Member of Federal Monitoring Team Put Onus on Local Lawyer to Reproduce Data, Protect Complainants
by Carolyn Bick
The Emerald’s Watchdragon reporting seeks to increase accountability within our city’s institutions through in-depth investigative journalism.
The Emerald has learned that the Community Police Commission has apparently either lost or destroyed survey data pointing to allegations of sexual abuse by Seattle Police Department (SPD) officers.
After learning that the data regarding sexual abuse allegations was no longer in the possession of the specific survey outreach team mentioned in the first article regarding this matter, the Emerald filed a public disclosure request with the Community Police Commission (CPC) on March 21. The CPC was in charge of collecting different group surveys and their data in 2013, an effort that culminated in the 2014 Community Outreach Report. However, as discussed in the original article on the matter, the People’s Harm Reduction Alliance (PHRA) group was the only group to specifically collect data about sexual abuse allegations. The Emerald specifically asked the CPC for this group’s data and communications from that time.
After several months, Emily Trbovich, an administrative staff analyst for the City of Seattle, told the Emerald on May 20 that “[a] comprehensive search of my department resulted in no responsive documents. After reviewing the archives boxes from CPC’s past, there was no mention of the 2014 Community Outreach Report or the Peoples’ Harm Reduction Alliance (PHRA) team. The [sic] considers your request closed.”
The Emerald followed up on May 21 to ask what happened to the records and ask if they were either lost or destroyed, since they were literally the only copies the team had. Trbovich responded on May 22 to say that she was out of the office but that “I will follow-up with you as soon as I get back from leave. I will also reach out to the Public Disclosure Request Team to see if there are any other places physical records could be. When I requested records from archives for 2013-2015 from the CPC I was given four boxes which I looked through. As I mentioned, there was no reference of the PHRA or the 2014 Community Outreach Report.”
The Emerald asked Trbovich on May 23 why she did not escalate the matter, as it would appear to be a serious one, given the scope of the documentation that had gone missing. Trbovich responded on June 2 to say that she had “escalated the issue with the CPC Executive Director and the City’s Public Disclosure Program Manager.
“The CPC conducted a thorough search, consisting of the following:
- Searching through current and former staff email correspondences
- Asking staff to search through their records
- Reviewing records in shared file drives and Sharepoints
- Working with the City Records Manager to access and searched [sic] physical records”
Trbovich also said that the records the Emerald had “requested are over 8 years old and may have undergone the attached record retention scheduled for the office. Thank you for sharing your concern with us.”
The records retention schedule does not appear to clearly indicate where those survey results would fall, but two items note that records in those categories are retained for a limited period of time and that they are “potentially archival.”
The Emerald asked on June 2 what the “potentially archival” designation means and whether this meant that the CPC did not retain a copy of its own inaugural survey and data — data that, according to the report, came from more than 3,000 surveys — save for the online link. It also asked what company the City used to create the final survey document, since, presumably, that company may retain those records. Despite the Emerald following up multiple times throughout June and July, Trbovich did not respond to either of those questions before publication.
It should also be noted that the CPC supposedly collected this data to get community opinion regarding CPC draft policy recommendations “related to bias-free policing, stops and detentions, use of force, and in-car video recordings,” prior to the CPC making said recommendations. The survey claims that “[t]his feedback was included in the CPC report on its policy recommendations issued November 15, 2013,” but this does not appear to be true.
The report itself notes several times that there were “serious time constraints,” which the CPC then links to its decision to submit its policy recommendations “prior to a complete accounting of community feedback.”
The report also noted concerns that the short turnaround time not only barred certain communities from participating fully, it also resulted in communities who “were missed.” These communities included Indigenous people “who identify across LGBTQ spectrum, and people with disabilities, and possibly others.”
In the same appendix item, the report notes that “partners do not have capacity to handle similar constraints in future — they estimate they need one month to plan and one month to implement outreach.”
Prior to the Emerald’s discovery that the CPC no longer had this data, lawyer Sarah Lippek repeatedly attempted to alert federal monitor Antonio Oftelie to its existence. After the Emerald published the initial story regarding this sexual abuse allegation data, Oftelie reached out to Lippek to set up a meeting among Lippek, himself and several others of the federal monitoring team, including federal monitoring team member Ron Ward. Lippek provided the Emerald a recording of that meeting, which took place in March 2022. Readers can learn more about the meeting in this related story.
In the meeting, Ward appears to put the onus on Lippek to collect completely new data regarding sexual assault allegations against police officers. Again, the original data about which Lippek raised the alarm was collected as part of a massive, Citywide survey initiative run by the CPC nearly 10 years ago and included data from more than 3,000 surveys, following at least 150 meetings with more than 3,400 community members.
Ward also suggests that Lippek round up people to make complaints to the OPA and that she is “also probably in the best position to protect people whom you don’t want to subject to jeopardy or danger or whatever.” He continues, “But you know, as I do that, failing something like that … we might as well be sitting here in handcuffs. … We simply can’t make allegations and expect that to create a big enough hue and cry to go forward and not have a result that is exactly diametrically opposite.”
In other words, Ward’s message to Lippek seems to have been that if she could not independently find people who would be willing to come forward, find some way to protect them from any police retaliation — which itself is a concerning suggestion, especially coming from a member of the federal monitoring team — and make sure these same people had grounds to sue someone (presumably, the City) then there was no point in pursuing the matter further.
“I am not a massively funded organization, and I don’t have the ability to take hundreds of clients by myself,” Lippek said. “I do what I can, but there’s already a set of organizations that are designed for this — the ‘accountability partners.’ … If the answer, after all these years of accountability is that, ‘Well, if you don’t have enough to sue with, then don’t even bother,’ then we don’t need an accountability system. That’s where we were before we started.”
Moreover, Lippek explicitly suggested multiple times in the meeting that there need not be a “hue and cry” and that the accountability team begin by looking at existing data, in order to avoid public exposure of complainants that may put them in harm’s way — particularly because, based on the data she and the survey team collected in 2013, many of the complainants would likely already belong to vulnerable populations, such as sex workers and youths experiencing homelessness.
The Emerald asked both Ward and Oftelie whether they knew the CPC had lost or destroyed the sexual abuse allegation data. Though Oftelie initially responded to the Emerald, neither he nor Ward answered this question, despite the Emerald’s multiple attempts to get an answer.
It should also be noted that when the Emerald reached out directly to the CPC and specifically to its longest-serving member, Rev. Harriet Walden — who would have taken part in the CPC’s survey collection effort — to ask questions for its first story regarding sexual abuse allegation data, neither the CPC nor Walden responded.
Editors’ Note: This article has been edited post-publication for clarity.
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