OPA: Seattle Police Department did not break the law when it abandoned the East Precinct

Oct 4, 2021, 1:10 PM | Updated: 4:28 pm
SPD officers, East Precinct...
Fencing outside SPD's East Precinct. (Photo courtesy of SPD Blotter)
(Photo courtesy of SPD Blotter)

The decision to abandon the East Precinct in Seattle was one that most people believe ultimately led to the creation of the Seattle autonomous zone known as CHAZ/CHOP. But what was not immediately addressed in June 2020 was who made the call to abandon the precinct, and why?

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

The decision to leave the precinct came nearly two weeks into huge, nightly protests for Black lives in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. The nightly protests outside the Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood included a static line that the SPD created to prevent protesters from marching past the precinct – a decision that would set the tone for everything that came next.

Three days after the East Precinct was abandoned, then-SPD Chief Carmen Best recorded a video message for her staff, which was promptly leaked to the media. In the message, Best made her position on the situation clear.

“You should know, leaving the precinct was not my decision,” Best said in the video message to officers, noting that making such a decision would be a slap in the face for officers who had been defending the area around the precinct for days.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and Chief Best were consistently asked who made the call to leave the East Precinct on June 8, 2020, but neither offered a clear answer, noting the situation would be thoroughly reviewed.

One aspect of that review is the months-long investigation by the Office of Police Accountability (OPA), which has finally been completed and offers new insight into how this all went down.

The OPA received complaints from people who lived near the East Precinct who were upset about what they described as overall lawlessness of the area, and not getting a response to 911 calls within the CHAZ/CHOP. Those complaints prompted the OPA investigation which specifically looked at whether Chief Best, or her Assistant Chief Thomas Mahaffey, violated policy or broke the law in the evacuation of the precinct.

OPA found that on June 7, 2020, there was a meeting held at the mayor’s office where the mayor was present, along with other staff from the mayor’s office. An assistant chief was asked about 30 minutes before the meeting to put together an outline of potential tactical plans that they could use.

“Because there was an interest in changing the approach — what was happening was not working with this static line at this precinct. And then the mayor’s office was very interested in changing that approach,” OPA Director Andrew Myerberg said.

“The assistant chief came with four options. The first option was basically status quo, it was harden the barricades and continue to defend the precinct. The second and third options were to put larger and more secure fencing around the precinct, and then also put people in front of the precinct, kind of manning that line in front of the precinct. Or put fencing around the precinct and then have people inside of the precinct. And then the fourth option was really pull back, remove things from the precinct, remove personnel from the area and then stage — that was the fourth option,” Myerberg added.

No decision was made at that meeting on June 7.

That night, there was another dispersal order to the crowd on Capitol Hill, tear gas, violence, and arrests. The community, politicians, and more were outraged – something had to give. Another emergency meeting was called for around noon that day with SPD command staff plus, again, the deputy mayor, chief of staff, and other personnel from the mayor’s office.

“At that meeting, the mayor’s office makes it very clear that they want SPD to get rid of the barricade blocking the street and to let protesters march through the area. It’s described as a robust meeting, and I think what that means in translation is that there’s arguments and they’re debating these various courses of action. Ultimately, though, what is decided, is SPD agrees — and Chief Best is at that meeting — SPD agrees to say, OK, we will pull back the barricade, and will allow them to march by and we will take steps to secure the precinct,” Myerberg said.

The investigation shows that Chief Best delegated on the ground authority to Assistant Chief Mahaffey. He’s the one who would ultimately make the call to leave the East Precinct – something he described as one of the hardest decisions of his life.

Chief Best would later say that she wished he would have given her a heads up that was the move he was making, but that she had delegated to him and therefore his actions were not considered insubordinate.

While both agree that she had delegated to him, Mahaffey contends that he did give Chief Best a heads up with two phone calls at 3 p.m. and 3:08 p.m. that afternoon. Chief Best denies that happened.

Seattle police remove concrete barriers outside East Precinct

As for the decision to leave the precinct – something Mahaffey had sent an internal email out that it would never happen to squash rumors just days before – it was made in what Mahaffey described as panic-mode. The crowd showed up, and it was clear with barricades coming down at the mayor’s orders that they were not going to have enough time to protect all the people, firearms, and more inside the precinct from anyone in the crowd with intentions other than marching. There was also a possibility that the SPD could end up with a scenario where protesters occupied the precinct, or in which officers at the precinct could be trapped inside – and potentially in a burning building, as there had been reported intelligence that the East Precinct could have been targeted by arsonists, similar to what had recently happened to a precinct in Minneapolis.

Because of those fears, and the unprecedented situation that had gone on nightly for nearly two weeks prior, and large protests that were unlike anything SPD had seen before, the OPA found neither Chief Best, nor Assistant Chief Mahaffey, violated SPD policy or the law in leaving the East Precinct.

Follow Hanna Scott on Twitter or email her here

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OPA: Seattle Police Department did not break the law when it abandoned the East Precinct