by Carolyn Bick
The Emerald’s Watchdragon reporting seeks to increase accountability within our city’s institutions through in-depth investigative journalism.
More than two months ago, lawyer Sarah Lippek approached federal monitor Dr. Antonio Oftelie on LinkedIn about alleged sexual abuse of vulnerable people — including homeless youth, sex workers, unhoused individuals, and drug users — by Seattle Police Department (SPD) officers.
But instead of giving the information Lippek would eventually send him to the Department of Justice (DOJ) or the federal court, as she asked, Oftelie gave Lippek’s contact information to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
The FBI is not part of the Consent Decree process, but the DOJ and the federal court are — and presumably, Oftelie is in contact with the DOJ and the federal court on a regular basis, because of his specific role in the Consent Decree. Sending this information to the FBI would be akin to starting over, Lippek told the Emerald, because the federal investigation that led to the Consent Decree already happened 10 years ago.
“The Consent Decree Monitor saying he gave my information to the FBI months ago is akin to him telling me that nothing is going to happen, or the issue of police sexual misconduct is not going to be addressed,” Lippek said. “If the monitoring team was looking to work collaboratively with the community on the issue of police sexual violence, then the community should have been consulted regarding the FBI’s involvement. He could have sent me an email months ago. … Telling me months later is not collaboration. It is vaguely threatening.”
And this specific issue was identified in a survey almost 10 years ago, but somewhere along the way, the data Lippek is talking about was buried. Police sexual misconduct has never been part of the official conversation about what’s wrong with SPD, Lippek told the Emerald.
After Lippek contacted him on LinkedIn, Oftelie asked her for more information in a Nov. 26, 2021, email. In a follow-up email to him on Nov. 28, 2021, Lippek pointed Oftelie to data regarding alleged sexual abuse by SPD officers that has been stored by a University of Washington (UW) professor. Lippek told Oftelie that the data — collected in 2013 by a team under the umbrella of the People’s Harm Reduction Alliance (PHRA) that included the PHRA executive director, a Ph.D. student, aforementioned UW professor, and Lippek — had been provided to the City, but that she was unsure what happened to it after that. She told Oftelie in this email that she had no idea whether the data had been submitted to the Department of Justice (DOJ), but that “[w]hen the City’s reports on the community surveys were released publicly, some PHRA participation was apparently included in some data sets, but it did not appear that the data about sexual abuse was published or acknowledged, even as individual comments.”
Lippek also told Oftelie that when she worked as an Office of Inspector General (OIG) investigator in 2018, she reviewed more than 1,100 Office of Police Accountability (OPA) complaints.
And in those complaints, she said, she “found serious, credible allegations of sexual assault and harassment buried in the OPA ‘contact logs’ and ignored, or kept in perpetual suspension while investigative procedures were ‘paused’ and unresumed for years at a time, allowing officers to retire with full pensions and without any disciplinary mark.”
After this email, Oftelie went quiet. Lippek didn’t hear from him again for months. It was only after she again left public comments on one of Oftelie’s LinkedIn posts — and followed up with Oftelie via email about his comment at the CPC’s Community Engagement meeting on Feb. 8, 2022, in which he mentioned that the FBI had allegedly been notified about the reported sexual abuse data — that Oftelie emailed her back.
In this email, dated Feb. 9, 2022, Oftelie said that he “referred you’re [sic] inquiry to FBI approximately two months ago. Did anyone from the FBI contact you to follow-up?
“If not, I’ll likely have to pursue this with the monitoring team. I’ll need to get the [federal] Court to give me an okay on that (the monitoring team does not look at individual cases generally),” Oftelie said in his email to Lippek.
Lippek responded that she had not received any follow-up from the FBI, either via email or phone. She also clarified that her request to Oftelie was “not that the monitoring team look at any individual cases, but that the monitoring team examine patterns of alleged abuse against multiple people, which are indicated by a variety of sources.
“The matter of Captain Woolery’s arrest is an example of a pattern, and is particularly notable because it’s currently apparently unresolved and has not resulted in any inquiry into Captain Woolery’s command duties, his participation in the force review process, or any other ways in which his decision-making potentially impacted accountability for other officers,” Lippek continued, referring to an incident in which SPD Capt. Randall Woolery was arrested in an SPD sting operation and may have gotten preferential treatment. “I hope that when you present the situation to the monitoring team and the court, you indicate that the community has reported a need for investigation of police sexual abuse.”
In Lippek’s original November email to Oftelie, she specifically asked Oftelie whether he would be willing to engage with her and her colleagues and “act as a point of entry for data to reach the DOJ and the judge.” She never asked the monitoring team to look at the data itself.
In this email, Lippek expressed a desire to “provide further detail about research; legal cases; OPA casefiles; and other evidence regarding potential sexual misconduct, abuse, and assault by SPD officers — particularly vice squad officers” and asked for Oftelie to tell her “the best way to engage with you as Monitor and provide information to the DOJ and the Court — can we provide documents to you via a secure filesharing method? Should we meet with you directly? Request to submit an amicus brief?”
As noted, Oftelie never replied to this email.
Furthermore, Lippek wrote in this November email in a section entitled “Ongoing Issues Preventing Community Engagement” that “[i]t was a grave disappointment, and one that has been maintained and repeated in the intervening decade, to find that the CPC did not make any serious effort to engage with significant populations that are impacted frequently by police contact — in particular, there has been almost zero attention to youth, let alone youth who are street-involved/homeless/drug-involved/practicing survival sex; or who have mental health diagnoses; or who are queer, trans, or gender non-conforming.
“We’ve been repeatedly told that the CPC is the only route for community concerns to reach the monitor, the judge, or any part of the consent decree management,” Lippek continued. “And the CPC has repeatedly demonstrated a fundamental unwillingness to hear from the most deeply-affected people in the city. That’s an impasse that has never been broken.”
Lippek also sent the Emerald the survey that the PHRA team distributed. That survey added questions to the original survey the CPC provided to survey administrators. The two surveys differ significantly, because the PHRA team included issues and communities that the CPC’s survey overlooked. The PHRA did not receive a grant to participate in the survey, as some other groups did, but they were allowed to participate, anyway, Lippek said.
While the CPC version is devoid of any specific questions regarding sexual harassment or abuse allegations, the PHRA team’s survey specifically asks several questions about this, including how often respondents believed SPD officers engaged in sexual abuse, inappropriate “searches” (alluding to invasive and inappropriate strip searches and cavity searches), and stalking and harassment. Lippek told the Emerald that the team specifically found responses regarding coercion, sexual harassment, and “bad” searches.
The CPC’s survey also does not have any questions about what the community felt SPD could do to engage in the process of reform, but the PHRA team’s survey does. Some of these suggestions included an elected public review board with the power to investigate police misconduct and fire bad officers, issuing defensive or nonlethal weapons only, and officers working in teams with counselors.
However, even though the PHRA team submitted this information to the CPC along with the original survey, the City, the CPC, or the outside organization that prepared the report based on the survey data appears to have disregarded the reported sexual abuse data. It is unclear who exactly disregarded it, particularly given that the CPC’s mission is to allegedly engage and bring community concerns about the police to the fore.
The Emerald has emailed Oftelie to ask why he never responded to Lippek’s November email and why he forwarded the information to the FBI, particularly since Lippek specifically asked him whether he would be an entry point to getting the data to the DOJ and the federal courts. It also asked him whether he talked with the CPC about the information Lippek forwarded him in November between that Nov. 28 email and before the CPC’s Community Engagement meeting on Feb. 8.
In the CPC’s Feb. 16 meeting, it appeared that the CPC was only just now being made aware of Lippek’s concerns, as CPC Commissioner Rev. Harriet Walden noted that the CPC was drafting a letter to Oftelie regarding something “disturbing,” though she did not elaborate further.
The FBI told the Emerald on Feb. 17 that it could not confirm or deny whether it had received any information from Oftelie.
The CPC emailed the Emerald on Feb. 18 with the following statement: “We are deeply disturbed by the alleged pattern of sexual abuse by Seattle Police Department officers brought to light by a former OIG employee.
“We were first made aware of the allegations with the rest of the community during our public February Community Engagement Meeting,” the email continued. “Since then, we have been working on learning more information about what happened and how it may be investigated. We intend to update the community as soon as we learn more.”
It is immediately unclear whether the CPC means that it does not know what happened to the data or that it does not know what happened in each allegation instance. The Emerald has followed up to again ask what happened to the original sexual abuse allegation data submitted to the CPC in 2013, and will update this story if more information becomes available.
Correction: The original story stated that Lippek found credible allegations of SPD sexual misconduct during her time at the OIG. The story insinuated that she shared them with the PHRA. This was incorrect and a typo. Lippek’s time with the PHRA preceded her time with the OIG by five years, and she never shared confidential information from her job with anyone. The story has been corrected.
📸 Featured Image: Screenshot of Dr. Antonio Oftelie speaking to the Seattle Community Police Commission (CPC) in May 2021.
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