SPD’s busy day full of odd and notable moments

Earlier this week SCC Insight previewed all of the important events happening for the Seattle Police Department today. When all was said and done, much more was said than done — but some of what was said was still pretty interesting.

Parking Enforcement Officers

The City Council’s discussion this morning of where to transfer the city’s Parking Enforcement Officers turned out to be relatively short. Despite being given several extra weeks, the two unions representing the rank-and-file PEOs and the supervisors could not come to agreement on whether they preferred to go to SDOT or to the new Community Safety and Communications Center (CSCC). And now, with the Council facing a self-created deadline of August 31st and only one more Council meeting left in August before the summer recess, the Councilmembers needed to pick one. This morning Councilmember Herbold pushed for moving them to SDOT (the preference of the Mayor’s Office as well, thus avoiding a veto that would push the matter past the end of the month), and the other members of her committee quickly fell into line behind that proposal. The ordinance transferring the PEOs to SDOT will now come up for final approval next Monday, August 16th — though there is broad recognition that any expansion of PEO duties beyond their traditional role will require “a lot of bargaining,” as Herbold put it: both the unions representing the PEOs and the unions representing any other city employees who might be stripped of the PEOs’ new responsibilities (such as traffic management) will have the opportunity to raise it as a topic for collective bargaining.

SPD Staffing and Budget

This morning’s meeting ran nearly four hours, with well over a third devoted to a review of SPD’s quarterly staffing and budget report. And as expected whenever the Council takes up SPD’s budget, there were some frosty moments.

With attrition running very high, SPD now projects over $15 million of salary savings in 2021. That, of course, has both the Council and SPD salivating over how that money could be repurposed.  SPD put forth its own proposal for how it would like to spend nearly all of the money, a multi-part plan covering several departmental needs including:

  • costs associated with the high attrition, including separation pay;
  • filling some civilian positions in SPD that were left open during the pandemic but that could help ease the administrative burden of the increasingly scarce and overtaxed sworn officers;
  • some technology investments, including finishing deployment of a new scheduling and timekeeping system that has been in the works for over five years (SPD still tracks overtime on paper forms);
  • additional budget for overtime to cover events such as Seahawks games, since with the early arrival of vaccines the reopening of Seattle has led to the return of sports and events earlie than originally budgeted for;
  • potential COVID-related compensation adjustments for employees required to work during the pandemic;
  • three new civilian community safety investments: the new Triage One unit, a new 911 dispatch system that will more easily allow third-parties to participate; and funding for the regional Peacekeepers gun violence prevention program.

Parts of this, most notably the open civilian staff positions in the department, SPD already has authority to use some of the salary savings to fund. But anything requiring moving money to other budget line-items, such as the technology investments, requires Council actions. In addition, there are several provisos that the Council placed on SPD’s salary budget that currently restrict SPD from spending the full $15 million with the council’s prior approval.

The Councilmembers carried out their oversight duties today in drilling down on these items and asking detailed questions of SPD representatives to understand the department’s budget requests. Councilmembers Herbold and Mosqueda are preparing an amendment for the mid-year 2021 supplemental budget ordinance, currently pending in Mosqueda’s committee, to be considered next week and that would incorporate some (but probably not all) of SPD’s requests.

But in the hour and a half it took them to get there, two surprising things happened. First, Councilmember Herbold voiced a sentiment that SPD officers have been waiting over a year to hear:

“I want to take this moment to thank those who are remaining and committed to law enforcement public service in Seattle and hope folks who want to continue in serving in this role as a public servant consider continuing to do so. Really appreciative that you are expressing your commitment to the city and to this community by staying with us. Thank you.”

Councilmembers Pedersen and Lewis lent their own voices in support of Herbold’s words. You can watch it here; jump to 2:45:30.

And then Council President Gonzalez, in the second big surprise of the session, took the conversation dramatically in the opposite direction (2:50:40 on the video). She teed up a line of questioning apparently intended to lay the blame for SPD’s high attrition back on the department itself by accusing it of inattention to retention strategies. Her first attempt was a jumbled mess as Gonzalez repeatedly confused “recruitment” with “retention” in a question to Dr. Chris Fisher, SPD’s Executive Director of Strategic Initiatives:

“When we hear about SPD’s staffing issues and when SPD talks about staffing issues to the media, what we continue to hear is ringing of the alarm bells around hiring, and what we don’t necessarily hear about is the recruitment aspects of SPD’s management responsibilities. And so knowing that SPD’s hiring plan is fully funded for 2021, I am not hearing a lot of strategies from SPD about the recruitment pieces of this conversation. And I think that is both unfortunate and a missed opportunity to have a conversation about recruitment. Because that’s really where I’m seeing these numbers tell a story — is about how are we addressing things like current officer wellness and well-being, how are we addressing how we are addressing staffing issues, i.e. transfers from positions that are more favorable to positions that officer don’t necessarily want to be doing, and addressing shift issues as well. I don’t see anything in this presentation, and maybe we’re going to get to it a little bit later,  about recruitment, not recruitment but retention strategies that address where I see the most significant concerns existing, which is around separations. And so I would like to hear from Dr. Fisher or anyone else from SPD on the line about what specific strategies is the agency pursuing to address the issue of retention of existing and new officers in light of these numbers related to separations.”

When Fisher understandably tried to speak to both recruitment and retention, Gonzalez jumped down his throat, doubling down on her accusation that SPD is at fault for low officer retention:

“I am focusing in on retention, which is where I see the issue. I think these numbers tell a story about how SPD has significant room for improvement, management of SPD has significant room for improvement for retaining the new officers and existing officers that have been hired or have continued to be an officer at SPD.”

Fisher gave a long, at times emotional, response:

 “When we talk to folks some of the things we could do is what happened about 10 minutes ago, which I don’t think happened in a year, which is hearing from a broad selection of the city that they want folks to stay here. They’ve heard it from the chief, they’ve heard it at times from the community, from the press, but I think this is the first time in a while that they’ve heard it from a broad section of electeds. Sorry, I’m getting a little emotional, because a lot of these people I’ve built relationships with, and I know how much it hurt them. I’m not out there on the front line getting yelled at, it’s a place of privilege I have, is to sit in an office, But I know how much it hurt them to fell that they were the younger ones being told  they might get laid off, and I think that was a message that maybe this wasn’t the place to be a police officer. And I think today I appreciate so much of everyone who spoke up. I think that means a lot. I do not think this is personal. I understand politics and how things get wrapped up, but I can’t pretend that it didn’t factor into a lot of their decisions and I don’t know, the Chief has done as much as I think he can do to support and show that he cares about them, that he recognizes their good work, and I think there are other administrative things scheduled and other things that help people want to stay, but so many of these folks came to serve and to help their community and I think they just want to feel that people see that. I don’t think that any of them think that people don’t make mistakes or do horrible things, and those people should be held accountable, but most of them don’t ever do those things and I think that they just want to feel that their service is recognized.”

“In terms of strategies, we have talked with the executive about ways to get people to stay that we see other departments do. Some of these have fiscal costs, some would probably have to be negotiated, lots of places help cover tuition for classes for people to get advanced degrees.  They help pay for gym memberships. There are all sorts of those sort of benefits that aren’t extra salary but help people show that they’re investing in you. They want  you to professionally develop. They want you to take advantage of all the training you can have access to. And so those are things we’ve talked about. I think finding ways to fund them, finding ways to legally do them with the setups we have both from contracts and Washington and Seattle law — I’m not a lawyer so I’m not going to try to get into that — so we’re very aware, how do we make it so it’s the best place to work for the people who want to do the work. But what we’ve seen from borrowing from corporate culture is that people who are here need to want to be here to both attract new talent and to want to get people to stay. And no doubt, and Chief Diaz would be the first to say it, some of this is on command. We hear from officers all the time they want to see command more, they want to feel supported by command, they need their supervisor to be better. We’re doing a lot in our HR unit with an amazing employee who’s really focusing on instilling a culture of an outward mindset and a change mindset so people can really understand how to grow and collaborate with each other and be open to change, and see opportunities to better themselves while they also are bettering the department. There’s a lot going on that I think if we need to package it up we can package it up, but I think the department is trying to do what it has the ability to do and has also  raised these other ideas that I think just get more complicated, and we need to have those conversations about ‘Can we uncomplicate them?'”

Gonzalez wasn’t buying it, and pushed back hard (once again confusing recruitment with retention).

 “So I didn’t hear an answer to my question, and I’m really disappointed about that. What I heard is a lot of language, again, on the hiring side, and I’m not interested in politics. I’m interested in actual policy solutions, because that’s my job. So I would like to get an understanding from command staff, what specific things, strategies, investments, interventions, other recommendations, are being advanced to address the reality of recruitment? I’m sorry, retention. Retention. That’s really what I think the issue is here. Because we have fully funded y’all to do the hiring that you need to do. And where I’m seeing that there continues to be a significant concern, and I think this is on management, is how do we retain officers that we have spent time hiring that the department has funded and green-lit to be able to move forward with those hiring processes. And so I’m not hearing about what the chief and command staff are doing as it relates to actually retaining those individuals. And there will be issues that I suspect will need to be addressed via the bargaining, and we are already in the midst of doing those particular operational fixes, but I think that what I understand from the interdepartmental work that you referenced Dr. Fisher, which my office participated in and so did Council central staff, is that a lot of those recommendations have been left on the table, particularly last year, because of COVID and because of the reality of needing to move forward. So I feel that we have not, and by ‘we’ I mean the executive, has not spent enough time addressing, specifically, the strategies related to how SPD’s management is addressing the retention issues related to SPD.”

Fisher tried again.

“I’ll take another stab at it. Chief Best kicked off and Chief Diaz has pushed forward on growing our wellness initiative, and recognizing that all the supports we can give to officers to promote physical and mental wellness, are essential to showing people their value. We have been engaging this innovation blueprint with Accenture to figure out from hiring, to technology, to retention, to professional development, to culture, to community engagement, what are all the best practices that Accenture, with their broad view of policing and public service agencies across the world, have learned, and they’ve brought those to us and we’re constructing that blueprint. We are investing where we can in facilities; the department has tried that in the past and has been told ‘no.’ So again it often comes back to, we can speak about things but sometimes things involve investments, and we here in this package that we may or may not get to, have some ideas about where we can start to do that work. The new [early intervention system] is sort of reshaping the science around trying to count how many bad things might predict a really bad thing and be more of a supportive early awareness system that is focused on quality and support and supervision to make sure that officers  are the best they have. When we talk to officers directly, what we hear is they want to know that the department cares about them and the city cares about them. For many of them, they would say more money helps, but if it was all about the paycheck there are other things they could be doing that would make just as much with a lot less time away from family. They want to know that people are investing in them, investing in the department, that they are appreciated, and that they have… they’ve signed on, most of them, for a 25 to 30 year commitment, and they want some assurance that that is going to be honored. That’s what we hear from them. That’s what the IDT team heard. We’re doing the 4-10 schedule, which is what we have consistently heard. If there are other things in that IDT or in the I-team recommendations that resonated with folks that have not been done, we could shake it off again, but when that was first done we were not losing a ton of folks, we didn’t have anywhere near the level we lost. And so I think we may have also seen a change in what the issue was from 2018 to 2020, so we probably need to re-look at that in another light.”

Herbold cut off the argument there.

This was a brazen act of political deflection by Gonzalez: for declaring “I’m not interested in politics,” an obvious lie for the candidate for Mayor as she performatively tried to score political points with her base by attacking SPD; but by denying the obvious, widely-known fact detailed in SPD officers’ exit interviews that many officers left because (rightly or wrongly) they didn’t feel supported by City Hall, and in particular by the City Council. Her colleagues Herbold, Lewis and Pedersen knew that well enough to go out of their way just a few minutes earlier to thank SPD officers; but Gonzalez was having none of that.

SPD’s recruitment and retention programs were of considerably less concern to Gonzalez last summer when she co-sponsored a budget amendment to cut $800,000 from SPD’s recruitment and retention budget.

It was good to see the City Council thoroughly interrogate SPD’s budget requests this morning, as is proper for its oversight role. It was infuriating to see Gonzalez take cheap shots at SPD management while denying her own contributing role, as President of the City Council, in SPD’s high attrition. There are plenty of existing reasons to criticize SPD command staff; there’s no need to invent new ones.

Consent Decree Hearing

For 90 minutes this afternoon, U.S. District Judge James Robart held a status conference on the ongoing and often stalled 2012 consent decree related to SPD’s biased policing practices. It was at times wistful, other times frustrating, though there were also moments of hope for a path forward.

Deputy U.S. Attorney Christine Fogg, representing the Department of Justice (the nominal plaintiff), reassured Judge Robart that the DOJ continues to be engaged in sticking with the consent decree process, perhaps even more so under the Biden Administration than its predecessor (though she didn’t admit to that).

City Attorney Pete Holmes, who introduced himself as “the current elected City Attorney” (a reference to his concession of defeat last week in his bid to get re-elected), noted that he and Robart are the only two of the original signators to the 2012 consent decree still in the same positions, though as of January 1st Robart will be the last man standing. Holmes noted progress by SPD on several fronts, as well as the efforts of the OPA, OIG and CPC to respond to the events of last summer. He gave a brief update on ongoing efforts to address accountability concerns raised by Robart since he ruled that the city was out of compliance in 2019. He also provided a status update on contract negotiations: bargaining with SPMA, the union representing SPD supervisors, is “quite far along” with mediation underway for some issues; while SPOG negotiations haven’t officially begun, the city’s Labor Relations Policy Committee is close to finalizing bargaining parameters, an essential precursor to convening at the bargaining table.

Holmes concluded with a bit of a curtain call, noting that the SPOG negotiations will be conducted largely under a new Mayor, the fifth one since the consent decree was signed. That, he said, “highlights the city’s struggles with continuity in leadership.” He also observed that it will be the fourth SPOG president, and the city will also need to conduct a search for a new police chief. Holmes also made known his views on the role of police, saying that we need “guardians, not warriors” and taking pains to point out that he never joined a call to defund the police. He wrapped up by pointing to the need to address the wealth gap, the state’s regressive revenue structure, and Washington’s #47 ranking in mental health resources. “They play out in the same way that global warming creates wildfires,” he said. And yet he ended on a positive note: “I am optimistic that we will re-imagine the police under new leadership.”

Robart asked Holmes how he responds to criticism that the court, police monitor, and accountability partners have not been severe enough on the police; in response, Holmes asserted that such a response is inherent in any system of decision-making and adjudication. The real question, he said, was whether the system is fair. Holmes said that he believes that SPD officers are coming to understand that the OPA investigation process is thorough, and that the Adley Shepherd case has taught them that termination decisions will not be overturned.

The CPC, who last week requested that Robart order the court-appointed police monitor to get more involved in both SPOG contract negotiations and OPA investigations, trotted out their new attorney, Edgar Sargent, to represent them — and Robart wasted little time in eviscerating him. The judge quite literally gave him a “you’re new here; let me explain to you how things work around these parts” lecture. He laid out the court’s primary authority in saying whether the parties in the case are doing what they said they would do under the consent decree that they signed, and the limits on his authority to tell the parties what to do — or how to run SPD. But he went much further, in perhaps his most extensive comments in nine years on the CPC, noting that the consent decree specifically says that the CPC will not try to influence the outcome of specific misconduct cases, and will not have access to confidential information. He also pointed out that the city’s 2017 accountability ordinance “extinguished the CPC’s role in the consent decree and codified it” in city law. Robart said that he has been giving the CPC, OPA and OIG opportunities to speak as a courtesy, but the CPC essentially has no standing to try to stake out a larger role for itself through the court — nor will he entertain its demands to expand the police monitor’s role. “I’m not going to impose the monitor on people doing their job in the belief that he will be able to do something better,” Robart said. It was a humiliating exchange for Sargent, and a devastating day for the CPC who not only didn’t get anything they asked for but was significantly undercut by the court.

The court-appointed police monitor, Dr. Antonio Oftelie, who is still fairly new to the job, verbally presented the semi-annual report he submitted last week. He was remarkably complimentary of SPD’s efforts over the past year — far more so than his predecessor would have been — but in line with Oftelie’s approach, crafted for the moment we are in, of trying to bring the parties together to find a path through the wilderness. He committed to finishing a rigorous review of SPD’s current compliance with the consent decree by the end of the year; in a back-and-forth with Robart, he confirmed that while many of the ten focus areas of the consent decree likely remain in compliance, two (use of force and crowd control) are now back on the table, and police accountability remains in question. That completed compliance review will become the baseline for a new plan for how the city will come back into compliance with the consent decree. Oftelie praised some of the new innovations being considered by SPD, such as the new early intervention system, though he cautioned that new alternatives to policing will still need to verify that they they are constitutional and bias-free, i.e. creating new organizations outside of SPD to take over SPD functions does not exempt them from the requirements of the consent decree.

Oftelie concluded by warning that SPD’s progress cannot be sustained without the necessary budget and personnel, and predicted that the actions of the city will “either tip it into a deeper crisis or help to lift it out.” He observed that the critical staffing shortage currently means that SPD can no long activate its micro-community policing plans, since all available officers are on patrol and emergency response. By his estimate, SPD would need another 160 officers to fully support community policing.

That left Judge Robart to have the final word. He began by saying, “It is not my intention to come down hard on the CPC,” but noted the recent turmoil in that organization and its tendency to try to reinvent itself at regular intervals and “take on things that are beyond its grasp.” He said that he finds it difficult to accept that the police monitor owes a special duty to the CPC, and that while it is a commission of the city, it is not a party to the consent decree.

Robart also said that when he gathers with other district court judges overseeing police consent decrees, he tells them, “this is the only case on my docket with two parties and nine points of view.”

The judge mentioned that he found it interesting that the police monitor’s report included sections penned by other bodies, including the Mayor, a significant departure from the approach of the previous monitor.

He then said that he was not surprised recently to open the newspaper and read the op-ed from former SPD chief Carmen Best, in which she asks “where is Seattle’s plan to address safety?” Robart said that it was not his role “to engage in an analysis of politics,” and yet he too asked: where is the plan? Robart noted the big changes underway: elections for Mayor, City Attorney (“candidates from left and right”), City Council; collective bargaining underway; a police department budget “threatened with abolition and different levels of cuts”; and a Mayor who doesn’t want to tie the hands of the next mayor and thus is postponing significant decisions — including hiring a new permanent police chief.

Robart said that it is not his job to tell the parties what to do, but ironically then offered several suggestions:

  • The city, Mayor, and City Council “need to be constructive, not destructive to progress.”
  • There has been too much “knee-jerk reaction.”
  • The city needs to continue to reduce biases in policing.
  • “Public safety is an imperative for all residents. There is an essential requirement for public safety.”
  • The city needs to “develop a role for SPOG” to advance the progress.

Robart concluded by saying that he is delighted by the innovation he is seeing, and by community groups who are attempting to transform the criminal justice system. He said that the city needs to encourage and scale up the new and developing programs including the ongoing transformation of 911 and the Health One program, while at the same time also improving SPD. “If we were to do that, we would have better inclusion, and a better city, and you would be able to get rid of me.”

And with that, Robart recessed the hearing.

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  1. Thanks Kevin for the great summary of the meetings yesterday and sparing many of us the torture of sitting through them ourselves. Really disappointed to see Council President Gonzales continue the spin that the council’s action had no bearing on officer attrition because they “fully funded” them for 2021. She is clearly gaslighting voters and continuing the council’s terrible habit of avoiding accountability for their rushed and incomplete solutions to the problems facing Seattle. It really speaks to what kind of Mayor she will be and I can only hope Bruce Harrell amplifies her role in the fiasco public safety has become as it will surely be a deciding issue for many voters in November.

  2. Are Andrew lewis and Lisa herbold still endorsing Gonzalez? I’m waiting for them to rescind their endorsements – our city will never have the police we want with Lorena’s bullheadedness and continued inability to admit she has done wrong here.

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