The office of Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell wanted to limit media coverage of the June 8 Office of Police Accountability (OPA) public forum, emails obtained by Real Change reveal. According to the documents, members of the Mayor’s Office explicitly mentioned that they did not want to send any media advisories or press releases relating to either the public forum or the OPA director hiring process in general.
Harrell announced on July 19 that he had appointed Gino Betts, one of the four finalists for the position who participated in the forum, to the position of OPA director.
In an email dated June 7 at 2:20 p.m., Harrell advisor Devon Abdallah — the Mayor’s point person on the OPA director candidate search — wrote, “We opted to not do a press release for the OPA forum or OPA director search in general.”
In an apparent reversal, Harrell’s council liaison Dan Nolte wrote at 2:26 p.m. that the office would be sending a news advisory about the forum. Just after 5 p.m., the Mayor’s Office made a social media post and sent out the advisory to its press list, announcing the forum and extending the window for questions from the public.
So, what was the cause of this sudden u-turn? The emails show that inquiries from South Seattle Emerald reporter Carolyn Bick and Real Change may have led to pressure on the Mayor’s Office. Other community members also criticized the lack of public notice given by the Mayor’s Office on Twitter.
Seattle City Council member and Public Safety and Human Services Committee Chair Lisa Herbold, who was alerted by Bick to the lack of public outreach, also emailed the Mayor’s Office.
Before the June 7 flip-flop, the Mayor’s Office only invited members of the search committee, the City Council, the City Attorney’s Office and the Community Police Commission to the public forum.
Herbold expressed her frustration about the short notice to Nolte later that afternoon.
“People need more than a day’s notice,” she wrote. “Jeez.”
In an email to Real Change, Herbold wrote that because of the short notice of the forum, she urged Mayor Harrell to make the bios of the finalists publicly available and have candidates meet with other stakeholders such as People Power Washington, a volunteer organization that advocates for policies aimed at divesting from law enforcement and investing in community-based public safety solutions. The organization wrote on Twitter that it did not support any of the four finalists.
The public forum was mandated by the City Council earlier this year in its search plan. It seems that the initial desire of the Mayor’s Office to minimize media coverage of the OPA director hiring process may have conflicted with the council’s intention to incorporate more community input.
The documents suggest that the lack of outreach to the media was predetermined. In a June 3 email from Senior Executive Recruiter Pam Inch of the Human Resources department to the mayor’s spokesperson Jamie Housen, Inch affirmed that the Mayor’s Office had opted not to send notice to the media about the public forum.
“This does not need to go out as a press release,” Inch wrote.
“Devin [sic] and I had discussed it going directory [sic] to the Council and City Attorney,” Inch wrote.
However, Inch wrote in another email on June 6 that the Mayor’s Office hoped that search committee members would “share a message about the event with their networks.”
The OPA has been mired in controversy over how it has handled cases related to the 2020 George Floyd uprising. Between 2019 and 2021, the OPA sustained only 10 percent of allegations of misconduct related to Seattle Police Department officers’ use of force.
In February, a complaint was lodged against former OPA Director Andrew Myerberg, who allegedly violated a protester’s medical privacy by sharing their information without consent after that person was injured by police during the protests. Myerberg was hired as Harrell’s public safety director in January, vacating the position.
The Mayor’s Office’s decision to not conduct public outreach for a forum that was meant to be public until after receiving pushback has elicited concern. Real Change and the South Seattle Emerald’s editorial teams authored an editorial this week lamenting the lack of public notice provided for the forum and calling on elected officials in Seattle and King County to improve transparency and accountability in order to rebuild public trust.
Former Mayor and U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan has been criticized for illegally destroying text messages that were public records. However, prosecutors have declined to initiate proceedings against her so far.
Betts is expected to start his term as OPA director on Aug. 1, according to the Mayor’s Office.
Update: The original article misstated People Power Washington's connection with the ACLU of Washington. The newspaper regrets the error.
Guy Oron is the staff reporter for Real Change. Find them on Twitter, @GuyOron.
Read more of the July 27-Aug. 2, 2022 issue.