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Panel calls on SPD to 'repair the public trust' after botched CHOP response

caption: Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best stands in front of the Seattle Police Department's abandoned East Precinct building during a press conference on Monday, June 29, 2020, inside the Capitol Hill Organized Protest zone, CHOP, in Seattle. Earlier in the morning, a 16-year-old boy was killed and a 14-year-old boy was critically injured in a shooting.
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Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best stands in front of the Seattle Police Department's abandoned East Precinct building during a press conference on Monday, June 29, 2020, inside the Capitol Hill Organized Protest zone, CHOP, in Seattle. Earlier in the morning, a 16-year-old boy was killed and a 14-year-old boy was critically injured in a shooting.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

A new review from Seattle’s Office of Inspector General is the latest attempt to scrutinize the conduct of Seattle police during June 2020. It calls on SPD to "repair the public trust and safety compromised" during those weeks.

Inspector General Lisa Judge is in charge of reviewing systemic issues within SPD and recommending changes. Judge convened a panel made up of community members, as well as members of the Seattle Police Department to review police handling of those protests two years ago. This report is the third in a series, or Wave 3, in a process the OIG calls Sentinel Event Review.

Many of the panel’s 34 recommendations relate to communication – calling on SPD to better communicate with demonstrators in the future, as when emergency responders needed to reach gunshot victims. The report also criticized SPD for circulating lies to manipulate protesters, and for airing unfounded claims of extortion at a police press conference.

The report notes that SPD’s response to the protesters creating the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP), later renamed the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) “was characterized by a lack of evolution in response to a protest which had changed from a demonstration to an occupy style movement. SPD personnel made several public statements, the accuracy of which was questioned by community. Other tactical decisions made by SPD and the City further undermined public trust and safety, and neither SPD nor the City was able to communicate effectively with the protestors or other community members in the area.”

SPD’s chaotic abandonment of the East Precinct has already been the subject of numerous media reports and lawsuits. The OIG report adds more perspective on the frustrations of police officers, saying “SPD officers also felt unsupported by leadership. SPD panelists felt the City had abandoned the Department, capitulating to protestor unrest and forcing the withdrawal from the East Precinct. Adding to their frustration, the Mayor’s Office regulated all public statements by SPD, preventing the department from engaging with the CHOP to try and establish common ground, rapport, and appropriate public safety.”

Proud Boy "ruse"

The panel recommends more transparency and accountability in the decision-making process going forward. It next reviewed SPD’s attempt to deceive protesters on June by “generating false radio traffic asserting that a group of Proud Boys was marching in Downtown Seattle.” An investigation by the city’s Office of Police Accountability indicated that “an SPD Captain appointed an officer to make false radio broadcasts to draw protestors away from the CHOP.”

While the OPA investigation sustained complaints of misconduct for the ruse, the OIG’s panel “focused discussion on the racism implicit in this ruse and about systemic racism within SPD. Many panelists felt the use of the Proud Boys for the ruse was an intentional manipulation of protestor fear of a violent white supremacist group, used to frighten and undermine the establishment of a Black Lives Matter protest at the height of anti-police tensions in Seattle,” it said.

Panel members also found that “lying to the community in this way was not only contrary to policy, but it was also a poorly considered tactic contributing to tensions in the CHOP.”

Most panel members found that officers’ stated justification for the ruse did not seem credible. The panel also raised concerns that the ruse was performed outside the normal chain of command and radio transmissions were not recorded and stored in accordance with normal SPD procedures.

But the report notes that this issue is under a separate review: “SPD is working to modify its policies involving deception and ruses in collaboration with OIG and a stakeholder workgroup. Panel recommendations were generated without any insight into this ongoing policy development.”

SPD press conference generated "cynicism and distrust"

The panel next examined statements from SPD’s June 10 press conference held by Assistant Chief Deanna Nollette and a June 11 video statement by then-Chief Carmen Best. SPD officials claimed that the East Precinct faced credible threats of being set on fire, and that people in the CHOP were being subjected to extortion and armed checkpoints.

SPD members of the Inspector General's panel confirmed that a reference to “incendiary devices” referred in fact to an unlit candle. Panel members said all of these claims amounted to overstatements by SPD intended to portray CHOP as more dangerous than it actually was.

It said, “Several Panelists noted SPD should have made efforts to communicate with business owners in Capitol Hill to confirm the extortion and armed checkpoint claims or to memorialize the communications, but there is no record of such efforts.”

Ineffective communication led ambulance drivers to flee vehicles with victims

According to the report, the Mayor’s Office announced on June 15 that SPD would respond to significant life-safety issues. But when young men were shot in the area on June 20 and June 29, emergency responders were on different radio frequencies from one another and seemed unable to connect with people calling for help. The report said, “The Panel discussions and analysis of both shootings centered on the ineffective communications between SPD and SFD which caused delays in providing life-saving care.”

KUOW’s Ashley Hiruko first documented the chaos and confusion among police and firefighters after the shooting of Horace Lorenzo Anderson on June 20. On June 29 there was similar confusion between protesters and emergency responders after the shooting of 16-year-old Antonio Mays, Jr., with responders actually fleeing the car carrying the victim.

The report says, “A silver SUV carrying Mr. Mays attempted to meet paramedics at the rendezvous point at 14th Avenue and Union Street. SPD dispatchers provided a description of the vehicle and informed SFD that the medic unit was on their way to the staging area. Despite these communications, the CHOP medics had difficulty connecting with the SFD emergency medical personnel.

"As one civilian medic described it: ‘It took us probably 15 minutes just chasing one paramedic around that was supposed to be waiting for us on 14th and Union -- and once we got to him, he and the Chief looked directly at me on top of the car covered in blood, and they look at each other and they bust a U-turn and they start speeding down the road. And then we finally catch up with the paramedics, they're like three or four blocks away from us. So we finally catch up to them, they see us, and they take off again. And so we're in another high-speed chase with the paramedics.’”

A Seattle Fire Department spokesperson said the ambulance crew perceived the car pursuing them “as a threat,” saying, “[The ambulances] encountered a Nissan Pathfinder driving erratically towards them with someone riding on top of the vehicle. The responding crew perceived this as a threat, and as this area had not yet been secured by SPD, attempted to drive away from the vehicle and continue to the staging location. The crew was unaware during this time that this vehicle was carrying a patient.”

The OIG report stated, “Even after reviewing SFD’s explanation of the incident, Panelists did not understand why SFD paramedics drove away from the civilian SUV carrying one of the shooting victims on June 29th , particularly given SPD’s communication to SFD that the silver SUV was approaching them for assistance.”

The panel recommended that SPD and Seattle Fire ensure that “operational staff have real-time, direct lines of communication during emergencies.”

The report includes contributions from Donnitta Sinclair-Martin, the mother of Horace Lorenzo Anderson, who was shot and killed on June 20. She spoke to the panel in May 2022: “She described her heartbreak watching videos of the SFD medics waiting for clearance to enter the CHOP and her frustration with lack of information provided to her from Harborview staff. She was informed of her son’s death when Harborview staff asked if she wanted to donate his organs.”

Inspector General Lisa Judge said SPD will respond to each recommendation.

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