Observers’ Bill of Rights
Across the country, recordings of police activity by the public have increased the public’s ability to witness police behavior and hold police accountable. However, the act of recording, observing, or verbally criticizing police has also at times led to arrests and legal challenges to those arrests on First Amendment grounds.
Our City Council can and should make clear the rights of Seattle citizens to peacefully observe and record public police activity.
The right to observe and record is a constitutional right. In codifying the statutory right to observe and record Seattle’s police officers, our City Council can be on the forefront of promoting citizen participation in ensuring police accountability. While the policies should be designed so as to not impede necessary law enforcement, Seattle’s citizens should feel confident in their ability to watch and record police activities in a non-obstructive way.
California, Colorado, and Oregon have passed similar laws.
A first briefing was held on August 17 in the Gender Equity, Safe Communities and New Americans (GESCNA) Committee, Chaired by Councilmember González. I thank her for scheduling a special meeting to hear the legislation. In committee we presented a revised version of the legislation.
When I ran for City Council last year, I proposed an Observer’s Bill of Rights; the West Seattle Herald posted my statement in July, after the shootings of Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
The legislation would codify the right of the public to observe and record police activity and to express themselves lawfully without interference from the police. It would further add a civil liability on the City of up to $5,000 damages, modeled on the Colorado legislation.
“…codification of an SPD policy has several benefits:
- It ensures more permanent protection of public observer rights, as the municipal code is less easy to change than a departmental policy;
- Its greater permanency makes it easier for the public to rely on it, as opposed to a policy where the public in any given year might not know whether the policy has been updated;
- It carries greater weight than a departmental policy, particularly when coupled with penalty provisions, which can increase the likelihood that all parties will want to adhere to the terms;
- Members of the public are more likely to expect their rights to be found in City code than in a departmental policy, so they would be more likely to be aware of their rights and to avail themselves of its protections.”
Harriett Walden, Director of Mothers for Police Accountability, spoke at the GESCNA committee meeting about the historical importance of observing as part of police accountability, wisely linking it to accountability for all parts of government; Nancy Talner of the ACLU spoke to the legal environment, and the courts’ recognition of transparency and the right to film, going back to before the era of cell phones. OPA Director Pierce Murphy spoke oversight as a community function, of which OPA is a part; Brian Maxey of SPD spoke to current practices.
One might also argue that codification of SPD policy sets a precedent for future codification of other policies which could lead to a patchwork of partly codified policies and the erosion of management control over operations. This proposed policy codification, however, can be distinguished from other SPD policies on several grounds:
1) It addresses a nationwide issue of constitutional significance;
2) It codifies policy provisions that directly speak to the rights of the public, not just departmental procedures; and
3) As a practical matter, codification is necessary in order to create the proposed cause of action.
You can watch the discussion here on the Seattle Channel archive, or below.
Council Capital Project Oversight Committee proposal
Earlier this week Councilmember Johnson and I called for a special Council committee to oversee City-funded capital projects.
It’s been frustrating when large projects go millions over budget, or are years behind schedule – such as Fire Station #32 in the West Seattle Junction. In creating this committee, Councilmembers can more closely monitor large projects, so we’re not faced with no-win options when presented with updates late in the process.
The City has seen a number of construction projects with significant cost increases, such as the North Precinct police station, the new utility billing system, and the seawall.
The Council Capital Projects Oversight Committee would share characteristics with capital oversight best practices, such as the Sound Transit Capital Committee oversight process, which creates a series of systematic check-ins as projects progress, both through planning and construction. The Council committee’s oversight work would establish a baseline level of transparency to help ensure City capital projects remain on budget and the public remains informed along the way.
The Council receives annual reports on all City capital investments, but they can be of limited utility because of the volume of information provided (last year’s was over 800 pages). A Council Capital Projects Oversight Committee would likely identify characteristics of projects they wanted to review, including large projects or projects that for example are at least 10% over initial budgets.
Contrary to what you may have heard, the City Council did not vote to approve a $149 million North Precinct on Monday.
On the contrary, the Council, at my request, specifically declined to endorse a $149 million price tag and directed the department of Finance and Administrative Services (FAS) to take steps to insure project costs are accurate and reasonable, in order to inform the Council’s decision on the appropriate project costs.
There are 5 police precincts in the City: North, South, Southwest, West, and East. Each one has a precinct building. The most recent are the West Precinct, built in 1999, and the Southwest, built in 2002. Eighteen years ago, a 1998 Long-Range Facilities Plan noted that the North Precinct was overcrowded by 30%, and site conditions such as wetlands made expansion difficult.
A comparison between the proposed North Precinct and the one built most recently reveals significant differences, not in cost per square foot, but in size. Here is a comparison with the most recently built Precinct building, in the District I represent, the Southwest Precinct in West Seattle:
Southwest Precinct 100,000 Sq ft
Total Project Budget: $15.8m/2017 Dollars: $24m; Cost per Sqft (2017 Dollars): $851
Proposed North Precinct 221,200 Sq ft
Total Project Budget: $160m ($14m Land Acquisition); Cost per Square Foot: $723
All 33 Fire Stations have recently been, or are in the process of, being replaced or renovated.
MONDAY’S RESOLUTION AND WHAT LED TO IT
I have very serious concerns about the proposed price of this precinct building. I first saw a draft resolution regarding the North Precinct on July 27; the project costs when had been revealed to be $160 million. Because of requests I’d received from community members to subject this project to a Racial Equity Toolkit (RET) analysis, I requested the RET be included in the resolution. The Racial Equity Toolkit lays out a process and a set of questions to guide the development, implementation and evaluation of policies, initiatives, programs, and budget issues to address the impacts on racial equity.
At last week’s meeting of the Gender Equity, Safe Communities, and New Americans (GESCNA) committee, it was revealed that FAS was proposing a new, reduced, project budget of $149 million. GESCNA committee chair Gonzalez announced that Councilmembers Burgess and Juarez were sponsors of a resolution that we’d be voting on in just days and told us that Councilmembers Bagshaw and Harrell were also supporters. In other words, it appeared the proposed North Precinct resolution had the support of the majority of the Council and, without changes, Monday’s vote would make a firm commitment to a $149 million price tag that I opposed.
I believed the RET analysis was needed to inform the Council’s decision to endorse a project cost. Councilmember Johnson supported a third party technical review of the project.
Even with the RET analysis included, as the resolution had been proposed last week, I wouldn’t have been able to support it, because it 1) set a firm price of $149 million, and 2) didn’t allow time for the additional analysis that could inform the Council’s decision on setting a price.
So I proposed changes to 1) eliminate the commitment to a $149 million budget, and 2) require the RET to inform the Council’s decision, and 3) set a deadline for reporting back that allowed enough time for the RET analysis. In addition, I requested the RET include the design of the facility, not just its operations.
The budget that the Council voted last year included a North Precinct budget of $160 million. However, it was located in the “Finance and Administrative Services” section of the 887-page Capital Improvement budget, and thus escaped much notice. In November the Council will again vote on a budget, and the budget that the Mayor will propose in September will include a proposed budget for the North Precinct.
So, we very clearly have a lot work to do. In using the RET, FAS will have to work with communities of color disproportionately impacted by policing to help inform the Council’s decision in November on the appropriate project cost.
I asked for the proposed funding plan, and received figures for the original $160 million proposal. The proposed funding combines a. debt financing, b. general fund dollars, and c. Real Estate Excise Taxes (REET). The general fund dollars are proposed to come from $15 million of proceeds from the pending sale of the Pacific Place Garage. I have already suggested that some of these proceeds would be better spent to fund $5 million in funding allocated for 2016 Homelessness State of Emergency services.
The proposed funding plan also called for a total of $102 million of bonds to be issued, $67 million in 2017 and $35 million in 2018. $21 million had already been funded in previous years’ budgets.
Finally, $22 million of Real Estate Excise Tax (REET) funds are proposed to pay for the debt service for the bonds, in 2017 and 2018. The interest rate assumption used for these issuances is 5.0%, which would result in financing costs of approximately $100 million, over 30 years, or $6.8 million a year in REET to finance bonds.
Only the general fund dollars from the Pacific Garage sale proceeds and some portion of the REET funds are available to be used, should the project costs be reduced, for other non-North Precinct purposes.
It’s clear to all that we are at a point of crisis in policing in this country – well past that point in fact.
I hope those of you who are active on this issue will remain active as the Council considers legislation to reform the Seattle Police Department accountability system as well as the decision-making around the cost of the North Precinct.
As it relates to police accountability, earlier this week a federal judge overseeing the 2012 Consent Decree authorized the City to proceed with legislation to adopt reforms for accountable policing in Seattle. The City Attorney indicated the City would submit legislation to the judge by Labor Day, for a mandatory 90-day review by the judge, to ensure it complies with the terms of the Consent Decree. The City and Department of Justice had requested authority to proceed without judicial review, but the judge didn’t approve that request. The Federal Monitor charged with oversight of the reform process has published updates here.
The Community Police Commission, created by the Consent Decree, issued their recommendations on August 10. They call for an independent Office of Police Accountability, a new position of Inspector General, continuation of the Community Police Commission, and integration of accountability into hiring practices.
As it relates to influencing the decision-making around the North Precinct, I ask you to participate in the RET analysis. FAS has begun discussing next steps and are developing a plan with SPD, SOCR and other departments. They have informed me that they appreciate the referrals of constituents interested in the process so that they can keep them and Council informed as things progress. I will provide them with your contact information so that they can do so.
While participating in the RET, for those who think of this prosed building as a “bunker,” I ask you also to tell the City what is it about this building that, to you, makes it a “bunker?” Some have said it’s a “bunker” because it is bomb proof and bullet proof. To my knowledge there is nothing that makes this building more bomb proof or bullet proof than any other “essential community facility” and consequently is proposed to be built to the safety standard of an “essential community facility.”
Others have pointed to the proposed building’s size – which is nearly two times larger than – for instance – the Southwest Precinct – that makes this facility a bunker. In considering the size of this facility, I think it’s important to recognize that the training center in the proposed facility will fulfill an obligation identified by the Department of Justice – the consent decree requires police officers to receive 5 times the amount of training than in the past, specifically in use of force, de-escalation, bias-free policing, and stops and detentions—a critical issue, as we’ve seen all too often recently in the news, from Philando Castile and Sandra Bland. The training facility in this building will be used for training for all SPD officers throughout the city, not only North Precinct Officers.
Still others point to the project’s proposed costs and the other urgent needs of our City as evidence that it’s a “bunker.”
The RET analysis is designed to help us all work through these issues and others. I hope that together we can find a way to turn what some in the community tell is symbol of the police oppression (and others call a “boondoggle”) into a symbol of greater police accountability. In finding additional savings in the project I hope we can be better stewards of finite city financial resources and fund more urgent needs.