Panel issues recommendations after reviewing CHOP fallout

Oct 11, 2022, 6:15 PM | Updated: 6:18 pm
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Seattle’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) – part of the city’s police oversight and accountability system – said the city’s response to the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP) was marred by an extreme lack of communication both internally and with the public.

That’s the overall finding in the 82-page report OIG released Tuesday as part of its Sentinel Event Review (SER) of the Seattle Police Department’s (SPD) response to the 2020 protests.

This is the third of four reports looking at critical incidents during the protests. An SER panel that included representatives from the community and SPD heard from dozens of protesters, city staff, officers, and others during the months-long review of what they called the third wave of the protests.

The so-called third wave includes four critical incidents between June 8 and July 1, starting with SPD’s evacuation of the East Precinct.

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Even after this review by the OIG panel and a previous Office of Police Accountability investigation, OIG says who actually made the decision to evacuate the East Precinct – which quickly led to the creation of CHOP – remains unclear.

Both then-Mayor Jenny Durkan and then-SPD Chief Carmen Best insisted at the time it was not their decision. Neither took part in this review.

What the review panel did find was that following a meeting between SPD and the Mayor’s office around noon on June 8 regarding changing strategies in an attempt to deescalate the situation with protesters, the Mayor’s office directed SPD to remove the barricades surrounding the East Precinct in order to open the street and allow public passage by the building.

At the same time, an assistant SPD Chief ordered the temporary evacuation of the East Precinct, with officers expected to stage at nearby Volunteer Park while protesters gained access to the area that had previously been barricaded.

The concern given at the time was a cited FBI report about a “credible threat” of arson against the East Precinct. But many on the OIG review panel – as was true at the time – doubted the credibility of those unconfirmed threats and continue to doubt them today. This only increased the lack of trust between protesters, the community, the city, and SPD.

An addendum to the temporary evacuation plan in June 2020 showed a directive to remove officers, all weapons, and evidence from the precinct. The plan was for officers to return to the precinct the next day, but that did not happen.

Instead, once the CHOP perimeter was established and SPD leadership observed the East Precinct was not being destroyed, the decision was made to hold off re-occupying the precinct. According to an OPA interview with an SPD Assistant Chief, “reestablishing a police presence in the area would require significant planning.” The CHOP existed for the next 23 days, the report states.

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Many panelists remained highly skeptical about the FBI’s unsubstantiated intelligence of a “credible threat” of plans to destroy the building. They noted that no specifics had been provided to support the statement. The use of a general, unsubstantiated threat increased the panelists’ doubts about the integrity of the claim and the validity of the threat as a justification for evacuation of the precinct.

Despite the doubts about the threat’s validity, the report said many panelists felt the decision to leave the precinct was inevitable and some felt it helped deescalate the situation.

However, both community members and SPD officers were dissatisfied with the way the Mayor’s Office and SPD leadership communicated the decision.

Despite an investigation from OPA, the actual decision-making process between the city and SPD remains unclear. There is no known documentation of who participated in the meetings between the Mayor’s Office and SPD on June 7 and 8, or who gave what instructions to whom.

The panel issued several recommendations related to the evacuation and abandonment of the East Precinct, which are listed below.

  • Recommendation 1: SPD and the City of Seattle should ensure Seattle neighborhoods are not left without public safety and other essential services. If city government is prevented from accessing an area, it should make every effort to provide city services and emergency response. The city should assign a city liaison to facilitate communications with impacted community members about service provision or interruption.
  • Recommendation 2: In the event of an evacuation of a government building or other emergency, strategic decision-making should be done at the highest level of government with accountability and transparency.
  • Recommendation 3: SPD should improve internal channels of communication to increase efficient and timely collaborative decision making amongst command and with officers.
  • Recommendation 4: SPD should ensure processes for transparency and accountability are in place in case of evacuation or other emergency. Ensure accurate logs are kept at the Seattle Police Operations Center (SPOC).
  • Recommendation 5: SPD should ensure appropriate recordkeeping and documentation during significant planning and decisions during large-scale protests.
  • Recommendation 6: SPD should conduct and publish an After-Action Review of actions taken during a large-scale protest response within 60 days of the incident, including publication of all non-confidential materials used in the review.
  • Recommendation 7: SPD Incident Action Plans (IAPs) should follow a standardized approval process that includes review at the appropriate command level to allow for accountability of decision-making.22 SPD should communicate IAPs to all officers prior to the implementation of the acts set forth in the IAP.
  • Recommendation 8: SPD should ensure coordinated communication of goals, so the public has a clear understanding of SPD actions.
  • Recommendation 9: SPD and the Mayor’s Office should publicly communicate rationale for decision-making during large-scale protest response to decrease mistrust on the part of the public and officers.
  • Recommendation 10: SPD and the City of Seattle should include OIG in planning meetings to offer recommendations and to stay informed.
  • Recommendation 11: An SPD Public Information Officer should accompany the Incident Commander to important or large-scale events.

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Panel issues recommendations after reviewing CHOP fallout