KING 5 is reporting new details of text messages and emails from city officials this summer as the CHOP occupied protest took shape on Capitol Hill including bizarre exchanges like this reported between Fire Chief Harold Scoggins and hip hop artist Raz Simone who had been part of the chaotic, exciting, and growing demonstrations and was asked to try to do something to help protect the abandoned East Precinct:
“Raz, I just got word that 4 people just broke the door at SPD and entered the building,” said a Scoggins text to Simone.
“A way to keep SPD out of the space is secure that building during the protest. Can you guys work with us on that?” Scoggins asked.
But despite former Chief Carmen Best’s new job with NBC, KING did not add much to the question at the center of how CHOP formed and grew on Capitol Hill in the first place — who ordered the abandonment of the East Precinct?
On Friday, May 29th, protests begin in Seattle after the police killing of George Floyd as thousands marched and demonstrated. Windows were smashed at Capitol Hill’s Amazon grocery and Ferrari dealership and seven arrests were reported. As the protests grew through the city, on Wednesday, June 3rd a “Defund Seattle Police” rally began in Cal Anderson after a battle of tear gas and blast balls as police moved on demonstrators and National Guard troops joined the lines with police outside the East Precinct. The next day, the city began bowing to protest demands, lifting its curfew as demonstrations continued. Cal Anderson continued to grow as a center of the ongoing protests and a battle line of sorts emerges at 11th and Pine. Clashes continued and on Saturday, June 6th Seattle City Council members joined the protest. Sunday, after the mayor’s speech on deescalation of the ongoing protest clashes between demonstrators and police, SPD responds with its strongest show of force yet in the “standoff” at 11th and Pine. That Sunday night, a man drives into the crowd at 11th and Pine and shoots a demonstrator. Nikolas Fernandez, the brother of an East Precinct cop, will be arrested and charged with one count of first degree assault. On Monday, June 8th, moving trucks arrived at the East Precinct as city officials said there were credible threats of arson targeting the building identified by the FBI. On Tuesday, June 9th, the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone forms around an emptied East Precinct
The KING 5 report provides some color behind the chaos of the situation:
A June 7 memo from Assistant Police Chief Tom Mahaffey to Seattle police officers contained a similar message. “Let me state very strongly that this is not the case,” said Mahaffey, trying to quell rumors officers that the department was preparing to evacuate the East Precinct. “We will not abandon one of our facilities,” he said. But that is exactly what happened less than 48 hours later. Officers at the Seattle Police Department (SPD) East Precinct on Capitol Hill removed sensitive equipment and documents on June 8 after Mayor Durkan ordered the removal of police lines and barriers that were providing a protective perimeter around the precinct.
In the days following the abandonment, Chief Best famously distanced herself from the decision and said the station had been emptied out of concern about losses during a possible fire but she did not order officers to retreat from the facility. “The decision to board up the precinct — our precinct, our home, the first precinct I worked in — was something I was holding off,” Best said in a video addressing officers. “You should know, leaving the precinct was not my decision.”
Instead, CHS reported at the time, Best said the evacuation was made as a tactical action that stemmed from Mayor Jenny Durkan’s efforts to reach out to the demonstrators and led to Best’s decision to remove the protest barriers and allow protesters to gather outside 12th and Pine. “We took down the barricades because we really wanted to establish trust,” Best said in June.
The CHS report from June includes signs of obvious tension between the chief and the mayor despite their public efforts. “Ultimately, the city had other plans for the building and relented to severe public pressure. I’m angry about how this all came about,” Best said.
The KING 5 report reveals more about this fissure, reporting that the mayor’s office “was blind-sided by Best’s statements later in the first week of the CHOP’s existence that she was not the one who made the call to abandon the precinct.”
At the time, Crosscut also reported this dubious account from Best speculating on how the order may have materialized. “I’m not sure if someone said something to somebody or someone got a call from somebody. We’re still trying to track down exactly how it got to be that people were actually leaving the facility,” Best told Crosscut. Crosscut was also first to report details of Assistant Chief Mahaffey’s e-mail noting officers had “printed off Mahaffey’s June 7 email and posted it on bulletin boards and outside the (West Precinct) station in an act of protest.”
Later in July after the mayor’s order to sweep CHOP and clear Cal Anderson as the precinct was reopened by police, Best addressed the situation in an interview the morning of the raid with CHS. That day, Best took issue with Seattle City Council member Lisa Herbold’s skepticism about the FBI intelligence cited as a justification for the original lockdown. And the chief once again said the decision to empty the precinct came from the efforts of the mayor to find common ground with the demonstration and remove the barriers and police lines from the streets. “There is a lot of speculation about what happened with that, once the street was open it presented a problem,” Best said, promising “a deeper examination” ahead of the circumstances.
That deeper examination has not yet come.
Best announced her resignation in August saying she had no lingering regrets about the crowd control tactics used during Capitol Hill protests, and the abandonment of the East Precinct “worked out the way it should have.”
“Everyone knows what happened,” Best said. “Where it started and where it ended were two different places.” Best said the protest zone did not begin like “what it devolved to.”
Sorting out how CHOP came to be and the mistakes made along the way will be an important part of answering the demands and movements that developed there. Answering the question about the East Precinct goes to the heart of some of the biggest concerns about policing in Seattle: accountability and who, ultimately, is calling the shots.
If the decision to evacuate the building — and abandon the department’s position in the community and the neighborhood — was truly a tactical, on the ground decision, there are names and records of who was there and who was in charge on those June days and nights.
For now, Best, in her new job as a law enforcement analyst for KING 5 and NBC, has left the answer to records, documents, and individuals like those men and women.
CHS has filed a document request for the simple roll calls of how the East Precinct was staffed in early June. Other media outlets have likely done the same. “At this time, the Seattle Police Department’s Legal Unit is operating under an extreme backlog of requests, staffing shortages, the redeployment of supporting units to SPD’s frontline COVID-19 response, and, pursuant to CDC recommendations and City direction, reassignment to remote access,” the SPD public disclosure request center website reads. “For these reasons, our ability to process new requests is substantially limited; we are currently estimating minimum response timelines, depending on the volume and complexity of requests, in excess of 6-12 months.”
The wait for the truth will take more time.
UPDATE 11/19/2020 12:30 PM: While we might face a long wait for public documents showing who was in charge at the East Precinct when the decision was made to retreat fully from the building, the city has sent CHS the package of email and text messages provided to KING 5.
One June email sent from a spokesperson for Durkan in a response to media spells out the mayor’s office messaging:
Other internal discussions on messaging also shed light on how the mayor’s office prepared to present the situation to media:
Several text messages capture the uncertainty within City Hall about what was happening with the precinct and CHOP:
There were also preparations made at one point for possible new building leases to house the precinct if the situation dragged on:
And, in some moments, of course, the stress and tension gave way to levity:
Other messages reviewed by CHS corroborate reports of skepticism from Gov. Jay Inslee’s office about the FBI-identified threats against the precinct, and pleas for deescalation by SPD from political leaders including King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay, State Sen. David Frockt and State Rep. Frank Chopp. City Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s presence in the protest zone was also a concern in one thread involving Durkan administration staffers.
In all, the documents prove one thing that was probably already clear — the people working in the mayor’s office and Seattle City Hall had never seen anything quite like CHOP and the abandonment of the East Precinct before.
UPDATE 11/20/20: You can view the full package of documents provided as public records by the City of Seattle here.
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