Report: Abandonment of Seattle police precinct didn't violate policy
Two Seattle PD leaders were investigated in connection with the June 2020 evacuation orders
By Elise Takahama
The Seattle Times
SEATTLE — The Seattle Police Department's abandonment of its East Precinct on Capitol Hill during last summer's racial justice protests did not violate any laws or department policies, the city's police oversight office found Monday.
The Office of Police Accountability has released its findings from a monthslong investigation into the abandonment of the precinct on June 8, 2020, after 10 days of protests over George Floyd's murder by a Minneapolis police officer in late May.
Two SPD leaders were investigated in connection with the evacuation orders — "the then Chief of Police" and the "Assistant Chief of Patrol Operations." Though OPA didn't name either person in its report, Carmen Best was SPD chief at the time, and Assistant Chief Thomas Mahaffey heads the department's patrol operations. Mahaffey also has been named in an ongoing lawsuit against the city as the one who ultimately gave the order to leave the precinct.
In the lawsuit, filed in King County Superior Court last week, a recently demoted Seattle police commander accuses interim SPD Chief Adrian Diaz of discriminating against him and unfairly blaming him for his actions last summer, while other officers, such as Mahaffey, were never disciplined for their roles in the clashes with protesters.
In the OPA investigation, launched after Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold and multiple community members filed complaints, Best and the assistant chief each faced four allegations of misconduct: that they failed to take responsibility for their respective commands, did not adhere to laws or policy, used improper discretion and were unprofessional. None of the allegations was sustained by OPA.
The precinct was abandoned a little over a week after nightly protests on Capitol Hill made their way to the building. During that time, SPD closed off street access with fence barricades to "maintain a perimeter around the East Precinct," the Monday OPA statement said. The barricades became flashpoints for nightly standoffs between police and protesters, often resulting in protesters throwing objects at officers and officers using tear gas, blast balls and other weapons against the crowd.
SPD eventually found that the street fencing was "ineffective" and "repeatedly dismantled by demonstrators," the report said. By early June, there was "significant political pressure for SPD to change tactics and de-escalate tensions," according to OPA.
The report noted that SPD command staff was particularly concerned about maintaining a perimeter around the precinct because they said they had received "intelligence from the FBI" that government buildings could be targeted by some protesters. Officers were worried about the East Precinct in particular because it housed police vehicles, firearms, investigative files and "other sensitive information," OPA said.
On June 8, Mayor Jenny Durkan's office ordered Best to remove the barricades and allow protesters to pass along the street. Best then went on to delegate the "specifics of maintaining continuous police operations within the confines of the East Precinct to her Assistant Chief," OPA said. That night, the assistant chief, along with other commanders, decided to order all officers to evacuate the precinct.
Best has repeatedly said it wasn't her decision to abandon the precinct and that she wasn't informed of the order beforehand, though she has declined to say who exactly made the ultimate call.
The evacuation came as a surprise to deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller, who had met on the morning of June 8 with the mayor, Best and other leaders, he told The Seattle Times in a recent interview.
Best and her commanders had shown up armed and in uniform, dead set against the idea of letting protesters any closer to the precinct, he recalled. Sixkiller and others in Durkan's office thought a change had to be made to defuse the situation on Capitol Hill, but the police commanders were stuck in a "bunker mentality," he said.
There was a heated debate. The police commanders met in a side room and then departed. Sixkiller thought they would return at some point with a decision, he said.
Later in the day, Sixkiller and other Durkan officials watched on TV screens at the city's emergency operations center as officers evacuated the East Precinct.
"It was surreal. We were going, 'What are they doing?'" he said. "They were supposed to come back with a plan."
During OPA's investigation, the office interviewed two of the three community member complainants — the third declined an interview — as well as 11 employees from SPD and Durkan's office. The office also reviewed Best's and Durkan's public statements, public reporting on the incident, cellphone call logs between Best and her assistant chief, and emails and texts from a handful of SPD command staff.
Most of what the interviewees said and emails and texts showed line up, OPA found. Confusion remains, however, around whether or not Best knew of the decision to leave the precinct beforehand.
In two interviews, the assistant chief told OPA investigators that during the June 8 meeting, he made an "impassioned plea" to defend the precinct and advocated for the city to allow SPD to install permanent fencing, but "the Mayor's Chief of Staff rejected this plan."
Afterward, he recognized he had only "a matter of hours" to assess a plan to secure the building or anything inside, and a "panic-type" situation began to unfold as word of the street opening leaked and "a significant crowd was forming," the report states.
The assistant chief said he opted to remove sensitive items from the precinct and ultimately ordered personnel to evacuate.
During his first interview with OPA, the assistant chief said he never discussed the evacuation with Best specifically, but told her about removing sensitive items.
In a second interview, he claimed he had told Best "exactly what we were going to do" and noted that he would never make such a significant decision without running it by the chief.
But Best claimed during her OPA interview that she "wasn't part of that decision." Nonetheless, Best defended to the OPA her assistant's decision to abandon the precinct and denied that it amounted to insubordination, noting she had "every confidence in him," the report states.
In all, OPA said Monday it found the decision was "reasonable" — "based on the information available and the Assistant Chief's need to protect both the East Precinct and the physical safety of the protesters and SPD officers under his command."
"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," OPA Director Andrew Myerberg said in the Monday statement.
After the precinct was vacated, OPA received complaints that Best failed to take responsibility for her command and that the evacuation led to the establishment of the Capitol Hill Organized Protest, or CHOP. The office found, however, that Best did not violate law or SPD policy when she delegated decisions to her assistant chief.
OPA also found "no consensus within SPD command or the Mayor's Office that opening the streets around the East Precinct — and the ensuing evacuation of personnel — would result in the establishment of CHOP."
The precinct remained, for the most part, empty for about a month after officers left, which OPA said was "reasonable" given "the number of protesters in the area and the clear presence of armed resistance."
In a Monday statement, SPD said the department "recognizes its 2020 response to protests — especially in the weeks after George Floyd's murder — negatively impacted many people of Seattle." It later continued, "The turmoil outside the East Precinct during the summer of 2020 presented the SPD with opportunities to learn and improve."
Since the OPA investigation began, SPD said it has adopted new tactics, including reducing the department's visible footprint around crowded events; clarifying the rights, roles and identification of volunteer medics, media and legal observers; emphasizing de-escalation tactics when controlling crowds; and providing consistency in warnings around using weapons like pepper spray against crowds.
Herbold, the council member who filed one of the initial complaints, on Monday said, "these findings, I believe, fail to get at the questions I asked OPA to review."
Among her concerns, Herbold noted that the OPA investigation "in a large way" relied on the FBI's information about protesters' generalized threats to target government buildings — not specific threats to the precinct — when concluding that no policy was violated with the decision to evacuate the building. She added that the OPA didn't make a determination as to whether the decision was made independently of Best, as the chief has said it was.
Angelo Calfo, a lawyer who represents a group suing the city over the precinct's abandonment, declined to comment Monday, saying he had yet to read the report. His clients include residents and businesses who allege that they were harmed by the evacuation of the precinct and subsequent formation of the CHOP.
The group's suit was among several that came in the aftermath of a series of events in mid-2020, including the department's use of tear gas, the precinct's abandonment, fatal shootings near CHOP and Best's resignation as chief. Black Lives Matter's Seattle- King County group also has sued the city, accusing the Police Department of deploying unnecessary violence against protesters.
Revelations that the text messages of the city's top decision-makers at the time — including Mayor Jenny Durkan, Best and other police commanders — were deleted have thwarted some evidence discovery in the existing lawsuits and led to others. Among them, a Seattle Times suit alleges that the city's mishandling of reporters' requests for texts during the tumultuous period has "hampered the Times' watchdog efforts at City Hall."
While OPA found that the decision to leave the precinct was consistent with department policy, Myerberg recommended that in the future SPD use more transparency when communicating about decisions of public concern.
"In this case, the public and media were forced to speculate as to what occurred," he said. "In OPA's estimation, this created a sense of distrust and belief that there was something nefarious at play, when, in fact, there wasn't."
Seattle Times reporters Lewis Kamb and Daniel Beekman contributed to this report.
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