OPA weighs in on decision to evacuate East Precinct

This afternoon the Office of Professional Accountability released its findings on SPD’s decision to evacuate the East Precinct last June. It provides a detailed account of the meetings and decisions leading up to the evacuation, and confirmation (mostly) of KUOW’s reporting on who ultimately made the decision.

First, it’s important to place some context on the OPA report: it is focused on investigating formal complaints that then-Chief Carmen Best and Assistant Chief for Patrol Operations Tom Mahaffey neglected their duty by deciding to abandon the East Precinct (or allowing it to be abandoned) and to a lesser extent whether SPD should have re-entered the East Precinct earlier than it did.

By reviewing communications and interviewing several of the persons directly involved, the OPA pieces together its own narrative of exactly what happened on June 8th. The report gives that narrative, as well as detailed accounts of the testimony given by SPD and Mayor’s Office staff.  Their conclusion, concurring with KUOW’s story, is that Mahaffey gave the order to evacuate. However, they also concluded that Mahaffey consulted Best as he made the decision; there remains some ambiguity as to whether Best “concurred” or simply acknowledged that it was Mahaffey’s decision to make, but either way she did not fault him for making the decision.

The OPA narrative also makes clear that there were two separate decisions made, at two separate times. On the morning of the 8th, after continued escalation of the conflicts between protesters and police the night before, several SPD command staff met with several members of the Mayor’s Office to discuss the situation. That meeting included Best, Mahaffey, SPD’s Assistant Chief of the Professional Standards Bureau, Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller, Deputy Mayor Mike Fong, and the Mayor’s chief of staff, Stephanie Formas; the Mayor was not at the meeting (she had just been doxxed and was moving her family out of her house for their safety). According to the Mayor’s office asked SPD for a very specific plan in anticipation that the barricades surrounding the East Precinct would be taken down that afternoon:

Following the overnight violence and subsequent fallout, the Mayor called another meeting on June 8 at the Emergency Operations Center. Prior to this meeting, at 10:27 A.M., the Deputy Mayor of Operations text messaged NE#1 and the Assistant Chief of the Professional Standards Bureau,5 stating: “I want to see a plan to remove firearms, ammunition, and all evidence from the East Precinct today. That plan should be capable of being fully executed by 5pm today.”


At that meeting, SPD presented “The Outline,” a document laying out four potential options for how to move forward. According to the account of an officer involved in writing it, The Outline’s four options were:

(1) “maintain a current posture with hard barricades, best option to protect the East Precinct, safest option for officers and protesters”; (2) “remove [all of the] the barriers…, establish bicycle fencing around the sidewalk of the East Precinct, officers manning perimeters behind the fence line, extreme risk of damage to or loss to the East Precinct, will force officers to confront and protect selves with OC and other munitions for officer safety if precinct is attacked, highly likely the officers will sustain injuries in defense of the precinct”; (3) “remove barriers, all of them, establish bicycle fencing around the sidewalk of the East Precinct, officers inside the precinct, not visible on the street, extreme risk of damage or loss to the East Precinct, will force officers to judge and protect selves or others with OC or other munitions for officer safety if precinct is attacked, highly likely officers will sustain injuries in defense of the precinct, evacuation of officers and staff and property will be difficult or impossible”; (4) “remove barricades, no bicycle fencing around the precinct, remove officers and staff and property from the precinct, observe from a distance, very likely that the precinct will be destroyed.”

At the meeting, the Mayor’s Office directed that the barricades be taken down in the afternoon so that protesters could march past the East Precinct, but it left up to SPD to decide how to handle the East Precinct itself. Chief Best delegated those decisions to Mahaffey. Of note, during that meeting one of the SPD staff members took a phone call with counterparts at the FBI, who informed them that there were credible threats that individuals intended to try to set fire to the East Precinct. As the meeting ended, the decision had not been made to evacuate the East Precinct; however there was a clear shared understanding that evidence, equipment and firearms needed to be secured and/or disabled, if not removed entirely. It was Mahaffey’s job to see to that.

According to the OPA’s account of its interview with Mahaffey, as work began to prepare the East Precinct and remove the barriers, he became convinced that there was no practical way to protect the lives of SPD staff, as well as sensitive materials, so he ordered the evacuation of personnel as well. For the OPA’s account of its interview with Mahaffey (listed as “Named Employee #2″ or NE#2”):

NE#2 noted that, after the June 8 meeting ended, he had limited time to decide how best to protect the East Precinct, its personnel, and physical assets. NE#2 believed he may only have a matter of hours to execute any plan to secure the building and anything inside. NE#2 described that a “panic-type” situation unfolded at the East Precinct. He said that information about the street opening leaked out and a significant crowd was forming. NE#2 ordered sensitive SPD property be removed from the building and computer systems shut down but, given the limited amount of time, “it spun a little bit more…it just was too much to manage.” NE#2 described getting as many people involved as he could due to the logistics he had to arrange and that the situation “started taking on a life of its own.” NE#2 described that NE#1 was fully aware of his efforts to remove sensitive items from the precinct, but that he never considered the removal as an “abandonment” of the building. Instead, NE#2 believed it was an effort to remove sensitive items in order to keep them safe. Ultimately, NE#2 said that he ordered personnel to evacuate the building as well, elaborating:

I had to weigh what was put in front of me, based on the current concerns I had. I mean, I think—ultimately, our hand was forced by us not being allowed to use the tactics that I suggested to better fortify and secure the building, so left with minimal options, uh, I took the best course of action that I felt at the time was necessary, again, to protect the sensitive files, our computer systems, and not allow firearms to fall in the wrong hands, to get, uh, police vehicles that we didn’t want destroyed out of—out of there, uh, you know, with—that’s what I was left with, that’s what I had to deal with, and that’s what I felt was necessary to do at the time.

NE#2 confirmed that no one at the Mayor’s Office specifically ordered SPD to evacuate the precinct, but that the potential consequences of the Mayor’s Office’s directive to SPD to remove all barricades and allow the protesters to pass by on the street had been “very clearly” explained to the Mayor’s Office. At his first interview, NE#2 further stated that he never discussed the evacuation of personnel with NE#1 specifically, but that they had been in communication about removing sensitive items from the precinct and that NE#1 recognized that NE#2 was going to take the steps that “were necessary to secure the building and prevent what we had seen on the previous six or seven nights.”

NE#2 denied that the decision to evacuate the East Precinct was made in retaliation for a lack of political support from the Mayor’s Office. Instead, NE#2 stated that SPD was given the responsibility of public safety and that, when SPD’s tools were limited, they managed the best they could under the direction they were given. NE#2 told OPA that “giving up” or “simply walking away” was not an option that SPD “could possibly take.” Furthermore, NE#2 denied that he had any idea that something like CHOP/CHAZ would be established in the absence of SPD from the East Precinct. NE#2 stated that he instead believed the principal risk was the physical destruction of the East Precinct.  NE#2 agreed that the establishment of CHOP/CHAZ affected SPD’s ability to effectively police the area. However, once an armed CHOP/CHAZ perimeter was established and SPD leadership observed that the East Precinct was not being destroyed, a decision was made to hold off taking back the precinct because reestablishing a police presence in the area would require significant planning.

That last part it important, and is reiterated by several individuals: at the time the decision was made to evacuate the East Precinct, the expectation was that it was only overnight and SPD would be able to re-enter the building the following morning. According to testimony given by SPD staff, officers planned to stage at Volunteer Park that night in order to be able to respond quickly to the vicinity of the East Precinct building if necessary, and to be able to provide police service to the remainder of the East Precinct’s territory. No one at SPD or the Mayor’s Office anticipated that the CHAZ/CHOP would form overnight, with armed protesters patrolling the space.

The OPA’s report details that Mahaffey’s decision to evacuate was made at approximately 3:00pm that afternoon. He claims that he spoke by phone with Chief Best, at that time, and she “concurred” with his decision. OPA found phone records that verify that Mahaffey and Best spoke twice by phone at about 3pm. Best, who was interviewed several months after the incident (and after she had resigned from SPD) said that she did not recall speaking with Mahaffey; however, she supported Mahaffey in that it was his call to make and he was not being subordinate in ordering the evacuation — though she did say that she wished she had been consulted in advance.

With regard to the complaints against Best and Mahaffey related to the decision to evacuate the East Precinct, the OPA found al of the allegations unfounded, having seen enough evidence that they were responding to credible evidence of threats against the building in the context of an order from the Mayor’s Office to remove the barricades separating the East Precinct from protesters.

OPA notes that NE#2’s decision was clearly impacted by the short amount of time he had to plan and consider alternatives, as well as by all of the other technical and tactical matters that needed to be worked out (and that may not even have been known of at the time).

Finally, the decision to evacuate the East Precinct was, by every account, intended to be temporary. The plan was for police services to be maintained within the confines of the East Precinct from a staging area at Volunteer Park until the following morning, when SPD intended to reoccupy the East Precinct. This also would have allowed officers to respond to imminent life safety issues at the precinct if needed.

Given all of the above, OPA finds that NE#2 made a decision—albeit one that was controversial among a wide swath of the community and officers—that was reasonable based on the information he had. This decision was an incredibly difficult one and it is clear from NE#2’s testimony, as well as from the accounts provided by WO#1, WO#2, and WO#4, that he struggled immensely to make it and that he likely would have chosen another outcome that did not include evacuation had it been feasible at the time.

To find otherwise would be to engage in a hindsight analysis divorced from the immense pressures and time constraints that NE#2 and many others in the City faced at that time. Any contrary decision would also serve to entertain speculation that there was some alternative. No one—including OPA—can say that such an alternative strategy would have produced better results than those that occurred or that it would have prevented CHOP/CHAZ from forming, just as no one can say this unidentified alternative strategy would not have resulted in more uses of force to disperse the crowd and, potentially, to rescue stranded and endangered officers left inside of the precinct. Indeed, such conflicts were exactly what both the Mayor’s Office and SPD were trying to avoid.

However, the OPA does raise several criticisms of the department’s lack of transparency both as the events were transpiring and in the following days or months. It faults the department generally for putting out vague statements related to its plans on June 8th and for not disclosing who made the key decisions:

Finally, in OPA’s perspective, a misstep by SPD was concerning the lack of information provided to the public in the aftermath of the decision to evacuate the precinct. Even without getting into the reasoning for the decision and arguing the merits publicly, SPD could have generally informed the public that the Mayor asked for the streets to be opened, that NE#2 ultimately made the call to evacuate, and that the authority to do so was delegated to him by NE#1. Instead, this issue was left open in excess of a year, and it was up to the public and media to speculate as to what occurred, at times by sorting through sometimes vague and ambiguous statements and incomplete information. This appeared, at least in OPA’s estimation, to create a sense of distrust within community and the belief that there was something nefarious at play, when this was established to not be the case when all of the facts were uncovered. SPD leadership should continue to endeavor to communicate decisions of public concern in a clear, transparent, and timely fashion.

In retrospect, it appears that Chief Best told half-truths in her public statements after the abandonment of the East Precinct: she truthfully said that she did not personally make the decision, but she claimed not to know who did — while the evidence suggests that she did and was probably consulted at the time the decision was made.

The OPA’s investigation concluded that SPD command staff should not be held at fault for waiting so long to re-occupy the East Precinct:

Lastly, the community member complainants appeared to allege that NE#1 and her command staff abused their discretion by allowing CHOP/CHAZ to remain in place from approximately June 8 through July 1. As discussed above, this decision similarly involved weighty calculations as to whether a police presence could be reintroduced—and armed resistance overcome—without an unreasonable risk of injury or, potentially, death to protesters and police personnel. Again, OPA believes that, under the circumstances, this did not constitute an abuse of discretion.

In a press release today accompanying the investigation report, OPA Director Andrew Myerberg defending his office’s decision not to sustain any of the allegations against Best or Mahaffey.

On June 8, the Mayor’s Office directed the Chief to remove the barricades and permit demonstrators to pass along the street. The Chief did so and delegated the specifics of maintaining continuous police operations within the confines of the East Precinct to her Assistant Chief. Ultimately, the Assistant Chief, in consultation with other commanders, ordered all police personnel to evacuate the East Precinct facility. OPA found this to be a reasonable decision based on the information available and the Assistant Chief’s need to protect both the East Precinct and the physical safety of protesters and SPD officers under his command. According to OPA Director Andrew Myerberg, “To find otherwise would be to engage in hindsight analysis divorced from the immense pressures and time constraints that the Assistant Chief faced at the time. No one can definitively say that any alternative strategy—even if one were feasible—would have produced better results.”

With this OPA report, there are finally some answers — though not necessarily satisfying ones, and little sign of accountability for a situation that went very, very wrong. Many of the people involved in the two key decisions that day have left the employment of the Mayor’s Office and SPD, or will in less than three months when Mayor Durkan leaves office. And while the OPA’s desire to avoid second-guessing command decisions made in a crisis is understandable, its only recommendation for improvement is in external communication. Clearly, though, the internal communication could have been improved as well, as there appears to have been substantial chaos throughout the day and evening as decisions were being made and the East Precinct building was abandoned in haste. But  what is perhaps more unsettling is the lack of any recommendations for how decisions should be made around SPD’s potential abandonment of facilities, regardless of whether the emergency is a riot, a fire, an earthquake, or some other form of natural or man-made event. Crisis-response experts make clear that as much as possible planning and decision-matrices should be done in advance, when the pressure of the moment isn’t clouding judgement. In this case, it’s clear that SPD did not (and probably still does not) have clear criteria for when (or how) to evacuate a precinct building, and how to do so in a manner that minimizes impacts and maintains public safety and police services. If that isn’t fixed, then the city will have truly learned nothing from last summer’s events.

Click to access 2020OPA-0354ccs093021.pdf

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One comment

  1. Did anyone ever unwind back to the original disastrous decision which is closing the street? Given history, if that was policy, it should have been changed long ago. If not policy, how was that decision made? The results are pretty much determined by that first act, in my opinion. The rest was pretty much guaranteed.

    Epic fail of all the police reform work to date. Let’s correct this.

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