Tag: traffic stops

Seattle Police Will No Longer Enforce Bike Helmet Law and Other Minor Traffic Violations

Source: Seattle Department of Transportation

By Paul Kiefer

Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz announced Friday that SPD will no longer stop people for four minor traffic infractions, including violations of the county’s mandatory bicycle helmet law. The announcement, which takes effect immediately, opens the door to additional future reductions in low-level traffic enforcement.

In addition to the helmet law, officers will no longer stop drivers for missing, expired, or improperly displayed registration; items hanging from rear-view mirrors; or cracked windshields. “These violations do not have a direct connection to the safety of other individuals on the roads, paths, or sidewalks,” Diaz wrote in a letter to the Seattle Inspector General Lisa Judge announcing the decision. “We know there are also reasons for concern that these violations may disproportionately fall on those who are unable to meet the financial requirements set forth by law.” Officers will still be able to enforce the underlying laws, but only if they stop a driver or bicyclist for a more serious violation.

The announcement comes after months of discussions between the police, the Office of Inspector General, the Seattle Department of Transportation, and civil rights and police oversight groups. Judge organized the conversations herself last year, when she wrote a letter to Diaz urging him to consider removing police from low-level traffic enforcement. “Stopping a person is a significant infringement on civil liberty and should be reserved for instances when a person is engaged in criminal conduct that harms others,” Judge wrote. “Stops for government-created requirements like car tabs, with nothing but a potential monetary penalty, do not justify the risk to community or to officers.”

Last fall, Diaz expressed an interest in introducing traffic stop reforms before the end of 2021. When the reforms hadn’t happened by December, some police accountability advocates who took part in the discussions between SPD and the OIG worried that the election of Bruce Harrell—and his decision to dismiss SDOT director Sam Zimbabwe, an enthusiastic participant in discussions about traffic stop reform—would delay the reformsThe chief’s latest letter could help allay those concerns.

The list of violations SPD will decline to enforce could still grow, Diaz wrote, as SPD reviews Seattle’s traffic codes for other offenses that may not justify a stop. For now, he wrote, SPD will continue to stop drivers for other vehicle equipment violations, including broken taillights, which several civil rights groups urged the department to stop enforcing. “For pedestrian and driver safety, we cannot allow vehicles with safety equipment issues to just remain in that status,” he wrote.

Judge’s initial proposal to scale back the role of police in traffic enforcement triggered pushback from some law enforcement representatives, including Seattle Police Officers’ Guild President Mike Solan, who called the recommendations “ill-advised, reckless, bizarre and nonsensical” and claimed that they could spur an increase in crime. “Does this now signal people to stop registering their vehicles and completely disregard the rule of law?” he wrote in an open letter last summer.

According to SDOT data, the minor driving infractions listed in Diaz’s letter do not present serious risks to the safety of pedestrians, bicyclists and other drivers. The four leading causes of deadly or serious collisions in Seattle—speeding, distracted driving, ignoring pedestrians’ right-of-way, and driving while intoxicated—made up a third of all tickets given by SPD since 2015, and SPD has no plans to stop enforcement of those traffic laws.

The decision to stop enforcing the helmet law reflects more than a year of debate in King County about the disproportionate enforcement of the law against homeless people and people of color. After Crosscut reported in 2020 that nearly half of helmet law citations in Seattle went to homeless cyclists, the King County Board of Health, which oversees the helmet requirement, began discussing the possibility of repealing the law; the board is set to make a decision on the helmet law year.

In recent years, more than half of all cyclist citations were for helmet law violations, which typically involve a $100-$150 fine; according to Seattle Municipal Court data, 77 percent of those fines go unpaid. In addition to formal citations, a community stakeholder and bike advocate who contributed to the OIG’s discussions estimated that SPD officers may have stopped hundreds or thousands of bicyclists for not wearing helmets without issuing citations, sometimes as a justification to question the bicyclist about a different crime.

Diaz’s announcement does not necessarily spell a dramatic change in SPD’s day-to-day operations. After two years of very high attrition, SPD has dismantled its traffic enforcement unit and moved the officers to patrol shifts, triggering a dramatic decline in the number of tickets and warnings issued to drivers and bicyclists.

SPD Pumps Brakes on Plans to Reconsider Low-Level Traffic Stops

Iosia Faletogo, 36, was shot and killed by a Seattle Police Officer in December 2018 during a struggle that began with a low-level traffic stop.

By Paul Kiefer

A long-awaited announcement by Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz outlining a plan to phase out low-level traffic stops by police officers did not appear when expected this month. The delay raises the prospect that the policy change, previously a point of agreement between Diaz and police reform advocates, could become entangled by the impending shakeup in city leadership, especially as Diaz waits to learn whether incoming mayor Bruce Harrell will appoint him as the police department’s permanent chief.

Last Tuesday, members of SPD’s command staff met with staffers from the Seattle’s Department of Transportation (SDOT) and the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), the police oversight agency that first pushed SPD to forego low-level traffic stops earlier this year, to brainstorm how to disentangle traffic enforcement from policing. The meeting was a chance for Diaz to solidify a plan of action before the end of the year: a deadline he seemed to endorse in October.

Before he could announce any changes, Diaz quietly left his office for the holidays, which most likely means the traffic stop reforms will remain on hold until next year. The new year could also bring a new police chief: While Diaz has expressed his interest in becoming Seattle’s permanent police chief, Harrell says he will conduct a nationwide search. Impending shakeups within the core group of city departments responsible for spearheading traffic stop reform risk delaying the changes even further.

Removing police from low-level traffic enforcement, Inspector General Lisa Judge argued last summer, is a way to address longstanding concerns that both community members and police officers have expressed the safety risks involved in traffic stops. “Stopping a person is a significant infringement on civil liberty and should be reserved for instances when a person is engaged in criminal conduct that harms others,” Judge wrote in a letter to Diaz in May. “Stops for government-created requirements like car tabs, with nothing but a potential monetary penalty, do not justify the risk to community or to officers.”

Traffic stops are still among the most common types of encounters between police and civilians in Seattle, though SPD’s traffic enforcement has waned as the department focuses its officers on other priorities after two years of high attrition. As of early November, SPD had issued about a third as many traffic citations as it did in 2019. The fines collected from minor traffic citations make up a relatively tiny portion of the city’s revenue—about $5 million since 2019.

Despite the drop-off in traffic stops, racial disparities persist: Though the Seattle Municipal Court has incomplete data on the demographics of people cited for traffic violations, even the partial data shows that Black people are overrepresented by a factor of two compared to the city’s overall population. Nationwide, drivers of color are also more likely to be injured or killed by police during routine traffic stops, a trend that Judge highlighted in her letter to Diaz in May.

Po Leapai, a member of the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability, is all too familiar with the dangers of traffic stops. On New Year’s Eve in 2018, SPD officer Jared Keller shot and killed his cousin, 36-year-old Iosia Faletogo, in Seattle’s Licton Springs neighborhood after a minor traffic stop and a case of mistaken identity turned into a foot chase. “We learned he had been killed from Facebook,” Leapai said. “We were all at a family New Year’s barbecue waiting for him to show up, and he never came.”

The incident began when two SPD patrol officers driving behind Faletogo on Aurora Avenue N. decided to search his license plate. Their search linked the license plate to an older woman with an expired driver’s license, a relative of Faletogo’s who owned the car. When Faletogo pulled into the parking lot of a convenience store, the officers pulled in behind him and turned on their emergency lights. After learning that Faletogo lacked a driver’s license and had two felony charges from his teenage years, the officers called for backup. When four more officers arrived, Faletogo ran.

The officers caught up to him across the street, tackling Faletogo to the ground. A gun fell out of his waistband, and as the officers tried to pin him to the pavement, Keller shot Faletogo, killing him.

The Office of Police Accountability, cleared Keller of wrongdoing for the shooting, citing Faletogo’s gun and his attempt to resist arrest. But in May, Judge cited Faletogo’s killing in her argument to end the use of police for low-level traffic enforcement.

Leapai believes his cousin would still be alive if SPD patrol officers hadn’t decided to stop him for a minor traffic infraction. “Those traffic stops are another kind of stop-and-frisk,” he said. “I can’t see why there was a need to pull my cousin over, and it definitely wasn’t worth killing him.”

Faletogo’s family filed a wrongful death suit against the City of Seattle in December 2020, arguing that the traffic stop that led to his death was unconstitutional and discriminatory. Faletogo was Samoan; a woman riding in the car with him was Black. Nathan Bingham, who represented the family in the lawsuit, said that the traffic stop itself is at the heart of the problem. “That stop never should have happened,” he told PubliCola. “Minor traffic stops, by their nature, always come with the threat of deadly force by police. They’re volatile and unpredictable.” The city settled with the Faletogo family for $515,000 in September.

If SPD takes more time to consider scaling back traffic stops, Seattle will find itself in a race with state lawmakers to implement reforms when the discussion about traffic enforcement resumes in January. At the very end of last year’s state legislative session, Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-34, West Seattle) introduced a bill that would have prohibited police officers from stopping drivers for eight common civil infractions, including improper turns, driving with expired tags, and driving without a valid license. Continue reading “SPD Pumps Brakes on Plans to Reconsider Low-Level Traffic Stops”

Council Tries to Protect Diversion Programs, ICE Contractor Ordered to Pay Minimum Wage, SPD Will Phase Out Minor Traffic Stops

1. For at least the past decade, the Seattle city attorney’s office has worked to replace punitive criminal-justice approaches with programs designed to reduce recidivism without involving police and jails. The office launched pre-filing diversion programs; supported an intervention program for domestic batterers; and took part in the launch of a new community court in 2020. The office still prosecutes misdemeanors—assault, theft and trespassing remain among the most common charges—but outgoing City Attorney Pete Holmes frequently argues that Seattle’s public safety problems can’t be solved with jail time alone.

All of those new additions to the office’s workload are discretionary. A future city attorney could decide to repurpose all or some of the money that currently supports diversion programs and ramp up criminal prosecutions, for example. Ann Davison, a Republican who could become the next city attorney, seems poised to do something along those lines. In Davison’s view, Holmes has failed to adequately pursue misdemeanor charges for “quality of life” crimes like property destruction and shoplifting.

The prospect of an incoming city attorney who might cast aside years of reforms prompted some members of the Seattle City Council, which has supported the office’s diversion programs since 2017, to consider setting some of those reforms in stone.

On Wednesday, council president Lorena González proposed restricting almost $2 million of the city attorney’s 2022 budget so that it can only pay for diversion programs.  Her amendment notes that the council is also working on legislation that would make diversion a permanent duty of the city attorney’s office, in an attempt to deter future city attorneys from discontinuing these programs. That bill will likely go before the council in December.

On Wednesday, council president Lorena González proposed restricting almost $2 million of the city attorney’s 2022 budget so that it can only pay for diversion programs

Public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold introduced her own amendment to add four new positions to the city attorney’s diversion team, to support LEAD and other pre-filing diversion programs run by Choose 180, Gay City, and Legacy of Equality, Leadership, and Organizing (LELO).

While a future city attorney could sidestep the proposed proviso by simply not spending the dollars earmarked for diversion, failing to spend money allocated for a specific purpose comes with some political risk. Another looming risk for the city attorney’s office—the departure of staff from its civil division, which works with the council to develop new policies, in response to the change in leadership—is out of the council’s control.

Despite the obvious allusions to Tuesday’s election, no council member mentioned Davison by name.

2. A federal jury determined on Wednesday that the for-profit firm that operates the Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma violates Washington’s minimum wage laws by paying detainees only $1 per day for their labor. The jury also ruled that the Florida-based GEO Group Inc., one of the largest private prison and immigrant detention center operators in the country, will need to pay all workers the state’s $13.69 hourly minimum wage, or more, immediately.

Next, U.S District Court Judge Robert Bryan will decide how much the company profited from more than a decade of underpaying detainees to perform most non-security labor in the detention center. Attorney General Bob Ferguson is requesting that the court order GEO to reimburse detainee workers for years of underpaid wages, as are a group of private plaintiffs in a separate class action lawsuit.

During the two-and-a-half-week trial, several former and current staff at the detention center said GEO also replaced civilian workers with detainees to cut costs; Ferguson also asked the court to require GEO to reimburse civilian workers for wages they lost when they were replaced by detainees.

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The ruling comes four years after Ferguson initially sued GEO for minimum wage violations. In that time, detainees at the facility have held multiple protests and hunger strikes to raise concerns about overcrowding, inadequate meals, and a lack of access to medical care.

GEO has owned and operated the facility—the fourth-largest of its kind in the country—since 2005, but when the company’s current contract expires in 2025, the facility will likely close because of a new law, signed by Gov. Jay Inslee this past spring, banning most private detention facilities. GEO is currently challenging that law in federal district court, arguing that it undercuts the federal government’s authority to detain immigrants and that the closure would mean moving hundreds of detainees far away from their families and attorneys.

The nearest detention facility that can hold ICE detainees is a jail in Yuba County, California, which can hold up to 220 people for ICE.

Though the ramifications of Wednesday’s ruling are tremendous for current and former detainees at the Northwest detention center—according to earlier estimates by GEO, the center generated some $57 million in annual profits—those ramifications won’t extend to the much larger incarcerated workforce in Washington State’s prisons, Ferguson spokeswoman Brionna Aho said. Nearly 2,000 people in state custody produce furniture and medical gowns, cook and package meals, and clear trails, among other jobs; after the state deducts victim compensation, incarceration costs, and other fees, inmate workers earn far less than minimum wage.

3. In a memo to the city council and Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office last week, Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz endorsed a plan to phase out traffic stops for minor infractions by the end of the year.

The memo comes five months after Seattle Inspector General Lisa Judge, who co-signed the letter, asked SPD to bring an end to traffic stops for infractions that, unlike DUI or reckless driving, do not endanger the public. Continue reading “Council Tries to Protect Diversion Programs, ICE Contractor Ordered to Pay Minimum Wage, SPD Will Phase Out Minor Traffic Stops”

Police Accountability Leader Asks SPD to Phase Out Routine Traffic Stops

Image by Erik Mclean via Unsplash.

By Paul Kiefer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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