Report: SPD flouting of mask mandates throughout pandemic ‘indicative of a serious culture issue’

Apr 22, 2022, 10:26 AM
Seattle police mask...
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

A new report released by the Seattle Office of Inspector General (OIG) revealed wide-ranging issues the city had in getting police officers to comply with masking requirements, dating back to the early days of the pandemic.

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The review was triggered following a complaint made by a community member to the Office of Police Accountability (OPA), who asserted that the Seattle Police Department had engaged in “pervasive non-compliance” with mask mandates. That complaint included “extensive documentation” of unmasked officers in settings where a facial covering was required.

Issues with masking among SPD officers have since been documented across numerous agencies and departments. That included “two notices of serious violation of Washington Administrative Code” following a February 2021 citation from the Department of Labor & Industries, where seven SPD employees at the East Precinct were seen “not wearing masks properly or maintaining social distancing.” That led to L&I levying a $5,400 fine.

L&I issued another citation in July of 2021, after officers — this time near the West Precinct — were again seen not adhering to masking and social distancing requirements, this time while responding to public demonstrations.” Because it was the second citation L&I had issued to the department, the fine was raised to $12,000.

Prior to that, SPD command staff had repeatedly sent reminders to personnel regarding masking policies between March of 2020 and January of 2021. Each time, mandates from the chief of police, mayor, and assistant chief were reiterated, detailing how officers were required to remain clean-shaven to allow for tight-fitting facial coverings and maintain six feet of distance when possible, eventually noting how violations of the policy would be referred to the OPA.

“These explicit orders were accompanied by many email reminders from supervisors sent throughout the year,” the OIG’s report reads. “However, these communications were not generally successful in obtaining compliance.”

In April of 2020, that saw an SPD assistant chief describe the continued noncompliance as “incredibly disappointing” while addressing precinct captains. Three months later, a “high-risk SPD employee” asked to not return to in-person work, intimating how they were “not comfortable being around as many people that are in our building, especially since no one appears to wear a mask.”

Then in January of 2021, an internal email from an SPD captain described how he was “just stunned at the non-compliance” among officers. In that same month, interim Chief Adrian Diaz sent a message to command staff stating that the department’s policy encouraging “voluntary compliance and supervisor action” had proven to be “not sufficient internally.”

The OIG also spoke to then-OPA Director Andrew Myerberg “regarding the decision to not review mask non-compliance through the lens of insubordination,” driven by how the OPA had “struggled with the extent of non-compliance” across the department. That was in addition to the fact that “others higher in the chain of command” were similarly observed violating the policy.

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“Director Myerberg explained that he perceived the mask non-compliance as indicative of a serious culture issue within SPD and stated that it was not sustainable for OPA to be the ‘thought police’ of the Department,” the OIG report notes.

A physician contracted by SPD to manage COVID exposures provided further insight into some of the more common objections officers had related to policies mandating eye protection in addition to the wearing of N95 masks. He asserted that “some personnel resisted due to concerns of comfort, fogged glasses, communication difficulties, and a belief that the COVID-19 virus was not real.”

Ultimately, the OIG concluded that “the degree of mask order violations appears related to a combination of organization culture and discretionary decisions” in responding to those who flouted the policy.

“However, the challenge is larger than just mitigating the spread of COVID-19,” it added. “SPD management should reframe how the department views matters of public health including COVID-19. Further, compliance – and public safety – may improve if all staff are held accountable for not following orders. Setting the precedent that mask orders do not need to be followed establishes a culture in which future, unrelated orders may be ignored as well.”

You can read the full OIG report at this link.

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Report: SPD flouting of mask mandates throughout pandemic ‘indicative of a serious culture issue’