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A year later, questions still swirl around how and why SPD abandoned East Precinct

The East Precinct in what was known as the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest. (Getty Images)

People throughout Seattle were stunned in early June of 2020, when moving trucks arrived outside the police department’s East Precinct and officers vacated the building. What followed was the controversial formation of the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP). Almost a year to the date later, there are still more questions than answers regarding who it was that gave the order.

Former SPD chief offers new details on why East Precinct was abandoned

At the time, the area surrounding the precinct had become a flashpoint for clashes between police and protesters. That included a controversial incident on June 1, 2020, where an officer grabbed a pink umbrella from a protester standing behind a barricade, sparking a commotion that led to blast balls and tear gas being deployed at the intersection of 11th and Pine.

Similar events played out the following night, with police deploying flash bangs and tear gas after protesters began to throwing objects across the barricades.

On June 7, 2020, a memo sent to SPD officers from Assistant Police Chief Tom Mahaffey stated that “we will not abandon one of our facilities,” appearing to refute ongoing rumors that the East Precinct would soon be vacated.

On June 8, 2020, moving trucks appeared outside the precinct, while a source confirmed to KIRO Radio at the time that SPD was prepared to abandon the building if necessary. On June 9, 2020, sensitive documents were moved out of the East Precinct, officers cleared out of the area, the building was left empty, and protesters quickly moved in to establish the CHOP. It was nearly a month before SPD was able to retake the precinct.

During that month, questions swirled over who it was that gave the order to abandon the precinct. At the time, then-Chief Carmen Best issued a statement saying that it wasn’t her decision, later revealing in May of 2021 that hours before the precinct was vacated, she had even told an assistant chief over the phone not to clear the area.

“I said, ‘Well, listen, we are not going to evacuate that precinct,’” Best described to former British police officer Jeremy Ratcliffe for his “Reducing Crime” podcast. “Those were my last words. She hung up, I hung up. A couple hours later, they evacuated the precinct. I’m like, ‘what happened?’ It just wasn’t clear exactly what transpired.”

Best went on to note that the fire department had warned SPD that if the precinct building was to be set on fire, it would go up “quickly.”

“We’d already had the one precinct in Minneapolis that had been burned,” she said.

Mayor Jenny Durkan issued a denial regarding her own involvement, stating that the decision had likely been made by “SPD frontline commanders on site.”

Mayor’s office avoided answering records requests for missing texts

But confirming that assertion has been difficult in the year since. It was revealed last month that text messages from that period from Durkan, Best, Fire Chief Harold Scoggins, and three members of SPD’s command staff had all gone missing, leaving significant gaps in the timeline of events that led to the East Precinct being abandoned.

At this point, it’s still unclear how Best’s messages disappeared, while Scoggins was said to have been “locked out of his phone because of password issues.” Texts from members of SPD’s command staff allegedly went missing due to “password and device management problems.” Durkan’s office later revealed that her phone had been set to automatically delete all messages after 30 days.

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