by Carolyn Bick
The Emerald’s Watchdragon reporting seeks to increase accountability within our city’s institutions through in-depth investigative journalism.
The City’s Office of Police Accountability (OPA) has determined that neither former Police Chief Carmen Best nor Assistant Chief Thomas Mahaffey of the Seattle Police Department (SPD) is at fault for SPD’s decision to leave the East Precinct in Capitol Hill last June. The decision and its root cause have been the topic of significant public discussion and speculation, particularly since the East Precinct was a major focal point in the George Floyd protests last year.
Following more than a week of escalating tensions and violence between police officers and protesters, on June 8, 2020, someone within SPD made the decision for the department’s officers to leave the East Precinct. This contentious decision came on the heels of SPD refusing to allow protesters to walk past the precinct, even erecting a barrier around the precinct to protect it against perceived threats from protesters. The decision to remove personnel — allegedly made by a small group of officers led by Assistant Chief Thomas Mahaffey, according to KUOW — was allegedly not shared with then-Police-Chief Carmen Best. Just before officers left the building, Mahaffey told officers in a June 2020 email obtained by Crosscut that he wanted to “address a rumor” about SPD plans to abandon the building and that “[i]t is the strong position of both Chief [Carmen] Best and myself that we will not abandon one of our facilities to those who are intent on damaging or destroying it.” According to KUOW, Mahaffey and this small group of officers at some point determined that remaining inside the precinct wasn’t safe.
While the basis for that decision has been widely speculated upon for the last year, the OPA today released a Closed Case Summary (CCS) that appears to shed some light on the matter. An investigative OPA interview with Mahaffey and an email the OPA obtained and used as evidence also raises the possibility that Best knew exactly what Mahaffey had decided to do, contrary to what she has claimed to both police officers and the public in the 16 months that have passed. However, this very same investigative interview appears to show that Mahaffey was not entirely forthcoming in his first interview with the OPA — an issue the OPA does not discuss or touch upon, despite explicitly saying in the CCS that SPD employees may face termination if their statements to OPA investigators are not “truthful and complete” or if they are “withholding or misrepresenting information.”
The OPA’s CCS characterizes the decision to leave as an evacuation and focuses on allegations against Best (Named Employee #1 or NE#1) and an officer who appears to be Mahaffey (Named Employee #2, or NE#2, is “an Assistant Chief of Police” and is later referred to in the CCS as an “Assistant Chief of Patrol Operations”). The complaints alleged that “both Named Employees … failed to take responsibility for their respective commands, did not adhere to laws or policy, used improper discretion, and were unprofessional.” These allegations stemmed from three community members and several SPD employees.
The OPA says in its CCS that it interviewed two of the three community members — the third declined to be interviewed — and 11 City employees in the course of gathering evidence to create a narrative. However, it is unclear how many SPD employees filed complaints, as the OPA does not specifically address this. The OPA also reviewed public statements from Best and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, public reporting, mobile phone logs for both Best and Mahaffey, instant messaging and text messages to and from Best and Mahaffey, and emails to and from Best, Mahaffey, another assistant chief (Witness Officer #1 or WO#1), and a lieutenant (Witness Officer #2 or WO#2).
According to the OPA, the decision to leave was based on concerns with regard to maintaining a perimeter around the East Precinct, given the size and scale of the protests and driven by “intelligence from the [Federal Bureau of Investigation] FBI that government buildings would be targeted by some groups of protesters.” The OPA points to the May 28, 2020, burning of a police precinct in Minneapolis, the fire risk of both the East Precinct and surrounding buildings and structures, and “the presence of sensitive material — such as weapons, evidence, and computer systems — inside of the East Precinct.”
The OPA then moves through the narrative of events leading up to the evacuation. For the sake of brevity, the Emerald will not detail this narrative here and will instead point readers to the KUOW article linked above. It should be noted that the OPA summary appears to suggest that Mahaffey made the decision to leave the East Precinct without consulting Best, which is consistent with KUOW’s story:
“After consulting with other members of SPD’s command staff, Mahaffey ultimately gave the order to temporarily evacuate the East Precinct and the immediate area to ensure the safety of SPD members. The plan was to secure the building — including the removal of all personnel, sensitive property, and evidence — observe the situation from a nearby location and prepare to intervene should any protesters attempt to destroy the precinct, but to otherwise reoccupy the East Precinct the following morning after the protesters had passed. All SPD personnel were evacuated from the East Precinct by approximately 6:00 P.M.”
There is no mention of NE#1 — Best — in this portion of the narrative. However, her involvement in the decision to evacuate the precinct appears to be up for debate based on one of Mahaffey’s own interviews as well as email evidence the OPA obtained.
The OPA Interviews
The OPA writes that none of the community complainants it interviewed claimed to have specific knowledge about the decision to evacuate the precinct. Both community complainants said that the safety of the neighborhood quickly deteriorated once the police left the East Precinct, and both attributed this decline to the East Precinct evacuation.
The OPA also addresses the interviews it conducted with SPD officers. Again for the sake of brevity, the Emerald will not detail every officer interview and will instead focus on those from officers closest to the heart of the entire situation.
The OPA says that it interviewed nine SPD employees during its investigation and that it specifically interviewed Mahaffey twice: the first time as a witness officer and the second time as a named employee.
Assistant Chief Thomas Mahaffey
According to the OPA, investigators interviewed Mahaffey first in late October 2020 and a second time on the very last day of March 2021. It says that when the protests began, Mahaffey was an assistant chief of patrol operations.
Mahaffey told the OPA in his first interview that his main concern was finding a way to save the East Precinct without putting officers in danger, since protesters were harassing officers and throwing fireworks at them. He also said that SPD had received FBI intelligence that protesters were going to target government buildings, including the East Precinct.
The OPA writes that Mahaffey said in a June 7 evening email to SPD officers — the one Crosscut eventually obtained — that “officers in the East Precinct had not been told to remove their personal belongings in preparation for abandonment of the building” and that it was both Mahaffey’s and Best’s “‘strong position … that we will not abandon one of our facilities to those who are intent on damaging or destroying it.’ (Emphasis in original). [Mahaffey] stated that he sent this email to address ‘rumors’ possibly caused by SPD boarding up the East Precinct.”
Mahaffey said that he did not attend a June 7 meeting with the Office of the Mayor during which WO#1 drafted what the OPA refers to as “the Outline,” which detailed four courses of action the police department could take. In the narrative portion of the CCS, the OPA says that “[t]hese included that SPD: (1) maintain their current posture with ‘hardened barricades’; (2) remove all barricades and establish a ‘bicycle fence’ along the sidewalk outside the East Precinct, with SPD members manning the perimeter behind the fence line; (3) remove all barricades and establish a ‘bicycle fence’ along the sidewalk outside the East Precinct, with all SPD personnel inside the East Precinct; or (4) remove all barricades, including bicycle fencing, and then ‘[r]emove officers and sensitive property from [the] precinct [and] observe from [a] distance.’ The Outline also noted anticipated risks of each course of action, opining that the first was the ‘safest for officers and protesters,’ that the second and third involved risks of injury to both protesters and officers, and that the fourth would ‘very likely’ result in the destruction of the East Precinct.”
Mahaffey said that he attended a June 8 meeting with the Office of the Mayor in which City officials discussed how to proceed with regard to the East Precinct. He told the OPA that he made an “impassioned plea” to continue to defend the building and said he was concerned that the precinct’s potential destruction would create a “domino effect.” He said that he requested permanent, stationary fencing for the precinct, but that Stephanie Formas, the mayor’s chief of staff, rejected this request. Formas said that the protesters just wanted to peacefully march by the precinct and that SPD needed to allow the protesters to do just that.
After this meeting, the OPA says that Mahaffey described the limited number of hours he had to decide how to proceed as a “panic-type” situation.
“[Mahaffey] ordered sensitive SPD property be removed from the building and computer systems shut down but, given the limited amount of time, ‘it spun a little bit more … it just was too much to manage.’ [Mahaffey] described getting as many people involved as he could due to the logistics he had to arrange and that the situation ‘started taking on a life of its own,’” the OPA writes, quoting Mahaffey.
Mahaffey told the OPA that Best was “fully aware of his efforts to remove sensitive items from the precinct, but that he never considered the removal as an ‘abandonment’ of the building. Instead, [Mahaffey] believed it was an effort to remove sensitive items in order to keep them safe. Ultimately, [Mahaffey] said that he ordered personnel to evacuate the building as well.” Mahaffey also expressly stated that no one at the mayor’s office ordered SPD to evacuate the precinct and denied that his decision was in retaliation for a perceived lack of support from the office. He also said that he never discussed the evacuation with Best but had “been in communication” regarding the removal of sensitive items and that Best “recognized that [Mahaffey] was going to take the steps that ‘were necessary to secure the building and prevent what we had seen on the previous six or seven nights.’”
Presumably, Mahaffey here was referring to the violent clashes between officers and protesters that had been happening every night since late May.
Mahaffey also told the OPA that he had no idea that something like the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP)/Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) would pop up in the wake of SPD’s evacuation. He said that his primary concern was to avoid the destruction of the East Precinct. He also said that CHOP’s establishment “affected SPD’s ability to effectively police the area,” but that once CHOP’s “armed … perimeter was established and SPD leadership observed that the East Precinct was not being destroyed, a decision was made to hold off taking back the precinct because reestablishing a police presence in the area would require significant planning.”
The allegations of an armed perimeter at CHOP appear to be up for debate at the point in time Mahaffey is referring to according to this article from Politico, which quotes Best herself, an SPD detective Politico spoke with directly, and the Greater Seattle Business Association. However, according to a November 2020 King 5 article, there may have been at least one armed guard at some point early on in the CHOP. The OPA does not address this in its CCS, but does base some of its later decision to clear Best of an unreasonable discretion allegation on the idea that the decision to leave the precinct “involved weighty calculations as to whether a police presence could be reintroduced—and armed resistance overcome—without an unreasonable risk of injury or, potentially, death to protesters and police personnel.”
In his second interview, the OPA says that Mahaffey reiterated what he had told investigators in his first interview but also expanded upon some statements. He said he did not remember when he had seen the Outline but that all four options were discussed in the June 8 meeting. He said that as a result of the mayor’s office’s decision to open the street to protesters, “the only option truly available to SPD was the fourth option — evacuation.”
However, the OPA notes, in contrast to his first interview, Mahaffey stated that he told Best in a phone call “‘exactly what we were going to do’ and that he would never make as significant a decision as evacuating all personnel from the East Precinct ‘without running by the chief exactly what it was that we were going to do.’”
Mahaffey said that he was alone when this call happened around 3 p.m. on June 8, the day SPD left the precinct. When asked what Best’s response was, Mahaffey said, “Not specific words, but she concurred with the response, and I think she understood it.” He also said that after the call, he “reentered a room occupied by Witness Officer #4, Witness Officer #2, Witness Officer #1, and the Deputy Incident Commander. NE#2 recalled that he would have told this group of individuals: ‘Just that I talked to the chief….And, you know, that we’d move forward with the plan that we ended up implementing.’”
This contradicts what he told the OPA the first time.
Former Police Chief Carmen Best
Best’s interview appears later in the document, but the Emerald has decided to address it second, following Mahaffey’s interview. The OPA writes that Best only agreed to be interviewed after she had retired from her position. The OPA interviewed her on Jan 13, 2021, more than half a year after the incident.
Best told the OPA that she did not make the decision to leave the East Precinct. However, it should be noted that the OPA never says that she denied knowledge of this plan — which means that the possibility Best knew about the decision, as Mahaffey suggested in his second interview, remains open.
“She stated that a decision was made to remove staff and supplies from the precinct based on perceived dangers associated with the Mayor’s decision to open the area around the East Precinct to protesters and the belief that some protesters wanted to set fire to the precinct. However, [Best] reiterated that she ‘wasn’t a part of that decision.’” However, this does not mean that Best did not know about it.
Best also recalled that the decision in the June 8 meeting with the mayor’s office to remove the barricades around the East Precinct and allow the protesters to march past was met with objection from some SPD personnel. She also said that she had concerns about this plan, given that she had seen protesters throw rocks and bottles at officers, but that she understood that holding a line every day was ultimately draining on SPD officers’ morale and resources. She said that after that discussion “she was not involved in any further internal discussions as to what SPD would do to secure the East Precinct.”
“Although [Best] stated she knew there were concerns about the building, she told OPA that she ‘wasn’t involved in the discussion about what, you know, who was moving what material and when.’ When asked to specify when she became aware that preliminary steps were being taken to remove sensitive items from the East Precinct, NE#1 said: ‘Yeah, I don’t, I don’t remember. I know I was aware of it at some point, you know, but I don’t know if that was before or after the fact to be honest with you,’” the OPA writes.
Best told the OPA that she understood that the decision to remove barricades created concerns about the safety of officers within the East Precinct, as well as the physical security of the building and sensitive materials it contained. She said that she believed these concerns were “reasonable,” but that she would have “‘preferred to have been a part of the decision-making process before we decided to exit’ and [she] wasn’t. [Best] elaborated that she was notified after the fact by [Mahaffey] that there was ‘like a collaborative decision to do it’ among NE#2, WO#2, and WO#4.”
The OPA does not record whether Best said that she pushed back against this decision, but based on Mahaffey’s interview, it appears that she did not. Based on Mahaffey’s interview, it appears that Best may have, at the very least, tacitly agreed to the small command group’s decision. This also appears to be supported by Best’s own interview: According to the OPA, she “was adamant that any decision by [Mahaffey] to evacuate the East Precinct was not insubordinate and she had ‘every confidence in him.’”
“Instead, [Best] voiced her belief that ‘things were dynamic, there was a good will concern between the discussion they were having, they all sort of co-sign on each other’s opinion and mixing another, start to move and take action,’” the OPA writes, quoting Best. “Moreover, [Best] acknowledged that she empowered her command staff to make decisions without always consulting her. [Best] specifically noted that the entire reason for appointing an individual as an Incident Commander — here, [Mahaffey] — was so that they could make decisions that could and would result in significant outcomes.”
“Although [Best] expressed her desire and preference that [Mahaffey] would have consulted with her prior to ordering the East Precinct evacuation, she noted the following: ‘Typically, you know, those decisions, you know, sometimes they’ll [the command staff] have the chance to include me and sometimes they won’t or sometimes they’re directed to include me…And you know, they have to be able to make decisions dynamically.’” The OPA continues: “[Best] also acknowledged that there was some discretion for the decision to evacuate the precinct, stating: ‘I wasn’t there as [a] dynamic situation was unfolding, you know, I’m not being overly critical because I don’t think that—I do think that there was some latitude there, but it did not—I would’ve rather have known that. That’s all.’”
Best also denied to the OPA that Mahaffey or others would intentionally leave her out of a decision-making process based on a belief she would have disapproved of a plan such as this. She also said she remained uncertain whether the evacuation of the precinct contributed to the establishment of CHOP.
The OPA also interviewed Witness Officer #2 (WO#2) and Witness Officer #4 (WO#4), both of whom were involved in the decision to leave the East Precinct.
WO#4 told the OPA that he arrived to work on June 8 believing that additional, more secure fencing would be erected around the East Precinct. However, he said that plan changed an hour before roll call, and he was informed that the street would be opened to protesters. WO#4 said that this decision “put SPD into a ‘scramble’ as officers secured the East Precinct and removed sensitive items from approximately noon or 1:00 P.M. until approximately 6:00 P.M.”
Following the order to open the street, WO#4 said that command-level staff who were present — including himself — were forced to quickly decide how best to deal with the situation and that they ultimately decided that it would not be a good idea to allow officers to remain at the precinct. WO#4 said that the group considered a number of options that would have allowed officers to remain inside the precinct but that given the number of protesters, officers inside would have potentially been cut off from rescue or assistance. The group came up with an alternate plan, which involved setting up officers several blocks away and putting them in position to intervene should protesters begin to damage the East Precinct.
Like Best, WO#4 said that he did not foresee the establishment of CHOP and that, had anyone had any inkling it would have been established, he would have “strongly advocated” against leaving.
The OPA’s interview unfolds in a similar fashion. WO#2 said that when he arrived to work on June 8, he believed that additional fencing would be set up around the East Precinct. However, he told the OPA that WO#4 then told him that the mayor’s office had ordered SPD not to put up fencing and instead allow protesters to march by the precinct. WO#2 told the OPA that this was “hugely concerning” and proceeded to describe, according to the report, “a difficult tactical decision where SPD officers would either have to hold a line just outside the East Precinct — with nowhere to retreat other than the East Precinct — or barricade the East Precinct and stay inside. Both of these options were described by WO#2 as extremely dangerous given the possibility that the East Precinct could be set on fire. WO#2 asserted that ‘there was no way we were going to leave officers stuck in that predicament.’”
WO#2 said that he was part of a discussion with WO#4 and Mahaffey during which “it was decided” — unclear if by the group or just by Mahaffey — that SPD would leave the East Precinct. The CCS states that WO#2 said it was decided that “‘we would remove officers from the area’ with the intention of observing the precinct and reoccupying it the next morning. WO#2 said that, although [Best] was not present for this meeting, he believed that [Mahaffey] spoke with [Best] by phone.”
WO#2 said that he told both Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller and Stephanie Formas, the mayor’s chief of staff, that there would no longer be any SPD personnel within or outside the precinct. He told the OPA that both Sixkiller and Formas understood and agreed with the reasoning behind the decision.
WO#2 told the OPA that the original plan was to temporarily evacuate the precinct, then return and retake the area after the protesters had left. The only way SPD would have deviated from that plan would have been if the protesters had set fire to the precinct, WO#2 said. He also denied any knowledge that CHOP would be established after SPD left or that “‘heavily armed and body armored individuals’ would show up to ‘secure and ostensibly to hold off a police presence from reopening our precinct.’”
The OPA details an interview with WO#1, who was an SPD captain and Washington Army National Guard brigadier general at the time of the evacuation. At the time of the evacuation, WO#1 had been assigned to take over planning and responsibilities for the department via the Seattle Police Operations Center.
WO#1 said that SPD had difficulty maintaining perimeter control around the East Precinct in the days leading up to the evacuation. He said that a bike fence was erected, which protesters dismantled and used as weapons against SPD, and then that a sturdier fence was erected, which he said protesters destroyed using “blowtorches and pneumatic tools.”
WO#1 told the OPA that he laid out the Outline for SPD personnel and the Mayor’s Office on June 7. The next day, June 8, was supposed to be his day off, but he was summoned to work at around 2 p.m., with Mahaffey telling him that he needed to “come back to the precinct, we’re going to pull back from the precinct, you need to help organize getting the stuff out of there and prepare it to get boarded up because we’re going to pull back, we just can’t sustain the injury to the officers, it’s unsustainable.”
WO#1 described a “gut-wrenching” situation upon his arrival at the East Precinct. According to the CCS, he said that officers were in an “‘absolute panic … ripping open lockers’ and ‘kicking in doors and offices’ in order to secure weapons, computers, and hard drives.”
WO#1 said that he organized supervisors and tried to get them to calm down in order to approach the situation in a methodical way. However, he noted that the situation as a whole was “hugely demoralizing” for officers and, the CCS details, he saw “a lot of officers … crying” that day, and that the situation was “one of the more difficult events that I’ve been through in my life.”
WO#1 said that following the evacuation, his main role was attending to the need “to have a functioning police precinct or at least the ability to police the [confines of the] East Precinct.” He told the OPA that he handled logistical issues surrounding continuing police operations within the bounds of the East Precinct without access to the precinct itself.
The OPA also briefly details with Witness Officers #3, #5, #6, and #7. The Emerald will only detail the interviews with WO#5 and WO#6 — as both appear connected to a significant point of contention with regard to public information shared by SPD — and several points that should be highlighted from WO#7’s interview.
WO#5 and WO#6 were part of SPD’s Public Affairs Unit. Both of these officers were interviewed in April of this year, and their interviews were focused on a statement made on the SPD Blotter (SPD’s blog) on June 8 at just after 4:30 p.m. The statement said that SPD would be opening the streets around the East Precinct and included a long quote from Mahaffey. The OPA writes that “[t]he quote did not specifically address whether any SPD personnel would remain inside of the East Precinct. Following the [Mahaffey] quote — below the text box — was a single sentence that stated: ‘The East Precinct will remain staffed.’”
However, as the OPA points out, in his second interview, Mahaffey “stated that he did not recall whether he was involved in the production of the Blotter release. He further stated that this was the first time he had seen that Blotter entry. [Mahaffey] elaborated that there was a lot going on at the date and time the Blotter was released.”
Both WO#5 and WO#6 denied writing the Blotter entry. At the time, WO#5 was a new SPD hire and would not have been involved in its production, based on the date of the blog post release, according to the CCS. WO#6 said that it would have been unlikely that Mahaffey would not have been shown a release in which he had been quoted but said that the last sentence regarding the East Precinct’s staffing “appeared to have been inserted by someone in the Public Affairs Section based on the way it was written. WO#6 indicated that this sort of information would typically be included after receiving confirmation from someone in the field.”
WO#5 also spoke with the OPA about a video speech Best made to SPD, which was released on SPD’s YouTube channel. Best said in this speech that leaving the East Precinct wasn’t her decision and that “‘ultimately the City had other plans for the building and relented to severe public pressure.’ WO#5 stated that she was involved in writing the speech and specifically wrote the line in the speech stating that leaving the East Precinct was not [Best]’s decision. WO#5 stated that she did not think it was ever [Best]’s intention to leave the East Precinct and that this message in the speech was ‘ultimately approve[d] by’ [Best]. WO#5 stated that she believed the speech to be true but that only [Best] could answer what her intent was with respect to releasing the speech.”
It should be specifically noted that in the video, Best’s language heavily implied that the mayor’s office unilaterally forced SPD to leave the precinct. Best’s exact words in the video were, “[T]o have a change of course two weeks in — it seems like an insult to you and our community. Ultimately, the City had other plans for the building and relented to severe public pressure. I’m angry about how this all came about. I understand that my comments and this message may be leaked to the public, but I am not concerned about that. I stand by what I am saying.”
The OPA does not address Best’s insinuation in the CCS, even in the later section entitled, “Public Statements,” where it briefly discusses this video. The Emerald reached out to the OPA on the morning of Oct. 4 to ask whether investigators had asked her about her video statement. The OPA did not return request for comment before publication.
Converge Media asked OPA Dir. Andrew Myerberg in an interview about whether the OPA felt Best was dishonest when she made the video. The Emerald updated this article after initial publication to include this interview.
Myerberg answered that he does not believe Best was being dishonest.
“What she says in the video is that the City had other plans for the precinct and that she was not happy with that, and I think what she was referring to in that is the decision to open up the streets, which a lot of people in SPD … disagreed with, because they thought it put the precinct at risk,” Myerberg said. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to say that she was being dishonest, and certainly, there was no finding in the case that she was.”
However, it is still unclear whether the OPA asked Best about her statement and what she meant by it, and Myerberg does not address this in the Converge interview.
WO#7 told the OPA that he was present for the June 8 meeting. He said he understood that SPD had been directed to open the street for protesters and that SPD had no intention of disobeying that order. However, he said that both Best and Mahaffey argued against this course of action and noted that Mahaffey got “pretty heated.’”
Eventually, WO#7 said, SPD staff and the mayor’s office agreed to open the street in order to avoid officer “attrition through injury.” He said his understanding was that there would be an “‘operating area’ between the fence line and the building for officers to defend the building. Additionally, WO#7 understood that there would also be officers at a nearby location who would be on standby to rescue any officers that got trapped inside the fence line. WO#7 then left the meeting to begin working on the fencing, but stated that Best, Mahaffey, and Sixkiller ‘stayed back for a sec…they had a little sidebar.’”
WO#7 said that he had been working before becoming “distracted for a period of time.” He then noticed that others installing the fence were “starting to bolt stuff against the East Precinct.” He said that when he asked what was happening, Mahaffey told him, “[W]e’re changing things around a little bit.”
WO#7 then said that he received a phone call from Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller, who asked why things were changing. WO#7 told the OPA that he said, “I’m not in charge anymore, you know,” and indicated that the person in charge was Mahaffey. WO#7 also said that right after this phone call, he got a phone call from Best asking about the change in plans. He responded similarly, telling Best she needed to talk to Mahaffey, whom WO#7 told Best that Best herself had put in charge.
“WO#7 said that NE#1 told him that NE#2 was not answering his phone. WO#7 recalled that these conversations occurred ‘maybe two or three hours before the precinct was abandoned.’ WO#7 told OPA the following: ‘I stepped away and I decided, well okay, things are changing. And it’s, you know, I don’t have a job here anymore. So, you know, I left the East Precinct.’ WO#7 did not remember where he went after leaving the East Precinct,” the OPA writes.
The OPA noted that “WO#7 was the only witness interviewed by OPA that claimed that anyone anticipated the establishment of CHOP/CHAZ. WO#7 opined that ‘there was a belief that we would be denied access to areas, you know, with some of the fencing.’”
Mayor’s Office Staff
Finally, the OPA also interviewed the Office of the Mayor’s Chief of Staff Stephanie Formas and Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller.
Formas said that at the June 7 meeting, Best said that she had been in touch with the FBI. Best told Formas that the takeaway from the call was that there was a credible threat to the East Precinct. Formas also recalled the Outline, as well as the mayor’s office’s objections to the possibility of installing a more permanent fence.
She also described the June 8 meeting to the OPA as “a robust 60- to 90-minute conversation” about how sticking to the current plan was not working and how they needed to come up with a different solution. She said she did not recall any “significant objection” to the plan to open the streets around the East Precinct and that removing the barriers was a “joint decision.”
Formas said that the operational plan was to install fencing immediately around the precinct and that there would be staffing plans and barricades for the building. Additionally, she said, the call was made to remove sensitive items from the building. She said that she and Sixkiller learned at around 4 p.m. or 5 p.m. that day that the plan had changed and that SPD was evacuating the precinct. She said that she and Sixkiller physically went to the precinct and spoke with WO#2, who told her that sensitive materials and weapons had been removed and that there would not be any officers in the building. Instead, WO#2 told them, officers would be staged five minutes away in Volunteer Park. Formas told the OPA that, at the time, she felt that this was “a completely reasonable thing,” particularly since SPD was only going to be five minutes away.
Sixkiller recalls events in much the same way as Formas. He does not appear to address the “sidebar” that WO#7 described, and it is unclear whether the OPA asked him about this.
As the Emerald noted above, the OPA also briefly discusses public statements, emails, text messages and mobile phone call logs. In the interest of brevity, the Emerald will focus on the call logs, text messages, and emails.
The OPA said it obtained call logs between Best and Mahaffey. It states that “[t]here were seven calls between them on June 8” and lists those calls:
- 2:35 P.M. for 1 minute, from [Mahaffey] to [Best];
- 2:42 P.M. for 1 minute, from [Mahaffey] to [Best];
- 3:02 P.M. for 4 minutes, from [Best] to [Mahaffey];
- 3:13 P.M. for 4 minutes, from [Mahaffey] to [Best];
- 6:43 P.M for 4 minutes, from [Mahaffey] to [Best];
- 7:47 P.M. for 20 minutes, from [Mahaffey] to [Best]; and
- 10:13 P.M. for 6 minutes, from [Best] to [Mahaffey].
The OPA also said that it obtained a spreadsheet of instant and text messages pertaining to Best and Mahaffey, some of them from Best and Mahaffey themselves. The OPA writes that the June 7 messages support what Best and Mahaffey told investigators during their interviews. It writes that June 8 messages reveal that just before 10:30 a.m., the mayor’s office “requested a plan to evacuate ‘firearms, ammunition, and all evidence’ from the East Precinct that could be executed by 5:00 P.M. that same day. There is no mention in these communications about [Best] insisting that SPD not leave the precinct. Additionally, [Mahaffey] received a message from an SPD Lieutenant at approximately 2:39 P.M. stating ‘It’s the right decision. It takes great courage. You’re doing a great job.’ This message appears to support [Mahaffey]’s estimated timeline of making a decision to vacate the precinct by around 3:00 P.M.”
The OPA continues: “At 4:17 P.M. on June 8, a civilian Executive Director at SPD asked [Mahaffey] whether anyone would be working inside the precinct and NE#2 told him, ‘No.’ This message was followed shortly thereafter by a 4:32 P.M. message from WO#3 about taking steps to disable equipment, which was sent to [Best], [Mahaffey], and other command staff members. This message included a comment about how doing so would stop anyone who got into the building from obtaining SPD’s data. [Best] liked WO#3’s message at 5:51 P.M. By 7:33 P.M., WO#3 messaged about letting the FBI know that ‘they’ have painted over SPD’s exterior precinct cameras in the event that the FBI had resources in the group of protesters. This communication was sent to [Best], [Mahaffey], and other command staff members.”
The OPA also writes that the emails it received “broadly confirmed the recitation of events set forth above,” and that “[f]our emails in particular suggest that NE#2’s decision to evacuate personnel from the East Precinct was relayed to SPD’s command staff at the time of the decision or very close to the time it was made.”
Two of the emails, the OPA writes, were sent in response to a June 7 email in which Mahaffey informed SPD officers that officers had not been told to take personal belongings from the East Precinct in preparation for “an abandonment” of the precinct. The first response was from a homicide detective asking about “a disturbing rumor” floating around that SPD was planning to abandon the East Precinct. The second email was from a narcotics detective who apparently accidentally copied the entirety of SPD (including Best) on his response directed specifically at Mahaffey: “What happened? I volunteer to help defend. This is ridiculous!”
The third email concerns a list of talking points Best forwarded to some members of SPD’s Public Affairs Unit, including WO#5. The OPA writes that Best forwarded this email about two minutes after a four-minute phone call with Mahaffey and about five minutes before another four-minute phone call with him. These talking points were drafted by WO#3, who emailed them to Best, Mahaffey, WO#7, and other SPD command staff.
The OPA says that the talking points note that Best “ordered ‘changes to our deployment strategy’ that would decrease the SPD ‘footprint in the East Precinct.’ The speaking points elaborated that the streets would be opened to protesters, SPD would ‘bring more officers off the line and into safer positions,’ the East Precinct facility would be secured, and that a deployment plan would be sent to ensure continuity of police services.”
“The timing of this exchange corroborated NE#2’s account that he was in communication with [Best] regarding his decision to evacuate the East Precinct. Given that [Best] forwarded this email in the middle of a fifteen-minute window in which she had two four-minute-long phone conversations with [Mahaffey], it appears possible if not probable that the subject of these phone calls between [Best] and [Mahaffey] was the operational plan for the East Precinct,” the OPA continues. “Also, the phrasing of the ‘speaking points’ would make it apparent to anyone familiar with the Outline that an evacuation of personnel from the East Precinct was, at the very least, being considered. Specifically, the note that the changes would permit SPD to ‘bring more officers off the line and into safer positions’ was consistent with the Outline’s fourth course of action, removing officers from the precinct and observing from a distance.”
The OPA writes that a fourth email corroborated Mahaffey’s account that he was in touch with Best about his decision to evacuate the East Precinct.
“On June 8 at 3:28 P.M., [Mahaffey] sent an email to all sworn members of SPD informing them of the decision to open the streets to protesters and emphasizing that the safety of SPD employees and the security of SPD facilities were his ‘highest priority,’” the OPA writes. “In his email, [Mahaffey] stated that: ‘Additional measures are currently underway to enhance our ongoing efforts to insure [sic] the security of our East Precinct and provide for the safety of all our officers. We will have personnel in place should the need arise to swiftly address acts of violence and/or property destruction.’ Approximately two minutes later, [Mahaffey] sent an email to [Best], WO#3, and WO#7, copying three other command staff members, stating that he just sent an email to all sworn members that was ‘approved by the Chief.’”
The OPA picks out three elements of Mahaffey’s email as being “particularly relevant.” First, it writes, the overall plan outlined in the email appeared most like the fourth course of action detailed in the Outline, which had anticipated evacuating officers. Second, the OPA says, as with the email containing talking points, the phrasing would “make it clear to anyone familiar with the Outline that an evacuation was being considered. [Mahaffey] did not state that the ‘personnel in place’ would actually be inside of the East Precinct. This is consistent with the Outline’s fourth course of action.”
The OPA also says that Mahaffey did not “elaborate on what specific ‘additional measures’ were being taken to provide for officer safety, even though the Outline noted that it would be ‘highly likely officers will sustain injuries’ under any scenario in which officers remained inside of the East Precinct after the streets were opened to protesters.”
“Moreover, the email did not state that the East Precinct would remain open, even though the building was contemporaneously being barricaded and emptied of sensitive items. Third, a subordinate SPD member sent a draft of this email—substantially the same as the final email—to [Mahaffey] at 3:18 P.M.,” the OPA writes. “This was approximately one minute after the second four-minute phone call between [Best] and [Mahaffey]. This again suggests that [Mahaffey] was in ongoing communication with [Best] at the precise timeframe that the decision to evacuate personnel from the East Precinct was made.”
Thus, it would appear to suggest that, contrary to what sources told KUOW and what Mahaffey claimed in his first interview, Best was at least aware of the plan to evacuate the East Precinct. The OPA acknowledges this in its section regarding public reporting, stating that KUOW’s article was in the OPA’s eyes “the most thorough and accurate accounting of” the situation and that the differences arose out of the fact that KUOW did not have the same level of access to certain pieces of evidence — specifically, call logs and the Outline — or to witnesses from SPD whom the OPA specifically says are required to tell the truth under penalty of termination: “… OPA required witnesses to go on the record and attest that their statements were truthful and complete under penalty of termination (at least for SPD employees).”
Later, the OPA says that “OPA significantly doubts that any of the employees interviewed, particularly those at SPD who could face termination for withholding or misrepresenting information, would have chosen to mislead OPA on this point.”
The OPA does not discuss the fact that Mahaffey does not appear to have been entirely truthful in his first interview with investigators. The Emerald asked the OPA in its Oct. 4 email about whether Mahaffey will face repercussions for this, and whether his account changed the second time around because investigators presented him with email evidence. The OPA did not return request for comment before publication.
However, in his interview with Converge Media, Myerberg says that “there is definitely a difference” between Mahaffey’s first and second interview. The Emerald updated this story shortly after publication to include the interview, after Converge released it.
“In the first interview, he is not as crystal clear that there is no conversation, he just doesn’t provide a lot of detail about it. In the second interview, he comes in … and is more clear about details and about the phone call and the phone call lasting for multiple minutes,” Myerberg told Converge.
“There wasn’t a lot of information as to why he provided more detail,” Myerberg continued, raising the question as to whether OPA investigators asked Mahaffey why he did not relay this account to them the first time, “but it certainly didn’t appear to me that in … the investigation that the original statement was dishonest. It was certainly incomplete, but not dishonest, because the second statement that he gave about the phone call was then later corroborated by the phone records that we were able to locate.”
This statement appears to contradict what the OPA specifically says in the CCS about Mahaffey’s first interview — “[Mahaffey] … stated that he never discussed the evacuation of personnel with [Best] specifically, but that they had been in communication about removing sensitive items from the precinct” — and what it says about Mahaffey’s second interview: “In contrast to his first interview, [Mahaffey] stated at his second interview that he told [Best] during a phone call ‘exactly what we were going to do’ and that he would never make as significant a decision as evacuating all personnel from the East Precinct ‘without running by the chief exactly what it was that we were going to do.’”
Furthermore, even if Myerberg simply deemed Mahaffey’s statement “incomplete,” this and the fact that Mahaffey appears to have, at the very least, withheld information about what really happened in the phone calls and that he had actually informed Best about the decision still would appear to fit the OPA’s own definition of not being entirely forthcoming or complete in a statement to OPA investigators.
In his interview with Converge, Myerberg appears to soften the CCS’s statements about this.
“It’s not that he doesn’t remember. … He talks to her, and the way he describes this conversation in the first interview is that they are discussing the evacuation of items … but there isn’t a large discussion at that first interview about, ‘Well, did you explicitly ask her or run the plan by her,” and he’s obviously not giving that answer,” Myerberg said. “At the second interview, he does provide more context … he provides those statements saying that he would not have made a decision before running it by her, and that he makes her aware of it,”
Converge Media asked why Mahaffey provided an accurate recollection of events the second time around — was it because the OPA confronted him with email or other evidence? Myerberg said that he did not immediately have that information on hand.
“I don’t know whether it was because we had confronted him with additional evidence or that he himself had pulled his phone records and looked at that,” Myerberg said.
Again, Mahaffey himself told OPA investigators that he told Best in this phone call “exactly what we were going to do,” which the CCS says is “in contrast” to Mahaffey’s first interview where he “stated that he never discussed the evacuation of personnel with [Best] specifically.”
Did Best Know?
The OPA devotes a section to the CCS titled “Remaining Factual Issue” that discusses this contradiction, which it terms a “core factual disagreement.”
“[Best] and [Mahaffey] disagreed over whether [Best] authorized the plan to evacuate the East Precinct. [Mahaffey] was interviewed by OPA twice during the investigation—the first time as a witness officer, the second time after he was added as a Named Employee. During his first interview, [Mahaffey] stated that he never discussed his decision to evacuate the East Precinct with [Best] specifically, but that [Best] was fully aware that sensitive equipment was being removed from the building and [Mahaffey] was empowered to take steps that he felt ‘were necessary to secure the building and prevent what we had seen on the previous six or seven nights.’”
“During his second interview, [Mahaffey] stated that he informed [Best] of his decision to evacuate the East Precinct during a phone call at approximately 3:00 P.M. on June 8. [Mahaffey] did not recall [Best] taking any kind of position with respect to his decision. [Mahaffey] noted that [Best] ‘concurred with the response’ given the recent directive from the Mayor’s Office to remove the barricades and allow the protesters to pass by the East Precinct,” the OPA continues. “[Mahaffey] stated that no one else was present during this phone conversation with [Best]. He was adamant that he would not have ordered the evacuation of the East Precinct without consulting [Best].”
The OPA continues, stating that while mobile phone data appears to support Mahaffey’s account that he was in touch with Best, the OPA could not definitively determine what they discussed. This is, it should be noted, despite the email Mahaffey sent to Best, WO#3, WO#7, and three other command staff members saying that the plan to evacuate the East Precinct was “approved by the Chief.” The OPA appears to suggest that this uncertainty arose because Best had told the OPA that Mahaffey and other command staff were expected “to make difficult decisions” and that she did not believe Mahaffey was overstepping his authority by not consulting her before making the call to evacuate the precinct.
“Ultimately, the evidence is conflicting as to whether [Best] explicitly approved the plan to evacuate the East Precinct, or if [Mahaffey] made this decision independently. OPA believes it much more likely that this ambiguity was the result of a number of complicated decisions being made during a highly stressful, rapidly evolving situation,” the OPA writes. “However, regardless of this dispute of fact, the evidence is clear—predominantly based on [Best]’s statement—that, even if [Mahaffey] decided independently to evacuate the East Precinct, he had full discretionary authority to make that decision.”
The OPA writes that it ultimately does not sustain any allegations against Best or Mahaffey. Again, for brevity, Emerald will not detail those reasons here, but readers can find those stated reasons within the CCS, starting on page 20.
The Emerald would like to highlight that the OPA does, however, note what it calls “a misstep by SPD … concerning the lack of information provided to the public in the aftermath of the decision to evacuate the precinct.”
“Even without getting into the reasoning for the decision and arguing the merits publicly, SPD could have generally informed the public that the Mayor asked for the streets to be opened, that [Mahaffey] ultimately made the call to evacuate, and that the authority to do so was delegated to him by [Best],” the OPA says. “Instead, this issue was left open in excess of a year, and it was up to the public and media to speculate as to what occurred, at times by sorting through sometimes vague and ambiguous statements and incomplete information. This appeared, at least in OPA’s estimation, to create a sense of distrust within community and the belief that there was something nefarious at play, when this was established to not be the case when all of the facts were uncovered. SPD leadership should continue to endeavor to communicate decisions of public concern in a clear, transparent, and timely fashion.”
Editor’s Note: The Emerald updated this story shortly after publication to include quotes from two of today’s Converge Media interviews with OPA Director Andrew Myerberg. Links to those interviews may be found within the story.
Carolyn Bick is a journalist and photographer based in South Seattle. As the Emerald’s Watchdragon reporter, they dive deep into local issues to keep the public informed and ensure those in positions of power are held accountable for their actions. You can reach them here and can check out their work here and here.
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