December 2020

End-of-year wrap-up and looking around the bend

I’ve been winding down a bit for the holidays, but let’s do a round-up of the week, shall we?

On Monday, we had the last Seattle Council Briefing and City Council meeting of the year. The next ones won’t be until after the Winter Recess on January 4.

The Black Brilliance Project presented on their preliminary research. Their full report will be completed on December 21, aka Monday. So far they have five main areas they feel need more investment:

  1. Housing and physical spaces, especially Black-led, both residential and commercial
  2. Mental health networks that are culturally responsive and have a new and equitable payment structure
  3. Childcare and out-of-school time supports, especially for children facing/recovering from trauma
  4. Economic development/economic relief, especially because of the pandemic
  5. Alternatives to the 911 and crisis response system, staffed by community members

The goal is for this research to ultimately inform the participatory budgeting process happening next year, and some more details about that (and the associated steering committee) should be included in the report on the 21st.

Also on Monday, the Council voted to accept all the grants received, including the one from the Department of Homeland Security, after being assured by Director Noble that the money won’t be spent until any outstanding questions are answered. They also voted to approve the extra spending of the SPD in 2020, with the intention of cutting the SPD’s overtime budget by $5.4m in 2021 to make up the difference.

The Office for Civil Rights just announced the recipients of $1m worth of grants for investments in public safety, which are going to the Collective Power and Capacity Building Coalition (which includes Choose 180, Community Passageways, Collective Justice, and Creative Justice) and the Seattle branch of BUILD.

There was a minor kerfluffle this week when the CPC asked the SPD some substantive questions about their recent changes to their use-of-force and crowd-control policies, only to have SPD Assistant Chief Leslie Cordner back out of attending their meeting at the last moment, saying she couldn’t discuss the policies in depth with the CPC until after the OPA and OIG review them in January. Not exactly a move to inspire confidence or community trust. You can read more about the policy changes at SCC Insight, which the CPC feels have little overlap with the recommendations they made in August.

Looking ahead, the legislation we talked about last week to give the OPA and OIG subpoena powers has been voted out of committee and is slated to be on the introduction and referral calendar on January 4, which means a vote of full Council as early as January 11. There will probably also be continued discussion about creating a needs-based legal defense, with potential legislation on this possibly being introduced in the Public Safety and Human Resources committee. We can expect further developments in the participatory budgeting process and its associated steering committee, as well as hopefully some more transparency from the Mayor’s task force that will also be distributing funds in 2021.

Meanwhile, the Washington State legislative session will begin on January 11 and run for about nine weeks until mid-March. Police reform is one of the three top priorities of the session, and we can expect to see many bills introduced on the topic, so there will be a lot more to discuss in this vein come January. The SPOG contract negotiations here in Seattle are due to begin in the New Year as well, and while the details of those negotiations are private, the final outcome will have huge implications for public safety in Seattle for potentially years to come.

And we can expect the Mayor’s race to begin to heat up. The primary isn’t until August of next year, but with the incumbent not running for re-election, the field is wide open and we could see a large range of candidates declaring their intentions to run.

And with that, I’ll wish you a very happy weekend! If anything critical happens in the next few weeks I might send out a quick update, but I expect/hope things will be on the quiet side until we cross over into 2021. Please have a safe and happy holiday season and New Year, and thank you from the bottom of my heart for your engagement and support.

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Seattle City Council attempts to hold SPD accountable for excessive overtime usage

An update on yesterday’s Finance & Housing committee meeting:

There were three items of note discussed at this meeting that pertained to the SPD:

  • Legislation involving the acceptance of grants included a few grants given to the SPD, including one from the Department of Homeland Security. There was some concern over exactly what a loudspeaker listed was (although everyone seemed pretty confident it wasn’t a weapon) and concern over the type of training that would be funded. I haven’t read the list of equipment funded, but it sounded like most, if not all of it, was related to emergency preparedness as opposed to militarization. The Mayor’s Office and SPD are supposed to report back on the few open questions remaining about said equipment and training before this legislation is voted on at Monday’s Council meeting.
  • The SPD is asking for an additional $5.4m for 2020. While the stated costs that need to be covered are parental leave, FEMA reimbursement, and separation costs for larger than anticipated attrition, it is clear the reason these costs haven’t yet been paid is because the SPD already spent this money on overtime. The Council has been trying to rein in the SPD’s use of overtime for many years. They were reluctant to simply refuse them the money at this time due to issues of liability, but instead they passed a statement of intent that they will trim the 2021 SPD budget of at least $5.4m early next year so the SPD still faces consequences. The Council hopes that monthly reportage of SPD overtime that should start next year will help keep these costs in check in future.
  • The Council was supposed to vote on legislation that would lift the provisos on $2.9m of the SPD’s 2020 budget placed during the summer rebalancing efforts. The Mayor’s Budget Office projects the SPD will need exactly this much money to meet their expenses through the end of 2020, but some of the CMs suspect the SPD might underspend more than anticipated and therefore don’t want to release the money until after the true spending figure for the year is known. After some debate CM Mosqueda won her point and they tabled this topic until early next year, when any discrepancies can be fixed with the annual exceptions ordinance that they pass every year to clean up loose strings. This means the Council will be able to recover the maximum amount of money from the SPD that is possible, if in fact the SPD does underspend by any amount.

The Minneapolis City Council just passed their new budget, which cuts the police budget by slightly more than 4%, with the $8m cut being allocated to alternate investments in public safety. The City Council there had discussed shrinking the police force from 888 to 750 beginning in 2022, but after the Mayor threatened to veto the budget if they did this, they changed their minds in a close 7-6 vote. Minneapolis has been struggling to make any real progress on reform or defunding since the summer protests, running into repeated roadblocks.

In better news, the new DA of Los Angeles, George Gascón, wants to make sweeping changes to the criminal justice system, including stopping most uses of cash bail, prioritizing re-sentencing inmates who are serving excessive sentences, and calling for a Use of Force Review Board. His office will no longer seek the death penalty in Los Angelos County and will begin reviewing current cases with a judgment of death. While he faces opposition to these reforms, this is an excellent example of how important and transformative local elections have the power to be.

And, finally, an eye-opening chart from the Washington Post:



Next week the City Council will be trying to tie up some loose ends before the start of the Winter Recess, as well as hearing a presentation on the Black Brilliance Research Project preliminary report. In the meantime, have a great weekend!

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Never a dull moment in Seattle politics

We’ve had a busy couple of days in Seattle politics, so let’s catch up on recent events, shall we? I’m afraid this is a long one!

Mayor Durkan announced she won’t be running for a second term next year. There’s been speculation for months that she might be offered a position in the Biden administration so we’ll see if that comes to pass. After making a big deal about how she was paying her own legal defense fees against a recall unlike CM Sawant, she is now asking for the City to pay her fees, an early signal of this announcement.

What does this mean for Seattle? We’re in for an interesting election season!

At Council Briefing yesterday, the CMs talked about their committee meetings and what they’re discussing this month. In addition to today’s Public Safety and HSD meeting (more about that in a minute), there was an education and governance committee meeting this afternoon to discuss new grassroots lobbying regulations. The interim director of HSD, Director Johnson, is stepping down, as is Randy Engstrom from the Office of Arts and Culture.

There is also a special meeting of the Housing and Finance Committee tomorrow at 1pm. Among other things (including new COVID relief for restaurants and restaurant workers), they’ll be speaking about additional SPD overtime expenses in 2020, and it has the potential to get a bit heated.

The Council also adopted the City of Seattle’s state legislative agenda for 2021.

Remember the lawsuit brought against the City by Black Lives Matter Seattle King County and the ACLU? Well, the judge is holding the city of Seattle in contempt for violating his crowd control injunction. He found four clear instances of the SPD violating this injunction between late August and September; three of these instances involved blast balls. He said he was also troubled by how many instances were inconclusive. The plaintiffs have until Friday to submit their proposal for sanctions and the City will have a week to respond. The City could also choose to appeal the ruling.

There was a Public Safety and HSD committee meeting this morning, with three items on the agenda: the semi-annual accountability report from the OPA, OIG, and CPC; discussion on legislation to give the OPA and OIG subpoena powers; and discussion about the possibility of creating a basic needs defense for misdemeanors. During public comment, 10 people spoke against this basic needs defense and 8 people spoke in favor of it; there were also a few comments on the police accountability system being broken.

I’ll limit my comments here about the OPA and OIG subpoena powers to saying that even were this legislation to pass, it would still need to be bargained with the police unions, so it would take awhile to be implemented. It is, however, a positive change in terms of increased accountability. There has been some speculation that city government is using this legislation to assume a tougher stance for the upcoming contract negotiations with SPOG.

The misdemeanor basic needs defense is receiving a lot of negative attention, which is somewhat baffling as it probably wouldn’t change much in terms of how things are currently being done. The current City Attorney already has a policy of not prosecuting necessity cases as a matter of principle. There is also a lot of misinformation about this proposal being spread.

This proposal does NOT decriminalize misdemeanors. What it does is create an affirmative defense to misdemeanors committed in order to fulfill basic needs (other examples of affirmative defenses are the common law defense of necessity and the “under duress” defense). An affirmative defense requires the defendant to admit to the crime and then present extenuating circumstances, in this case, circumstances of poverty, allowing the judge and jury to hear the defendants’ stories and factor them into their decisions.

A lot of the discussion today was highly technical in nature, reviewing various possibilities of what this legislation could look like. The King County’s Director of Public Defense and a representative from the City Attorney’s Office were both present to answer questions and present their departments’ views on various aspects of this issue. Both departments are generally in favor of this potential legislation but differ in the details of how they believe it should be written. More details can be found in my tweets above if you’re interested in the nitty gritty. This proposal will continue to be discussed in January.

There will be a special Public Safety and HSD committee meeting on Thursday, December 17 at 9:30am. Discussion of the basic needs defense will NOT be on the agenda, although CM Herbold didn’t say what would be discussed.

Kevin Schofield reported on the Black Brilliance Project last week and is concerned about some red flags he found. Because I think local journalism exists to provide scrutiny, I don’t object to this deep dive nor think it differs substantially from the deep dives Kevin routinely does. What he glosses over is that this research project is emphatically not business as usual for the City and seeks to do research in a different way, centering different populations, and by populations that are typically not paid to do this kind of work. As such, it is not surprising that this effort would not look the same as other past research projects, nor is it surprising that rules might be bent in the process. Kevin says:

But taking this kind of approach to surfacing embedded wisdom is high-risk: for the Council as it cuts corners and bends the rules; for KCEN as it pushes the edges of creativity at the expense of rigor; for BIPOC communities as they place their hopes on this effort to deliver solutions for them; and for the city as a whole: if the intent is to downsize SPD across the whole city, then the alternatives stood up in its place will also need to be city-wide.

I do agree this is a high-risk project, and I will go further and say it always has been. There has always been an enormous amount of pressure on this attempt to divest from policing and re-invest in community alternatives to public safety, working against significant resistance. Whatever the details of the Black Brilliance project, the risk was going to be there. That being said, KCEN’s preliminary research report will be delivered on December 21, so in less than two weeks we’ll have a much better idea of the details behind the project.

If anything interesting transpires at tomorrow’s special Finance meeting, I’ll be sending a (hopefully brief) update to keep you in the loop.

I hope you’re staying warm and dry on this rainy December evening!

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And the wheel continues to turn slowly

Just a quick update to keep you apprised of current happenings in Seattle, starting with yesterday’s Council Briefing.

During the briefing, there was a second presentation on Seattle’s state legislative lobbying agenda. This agenda will be voted on at the full Council meeting on either December 7 (their goal) or December 14. You can read the current draft of the agenda.

Apparently there is still a chance of a short special state legislative session before the main one beginning in January. However, there’s not much time left to make this happen. There was also another state revenue forecast last week, with positive news that the projected state deficit has shrunk from $10b to $3.3b. The downside to this news is that it may reduce the urgency of lawmakers to pass more progressive taxation legislation this session. Also of note is a new section in Seattle’s lobbying agenda calling for the decriminalization of transportation activity:

We support the decriminalization of transportation activity to improve safety for travelers and the public. We support ending the use of weaponized enforcement for traffic violations and allowing non-uniformed officers, including those working for a local city department that is not a police department, to perform garage and event management activities. We support decriminalizing pedestrian activities such as loitering and jaywalking, which disproportionately impact BIPOC communities. We support setting traffic citation amounts based on income to avoid perpetuating cycles of poverty while ensuring enforcement remains an effective deterrent regardless of an individual’s income and providing additional mitigation for marginalized communities.

In other news, the next Public Safety and Human Services committee meeting will be next Tuesday, December 8 at 9:30am. On the agenda are a discussion about granting the OPA and OIG subpoena powers, a presentation from Co-LEAD, and a discussion about the principles behind CM Herbold’s previous proposal to create defenses for people committing certain misdemeanors when poverty, mental illness, or substance abuse is involved. I plan to live-tweet this one.

Other issues discussed at Council Briefing this week included a COVID relief package for restaurants and restaurant workers; a new project on permanent supportive housing and ways to adjust land use controls to make building it cheaper and faster, presented by CM Lewis (expect more discussion of this in future weeks); and the skyrocketing numbers of COVID-19 cases in our area.

Also yesterday was a legislative preview of police reforms from the Washington State House Public Safety Committee. Among the speakers were several family members of victims of police violence, a few proponents of police reform such as Tim Burgess and Anne Levinson, and representatives of various police groups and unions. The committee chair, Rep. Roger Goodman, said he expected there to be around a dozen proposals to discuss in January, and that they will dedicate entire two-hour hearings to individual bills as necessary. Among the issues under discussion are a state-wide use of force policy; a bill on police tactics that would include a ban on all chokeholds and neck restraints, more limitations on police dog duties, and cessation of no knock warrants; an independent state agency to investigate and prosecute police misconduct relating to deadly force; a statewide requirement for deescalation; a robust decertification system and reporting on officer misconduct by other officers; a publicly searchable database of officer misconduct and also potentially various effectiveness measures; arbitration reform; reforming collective bargaining so that accountability laws aren’t part of bargaining; etc. It’s going to be a busy session, although it’s also good to keep in mind that the legislative process is designed to cause the majority of bills to fail.

The representatives from police groups and unions spoke about the need for more education and training, including implicit bias training, as well as the importance of health, wellness, and resiliency programs for officers. While there are a few areas of overlap for support of reforms depending on the group, overall these groups are not in favor of many of the reforms discussed above.

A moment worth highlighting was when Rep. Lovick asked Tim Burgess why reforms up to this point have not worked. Mr. Burgess had a lengthy reply to this question, and among other things, he said, “The ability of police unions to build in obstacles to reform is extremely detrimental.”

Finally, San Francisco has launched a pilot program for a Street Crisis Response Team now responding to 911 calls related to mental health and addiction. We’ve talked about developing a similar response team in Seattle based on the CAHOOTS model, and it’s great to see other cities jumping on board with this idea.

And the wheel continues to turn slowly Read More »