by Geov Parrish
The week before Labor Day, when embarrassing news is released in the hope it will quietly die, two Seattle Police Department news items appeared, stirred a bit of outrage, and promptly disappeared. Both underscored not only the serious internal cultural rot that continues to plague SPD, but why the November election for Seattle’s new mayor is shaping up as critically important.
In the first of those items, former Seattle officer Cynthia Whitlatch, who was fired in 2015 for “overly biased and aggressive policing” after arresting an elderly black man, William Wingate, on Capitol Hill for walking with a golf club he was using as a cane, had her termination reversed as part of a settlement that left Whitlatch with over $105,000 in back pay and damages in exchange for her “retirement.”
Whitlock was fired not only for the Capitol Hill incident, and the enormous public outcry it triggered, but what turned out to be a long record of overt racism, both on the job and (until it was scrubbed) in her own social media posts. A jury awarded Wingate $325,000 in damages, finding that Whitlatch engaged in racial discrimination, and SPD apologized for the incident.
No matter; it turned out that because Whitlatch’s commanders didn’t report her conduct at the time of the incident – only later, when it became public – SPD’s firing of her came too long after the incident. In other words, Whitlatch is sitting pretty today because, away from the public spotlight, her bosses didn’t think her behavior was any big deal – and because SPD officers’ union contract is heavily weighted toward avoiding accountability for officer misconduct.
The second story was the release of the autopsy of Charleena Lyles, the pregnant woman shot in her own apartment, in front of three of her kids, by two SPD officers that had come to check a report on a burglary. The June 18 shooting prompted a huge wave of community outrage, and the autopsy results, released over two months after Lyles’ death, underscored why so nany found the shooting problematic. The autopsy showed that the officers shot the diminutive Lyles seven times, including twice in the back. (The front page Seattle Times headline also helpfully informed readers that no alcohol or drugs were found in Lyles’ system. In case, you know, you were wondering.)
All that’s left is a county inquest, probably to be held early next year, which will likely conclude that Lyles’ killing was “justified.” Of the hundreds of uses of lethal force on duty by law enforcement officers since King County adopted its current inquest system 45 years ago, only one – the 2010 killing of John T. Williams – has ever been found to be “not justified.” Those are the only two options, and, as with prosecution under state law, the bar for holding officers accountable for bad shootings is extremely high. That’s why, late last week, the Lyles family announced that it would not participate in the inquest process, and instead filed a civil lawsuit directly against the two officers who killed Charleena Lyles.
Moreover, Lyles’ death, and what it reveals about SPD’s progress in improving its use of force policies, was specifically cited last week in the quarterly report filed by Merrick Bobb, the court-appointed monitor whose job it is to assess whether SPD is complying with the Department of Justice consent decree governing its reforms. Merrick’s conclusion? There’s still a lot of work to do.
These two stories, buried in the last days of summer, reflect business as usual for SPD – but that will change, for better or worse, depending on who becomes Seattle’s new mayor in four months.
After a crowded and confusing mayoral primary, it’s down to two candidates: former U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan and civic activist Cary Moon. Durkan enters the fall campaign as the favorite to become Seattle’s mayor, and many observers are already assuming her election is inevitable.
They shouldn’t. Cary Moon can beat Jenny Durkan. And there are significant differences between the two, especially on critical issues like police reform, homelessness, and affordable housing.
To be sure, Durkan has some formidable advantages in the race. She is the near-unanimous pick of Seattle’s political and civic establishment, inheriting much of the support that, until April, made Ed Murray’s re-election seem inevitable. She’ll raise enormous amounts of money, and will also benefit from third party spending (mostly from business PACs) that Moon will get little of.
But Moon has advantages, too. And Durkan has vulnerabilities.
Start with those primary results. Durkan nearly doubled Moon’s vote total in the early going – but critics of Seattle’s status quo split their votes among five major candidates. Moon, Nikkita Oliver, and Bob Hasegawa all clearly ran in opposition to the business-as-usual approach represented by Murray and Durkan. The combined votes of those three in the primary easily outpaced the support for Durkan and density advocate Jessyn Farrell. In the general election, the average voter will be younger, less affluent, and less white, which also favors Moon. Viewed through that lens alone, Durkan seems vulnerable.
Of course, Moon still has to win over the people who didn’t vote for her. That’s by no means a given. Oliver finished a strong third running with the support of the newly formed People’s Party. Moon will have to make the case to Oliver and her voters that not all Democrats (or wealthy white women) are the same, and that she shares far more of the People’s Party agenda than Jenny Durkan ever will.
For voters, part of Moon’s challenge will simply lie in introducing herself. Before this year’s campaign, Moon was virtually unknown; her highest-profile previous work had been her opposition several years ago to the downtown tunnel project. Durkan at least has held a high-level job as U.S. Attorney. Moon still needs to prove to most voters that she has the chops to be a big city mayor, and to demonstrate what her priorities as mayor would be.
Durkan’s experience is a strength, but it’s also a significant vulnerability. Beyond being widely viewed as a representative of Seattle’s civic establishment, she’s not well-defined. Moon can help do that by, for example, linking her to the establishment resistance (including the last three mayors) to wholesale SPD reform. As a former U.S. attorney and prosecutor, Durkan will likely be even more pro-police than those predecessors. Locally, her most notable case as U.S. attorney was a non-case – her refusal to prosecute under federal statutes the officer who killed John T. Williams. That’s a history Moon needs to talk about.
Durkan has also not been clearly defined on how she’d handle the ill-effects of Seattle’s population boom. For over a decade, establishment politicians like her have shoveled massive amounts of corporate welfare into developer and real estate pockets. In contrast, Moon made her name opposing the tunnel as a multi-billion-dollar, taxpayer-funded real estate scheme. Moon needs to make the case that Seattle’s affordable housing crisis requires radical solutions, not the nibbling around the edges (while things continue to worsen) proposed by Durkan – and that affordable housing is also the single best way to address Seattle’s homelessness crisis.
About 70,000 more Seattleites will vote in November than in August. Those new November voters are on average less engaged and less likely to know the candidates and what they stand for. Moon doesn’t need to equal Durkan’s prodigious fundraising, but she does need to raise enough to be competitive in getting her message out – and her message needs to be clear and memorable enough to withstand Durkan’s inevitable October advertising blitz and high-profile establishment endorsements.
Moon can’t make up the ground she needs to simply by having a more winning or sympathetic personality or promising to “get things done” more effectively. Routine messaging alone won’t be enough. Her best hope for overtaking Durkan is to turn the race between the two into a referendum. If you like how things are going in Seattle – a booming economy and population, construction everywhere – vote Durkan. If you think Seattle needs a corrective to inadequate infrastructure investment, traffic gridlock, overflowing schools, a city government that shuts out the concerns of many of its residents, and policies whose affordability “solution” is to force any household that doesn’t have a six-figure income to leave town – vote Moon.
That focus would draw the ire of Seattle’s business establishment – and the likely support of most Oliver and Hasegawa voters, and more than a few backers of Mike McGinn (who also once won election as an outsider) and Farrell. That leaves the younger, less affluent, and more non-white electorate that didn’t vote in August to tip the balance.
And those police union contracts that gave Cynthia Whitlatch such a nice golden parachute? They’ve expired, and the next mayor will be in charge of negotiating new contracts. It will be up to the winner in November to insist that reforming SPD should extend to holding its officers accountable for their bad old ways. It will be up to voters to decide which candidate will be most likely to do that.
Geov Parrish is a political writer and activist based in Seattle. Among other things, he has served as the national political columnist for Working Assets, a contributing editor for In These Times, Alternet.org, and MotherJones.com, and for over a decade was the local political columnist for Seattle Weekly and The Stranger newspapers. He has also had a popular weekly political show on KEXP 90.3 FM Seattle since 1996, and was the founder and co-publisher of the community newspaper Eat the State from 1996-2014.
Featured image is a cc licensed photo attributed to Ned James