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Sawant claims police slowed investigation into threats, City and SPD tell different story

Councilmember Kshama Sawant. (Seattle City Council, Flickr Creative Commons)

In January, City Councilmember Kshama Sawant called on Mayor Jenny Durkan and Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz to look into multiple threats she had received from a city employee’s email account. On Wednesday, she claimed that law enforcement hasn’t done its due diligence in investigating those threats, despite insistence from city officials and SPD that the proper protocols have been followed.

Sawant calls for investigation after threats from city email account

According to Sawant, the emails began on Dec. 17, 2020, with escalating language that culminated in a threat against her life on Jan. 18, 2021.

“The time is here, and you will not have a place after tomorrow council woman,” the Jan. 18 email read. “Announce your resignation now, or else.”

The emails originated from a Seattle Fire Department account, although SFD contacted Sawant on Dec. 31, telling her that the employee “is claiming he did not send the emails” himself, implying that the account was hacked. Despite SFD’s awareness of the matter, the emails continued in the days to follow.

Meanwhile, the city’s Information Technology office has been working with investigators to confirm whether a hack of city email servers did in fact occur, and determine how and why the threatening emails persisted. Sawant reported being told by police in January that the employee the account belonged to was “on leave,” although that has yet to be confirmed by city officials.

After Seattle Fire was made aware of the threats against Sawant, the department reached out to SPD’s operations chief “in passing” in December, telling them that SFD planned to conduct an investigation internally.

SPD confirmed to MyNorthwest that between the time Sawant first began receiving threatening emails in mid December and when she publicly called on the department to mount an investigation on January 19, she did not file a formal complaint with the police department.

“Our operations chief was made aware of what was going on, but there was no formal request from Seattle Fire to step in, and at no point had we been notified by Councilmember Sawant or her staff of the emails,” said Sgt. Randall Huserik with SPD’s Department of Public Affairs.

Sawant appeared to confirm that timeline Wednesday, stating that she “had been assured by the Fire Department leadership, on December 31, that a departmental investigation had been opened into the threats.”

“I naturally gave time for this investigation to go forward with what I hoped would be due seriousness and urgency,” she said in a letter sent out on Feb. 3, addressed to Durkan, Diaz, and Fire Chief Harold Scoggins.

Updates on the investigation

Sawant was then contacted by an SPD detective on January 20 — the day after the police department was first formally made aware — but said Wednesday that she was “concerned about what appears to be a lackadaisical approach taken by the SPD,” and that her interview with the detective did “little to reassure me that the matter was being taken seriously by the police.”

She cited the fact that she had only received a “short update” in the two weeks that followed to tell her that the “investigation is progressing.”

City officials and SPD say it’s not uncommon for detectives to withhold details on open investigations, and that Sawant was made aware of that practice when a detective spoke to her in January.

“(A member of your staff) confirmed that he understood the process that you would not receive any update if a law enforcement investigation is pending, although SPD may be actively interviewing individuals or collecting information,” Mayor Durkan’s Chief of Staff Stephanie Formas said in an email addressed to Sawant on Feb. 3. “In fact, he mentioned that you would understand this process as you had previously reported a threat to SPD in 2015.”

SPD further confirmed that policy, as well.

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“That’s going to be at the discretion of the detective, and whether or not they think that this is information they feel at liberty to [discuss] or are comfortable divulging,” Sgt. Huserik said. “The idea is that everyone is treated equally.”

That’s also how investigations related to threats to other city officials — including Mayor Jenny Durkan — are typically handled.

“No elected official in the City typically receives updates on an active and ongoing investigation,” Formas told MyNorthwest.

Formas clarified that policy to Sawant on Wednesday, telling her that “the same is true for the Mayor.”

For the six to 12 threats Mayor Durkan reports receiving every week, she has dedicated staff “trained on identifying and reporting a threat to SPD instantly.”

Over the summer, the mayor’s office says it offered to share that protocol with councilmembers, some of whom did later make use of those procedures to report threats they had received to SPD in the ensuing months. Sawant’s office did not opt to put those protocols in place.

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