late 1990s and early 2000s, although Washington’s property crime rate remains one of the highest in the nation. Homelessness has increased in scale and become common in neighborhoods where visible poverty was once rare. The heroin and opiate addiction epidemic has put increasing numbers of people with substance use disorders on the streets, where they leave needles in public places and are themselves a newly visible presence. And the city is under a consent decree from the department of justice because of racially biased policing—a sign, perhaps, that some things change more slowly than others.
“No matter how much progress we have made in recent decades, one could argue that we’re back to where we were decades ago,” says council member Bruce Harrell, who vowed in his campaign last year to reinstitute the CSO program. “The tensions between the African American community, and other underrepresented communities [and SPD] are still there. … I continue to go to places in 2017 where you see many officers who routinely do not speak, do not smile, and do not interface with the community, and what I liked about the CSOs is that they epitomized what a personable representative of the police force could look like.”
Tensions between SPD and communities of color are so fraught, in fact, that some advocates are suggesting that the CSO program should be housed outside the police department altogether, perhaps as an independent body or within a community group not affiliated with the city. Dustin Washington, director of the American Friends Service Committee’s community justice program in Seattle, says the the only way to establish “authentic relationships” between CSOs and the communities they serve is “for [the program] not to be housed in SPD. I think it needs to go through a more rigorous community process, [where] what’s important is engaging in communities who have a sense of their own power.”
O’Brien, who represents a largely white district where community complaints are mostly about property crime, rather than negative interactions with police, says, “frankly, as a white male from the upper middle class, I don’t particularly feel intimidated by police officers, but I know that a lot of folks do. So having someone that’s in uniform, that carries some authority but is clearly not a police officer, is a middle ground that I think addresses some of that concern.”
SPD, for its part, seems adamant that CSOs should be an in-house operation with police-like responsibilities; otherwise, SPD chief operating officer Brian Maxey says, CSOs will just be “softer police officers with community engagement responsibilities.” Maxey says that, ideally, CSOs would act more like “a civilian patrol support unit” that responds to lower-priority 911 and nonemergency calls, like domestic disturbances and car prowls, than “one-stop social service workers” that take care of problems that communities don’t trust SPD to address.
“This concept that somehow police officers are unable to successfully have community engagement—I reject that, and I do not think we should create a specialized unit to do that,” Maxey says. “I hear that a lot from some of our city partners, that we need CSOs who are unarmed and not as scary or intimidating as regular cops that can help with community engagement. They’re missing the point. The point is that every police officer has got to be capable of engaging with the community.”
Harrell, who represents Southeast Seattle, is skeptical that uniformed cops will be able to turn on that particular dime. “Whatever department they ultimately report to, it’s very critical that they have autonomy from the police department,” Harrell says. “Many times, they might take action that the police department might not have preferred, and they have to have that autonomy. To me, the critical issue is how the public perceives them, and if they just see this persona as a uniformed police officer without a gun, that’s not going to work.”
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As other city departments, including the Department of Neighborhoods and City Council offices, have backed off from using Nextdoor—the private, homeowner-dominated social media site—to communicate with Seattle residents, the Seattle Police Department has taken the opposite approach. (Nextdoor, which is dominated by homeowners, has come under fire as a hotbed of racial profiling by white homeowners in cities from Oakland to Seattle.
Since February, when I first reported that Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole did a private, members-only “town hall” with Nextdoor members, ostensibly as part of SPD’s outreach to the public, the department has steadily increased its use of the website as a communications tool. In fact, every month since the town hall, the number of citywide posts from the official police department Nextdoor account has gone up—from one in March, to two each in April in May, to three in June, to eight in July. Additional precinct-specific alerts appear to have increased in frequency as well, based on the number of posts in three precincts. (SPD spokesman Sean Whitcomb says there has been “no strategy to ramp up Nextdoor engagement,” which he says “fluctuates.”)
It isn’t just event notices. SPD has also used the site to help Seattle University set up focus groups to determine how communities across the city perceive crime and safety issues in their neighborhoods. The focus groups are being conducted by Seattle University, but will be used, along with a separate survey also done by SU, “to inform and revise the [Micro-Community Policing Plans] priorities and strategies,” according to SPD’s website. “MCPPs will then be used in conjunction with crime data to direct Seattle police resources and services to target unique needs of Seattle’s micro-communities.” SPD has identified ten micro-communities for its surveys and focus groups.
This work, in other words, will directly impact where SPD resources and services are directed, according to SPD. According to SU researcher Jessica Chandler, who (like all the other researchers in SPD’s five precincts) has a seattle.gov email address and posts to Nextdoor from SPD’s official agency Nextdoor account, SPD and the university have done no online outreach outside Nextdoor, and the online RSVP page is an internal Nextdoor page accessible only to Nextdoor members.
SPD spokesman Jonah Spangenthal-Lee says SU has “’publicized’ their focus groups via direct outreach at [the Downtown Emergency Service Center], through community groups, such as the Asian Pacific Islanders Directors Coalition and the Chinese Information and Service Center. Information was also sent to Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos for distribution to constituents, and included in a story in the Capitol Hill Times.” The department’s Facebook page does not appear to have mentioned or provided any information about the focus groups.
In a recent Nextdoor post responding to a North Precinct resident’s question about outreach avenues other Nextdoor, Chandler replied, “We are currently working to have the focus groups shared through other avenues soon! In the meantime, if you would like a flyer I would be more than happy to email one to you. Send me a personal message if so!”
Under state public disclosure law, most communications between city email addresses and citizens are public. But because Chandler’s communications—like Chief O’Toole’s “public town hall” on Nextdoor—took place behind Nextdoor’s firewall, they aren’t accessible to the general public. If you aren’t a Nextdoor member and you want to access government agencies’ conversations there, you have to first know that they exist and second, file a public disclosure request and wait for the results. SPD has a significant backlog of records requests, meaning that even routine requests often take months, so by the time you find out about a conversation, say, on policing priorities in your neighborhood, chances are it will be too late to do anything about it. (One decision that was made in real time is the relocation of a focus group, via private message, to a location more convenient to a single Nextdoor member; “Chandra: I am willing to change locations to better accommodate! I will PM you, thanks!” Chandler wrote.)
Why doesn’t everyone in the city who wants to know what city agencies are up to just join Nextdoor? For one thing, some people, including many renters, move often and have to join by asking Nextdoor to send a physical postcard to their home so they can prove they actually live there. For another, Nextdoor is a private site that asks residents for their home addresses and targets its marketing based on those addresses; it also makes people’s addresses public to their immediate neighbors, which could raise privacy concerns. Anecdotally, many people have told me they left Nextdoor because of the toxic environment it seems to breed in certain neighborhoods, and because they felt bullied by neighbors whose political views differed from their own. But the bottom line is that just as people shouldn’t have to join Facebook to read city departments’ Facebook posts, which they don’t, citizens shouldn’t have to give a private company their personal data to access public information about what taxpayer-funded agencies are up to.
SPD’s Spangenthal-Lee responded to questions about why the SU researchers were posting from official City of Seattle Nextdoor accounts and had government email addresses by directing me to SU. “[Chandler is] posting as a researcher on the previously mentioned study, which is being conducted under a research agreement between SU and SPD. The study is being conducted independently, and I’d direct you to Seattle U for questions about their research/methods,” he said.
I talked to Chandler by email. In response to my questions about the SU-SPD partnership, she said:
As Seattle University was hired to work with SPD, we are evaluating how they implement the Micro-Community Policing Plan, knowledge and understanding of MCPP, and crime and safety concerns. That is where the focus groups come in to play. There is [a research assistant] in each precinct, all graduate students like myself, and we are all conducting focus groups with each micro-community. The idea behind the plan is that no tw3o areas are the same therefore, the crimes and concerns will not be and will need different resources and strategies. At the end of the project, we report on if MCPP is working, adjustments that should be made, etc.
After I raised questions about the city’s decision to do business on Nextdoor, Mayor Ed Murray said he would reconsider the city’s use of the site to communicate with residents; on Monday, Murray’s temporary spokesman Jeff Reading said the review of the city’s social media policy has been “on pause” since former Murray spokesman Viet Shelton left in March and will resume now that new spokesman Benton Strong has started. Whitcomb said of Nextdoor generally, “Nextdoor engagement is important to us. It is one of many digital platforms that we use.”
Going to a real-life meeting organized via NextDoor, the social media app that allows neighbors to talk to each other “privately” online, is … well, a lot like going to a virtual meeting on NextDoor, only considerably more awkward. (To the NextDoor member who posted later that I “avoid eye contact” with people: Actually, I only avoid eye contact with people who have verbally accosted me, because I don’t owe anyone who mocks me online the opportunity to also berate me in person.)
This past Saturday, a group of about a dozen NextDoor members (and presumably a few folks who heard about the meeting through other means) met with District 6 council member Mike O’Brien and SPD North Precinct Captain Sean O’Donnell at the Salmon Bay Eagles club in Ballard to talk (and vent) about homeless encampments, property crime, squatters, and RVs.
After some introductory remarks from O’Donnell (O’Brien, who arrived late, sat down quietly to wait for questions), residents unloaded their grievances and frustrations on the two city representatives–and demanded answers. Over the course of nearly two hours, neighbors told SPD and O’Brien they feel the city doesn’t take property crimes seriously, doesn’t enforce the law against “camping” in public places, doesn’t do enough to keep squatters from living in houses slated for redevelopment, and doesn’t pay enough attention to North End neighborhoods, where property crime has increased even as crime overall has declined.
“What about us?” one woman asked pointedly, after O’Donnell explained the measures SPD is taking to deal with RVs and unsanctioned encampment. “We work hard, we try to pay our bills, and we are just barely making it by, and we get home and our car has been completely rifled through, things been taken, our house has been burglarized. I feel, and I know others have felt, the lack of concern from police” who ask car-prowl victims to fill out online police reports instead of coming to their homes to investigate, she said. “And if you see a police car, it’s like, ‘Oh my god! We got a police car!’ I’ve talked to other people on NextDoor and we just don’t see them.”
Another speaker, who lives in Ballard, said her house was burgled and although the police showed up in 13 minutes, she felt they didn’t do enough to catch the guys who stole between $6,000 and $8,000 worth of stuff after coming in through an unlocked window. “You’re terrified every time you come home,” another woman chimed in. “I go in before my kids because I’m like, ‘I hope we didn’t get robbed today. I’ve lived here for 12 years and I’ve never felt that fear before.” Another speaker said she no longer keeps her insurance and registration in her car for fear that prowlers may get her personal information, and wondered, “If we get pulled over [without registration], are we going to get in trouble?” (The answer is yes.)
For his part, O’Brien said burglars had broken into his house twice in the past year, and although “I want someone there, because I’m pissed, I also know there’s nothing they can do, so I’ve filled out reports online.” (O’Brien’s burglar was ultimately caught and implicated in more than 100 nearby break-ins.)
Needles, tents, and the dubious distinction between the “deserving” and “undeserving” homeless, occupied a big chunk of the morning, as neighbors expressed concern that their children and pets would step on an infected needle or be forced to learn about adult problems too soon.
“I would like my children to be children, and I would like my family, as taxpayers, to be able to use the parks and the open spaces that we have and be able to walk my dog without having to worry about what we’re going to step in or on, including the crazy guy … pacing,” one speaker said. “That is not something that I really want my 10-year-old daughter to have to be aware of when she’s simply taking may dog for a walk. These are the kinds of things that ruin our quality of life.”
A second speaker, from Ballard, added, “There are people camping right next to one of our landmarks, the Chittendon Locks. They’ve always camped up there, but now they’re right there, right next to the road where you can see them, and so I’m wondering, is there any effort to get those people to move along?”
A lot of attention has been paid to Mayor Ed Murray’s characterization of some NextDoor members, on this blog, as “working themselves into a paranoid hysteria.” Although many people at Saturday’s meeting took strong umbrage with that characterization, it seems fair to call the belief that your child will step on a disease-infected heroin needle both paranoid (I haven’t been able to locate a single reported example of this happening in Seattle) and somewhat hysterical. Certainly, city streets are no place for needles, and the city should have a system that allows users to discard them safely and to clean them up if they do not, but needles are also a fact of life in a city (and a country) with a heroin epidemic of unprecedented size. The wonder isn’t that homeowners are finding needles in Magnolia and the side of Ballard with water views; the wonder is that they haven’t appeared there sooner.
One of the speakers acknowledged as much—sort of. “Seattle is not alone in this battle agains the homeless and the drug addicts. This is a countrywide problem,” she said. “Exactly what the answer is, I don’t know. I don’t mind helping the people that want help and are willing to work for their help, but the people that don’t want the city’s help—they have to go.” She told a story about a man who wanted to camp in front of her house and was tapping a phone pole with a knife—threateningly, she said—while waving a stick in the air. O’Brien responded that even if that person was theoretically open to accepting help, he certainly wasn’t at that moment—and decades of experience have shown that just throwing people in jail because they’re addicted or homeless or mentally ill doesn’t solve those problems, and often makes them worse. “It’s not like walking up to this guy, who’s probably in crisis, and saying, ‘Would you like treatment now’ [is going to work], because he’s probably going to say no,” O’Brien said.
“So we have to keep managing that and keeping an eye on that person until he’s ready to say yes. And then when he says yes, we need to have a bed immediately available or a place to do, and we often do not have that.”
Finally, several people demanded “better data” to know how the city should be spending its money—why are people being turned away from Tent City, how many are addicted to drugs, and how many people are simply unwilling to accept services from the city? O’Brien, saying he was frustrated that in a city with thousands of people sleeping unsheltered every night, residents still demand more data before making any policy changes, told one resident, “If I tell you there’s 50 people or 100 people or 1000 dpoeple does it make a difference? We need more beds. … We know that there’s a massive demand for all those services [the city provides]. No one needs to wait to see the count.” That speaker pressed on, claiming that she had dutifully voted for housing levies, transportation levies, and “been patient through all the new construction” in her neighborhood, and yet problems like homelessness, the affordable housing shortage, and traffic persisted. “How do we really make it work this time?” she demanded.
O’Brien, lacking answers to rhetorical questions like “I voted to raise my taxes, so why isn’t it all better now?” (in the online world, this is known as concern trolling), pointed out the obvious: As long as the city, and the entire US, are in a homelessness crisis produced largely by an economy heavily rigged in favor of the very rich, pushing the visible manifestations of that crisis down in one place will only make them pop up in another.
“We’ve got people who made hundreds of millions of fraudulent loans on Wall Street that are not going to jail for a day and we’re sitting here arguing over whether we should arrest someone who’s addicted to heroin because they lost their housing,” O’Brien said. “We can’t fix that in this room, but as a society we have to talk about how do we make that better.”
Back on NextDoor, the handful of people who posted about the meeting called it a productive opportunity to talk about their issues with city officials in the room. I’d agree with them on one point—having a two-way discussion with your precinct captain and council member, even if you think they aren’t doing enough to assuage your fears about crime or dirty needles, is far better than yelling into the echo chamber of a site like NextDoor, where someone’s sighting of a “suspicious van” can quickly escalate into posted images of the van’s license plate and multiple calls to 911.
People on NextDoor have posted irrelevant personal information about me, links to photos so people know what I look like when they go to meetings, and insults that clearly violate NextDoor’s code of conduct (a code they were vigilant in enforcing when they temporarily kicked me off the city for reporting on a “town hall” meeting the police chief held on NextDoor late last month). Regardless, I plan to keep reporting on the site both because it remains an official partner with the City of Seattle, which continues to post updates and information available only to NextDoor members, and because shining a light (anonymously) on what neighbors say behind the supposedly closed doors of a private social media site says a lot about what drives the most politically active (and powerful) residents of our city, which in turn drives policy that affects all of us.
Private social media websites didn’t exist when I first started covering city politics, but they do now, and what happens on them is sometimes newsworthy, especially when they shape city policy. In the North End, there’s clear evidence that they have done just that—at a meeting in Ballard, Police Chief Elizabeth Kathleen O’Toole referred to her NextDoor town hall before announcing a special property crimes task force, dedicated “almost exclusively” to north Seattle neighborhoods. As long as NextDoor serves as an organizing tool for a small but vocal group of neighbors who have the ear of City Hall, I’m going to keep writing about what those neighbors are saying there.
On Wednesday, with little notice and in the middle of the day, Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole took questions for what she called “the first ever NextDoor town hall.” Notice of the town hall went up on Twitter and NextDoor around 10:30 in the morning and the comments thread on O’Toole’s NextDoor post was closed at 3.
Not surprisingly for a private social network that tends to be dominated by north end homeowners, most of the questions and comments O’Toole got in response to her late-morning announcement came from the north end, especially Ballard and Wallingford. (Twenty-nine questions came in from all of Southeast Seattle and the Central District combined, compared to more than 125 from north of the Ship Canal.)
Ballard’s NextDoor page has been populated lately by complaints about homeless encampments and illegally parked RVs in the neighborhood, and the problems with drug dealing and theft many residents feel are associated with the homeless; north end residents in general frequently raise concerns on NextDoor about car prowls, mail theft, and burglaries they feel SPD doesn’t take seriously enough. are also high on the list.
In keeping with those patterns, the questions for O’Toole Wednesday centered on property crime, parking, density (to which north end NextDoor commenters seem generally opposed), the perceived need for armed private security, and nuisance crimes associated with homelessness (like public urination and loitering).
One commenter, from East Wallingford, said she could “no longer even drive on the freeway without seeing trash, feces, tents, rats, and beer cans” as well as “a man urinating” at illegal encampments. “I don’t even want my kids to play at the local parks anymore. Maybe it’s time to move.” Another, from Green Lake, wondered “what is being done to get rid of the homeless” and “why do they seem to have more rights than taxpayers do?”
In general, most north end commenters seemed to want to know how O’Toole would crack down on the homeless, including those living in RVs; whether SPD would increase its emphasis on property crimes; what was being done to hire more officers; and why the city would allow more density when the crime problem is already out of hand. Only in the south end did residents express concerns about gang violence, aggressive policing and racial profiling, and violent crime in general.
O’Toole’s response to the barrage of questions (more than 300 by the time SPD shut it down at 3:00) was brief, dividing NextDoor members’ concerns into three categories: Property crime, 911 response times and the need for more officers; and homeless encampments and RVs. O’Toole said the city will launch a new Property Crimes Task Force to “focus exclusively” on car prowls, mail thefts, and other property crimes; at an unrelated meeting in Ballard Wednesday night, she said that task force (formed by repurposing existing officers) would focus almost exclusively on the north end of the city. She also noted that the city plans to hire 200 more officers over attrition by 2019, “modernize” the 911 system, and hold homeless people who commit crimes accountable.
Later Wednesday evening, O’Toole expanded on those answers at a meeting of the Central Ballard Residents Association, at Swedish Hospital in Ballard.
In response to questions about long response times for lower-priority 911 calls, O’Toole acknowledged that “we’re having real struggles getting to Priority 2 and 3 calls quickly, and I know that’s been frustrating for many of you.” However, she noted that in the last five years, 911 calls from the North Precinct, which includes Ballard, have gone up 60 percent; meanwhile, the low-density nature of the mostly single-family district means it takes longer to respond to calls in person.
“The mayor says he really wants us to focus on property crime,” O’Toole said, adding that the new property crimes task force is “going to be working almost exclusively in the North Precinct until we get a handle on some of they property crime that we have here.”
As for homeless encampments and people living in RVs, O’Toole said, “homelessness in and of itself is certainly not a crime; it’s a tragedy. … Substance abuse is a tragedy, and we want to give people help who have issues. We want to give them services, but we need to hold people accountable for criminal activity. … If people are committing crimes, they should be arrested. We’re not asking officers to turn the other way.”
Finally, O’Toole said that simply forcing people to leave encampments wasn’t a solution to homeowners’ problems with the homeless, which ranged from the belief that they are responsible for property crimes to the possibility that they will spread “resistant strains of bacteria” and “tough biological compounds” through the general population. “As a police department, we don’t want to just keep pushing people around. We have to solve some of the problems” associated with homelessness, O’Toole said.
As in her NextDoor response, O’Toole did not address the issue of violent crime at all; on Wednesday, the issues of gangs and gun violence were only raised by people who live in Southeast Seattle.