Fan Mail, Public Disclosure, and Conspiracy Theories

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A few weeks back, two people filed  public disclosure requests seeking all the emails I’ve sent to city council members—in one case, going back many years, and in the other, going back forever. (I’ve redacted the names and contact information from the requests). One of the requesters seemed to be hoping to blow the lid off some conspiracy between me, the council, and homeless advocate Alison Eisinger related to homeless encampments; the other seemed obsessed with a story I wrote about misogyny directed at female city council members over the arena deal last summer, in which I mis-identified the date and context in which two talk radio hosts gave out council member Sally Bagshaw’s phone number, and also wanted copies of every email in which any council member or council staffer had ever mentioned my name or the name of this blog.

That, as I said on Facebook at the time, is unusual! I’m a private citizen, and it isn’t common for people to go on witch hunts for journalists’ emails, but it happens. (Pro tip, though: If you’re going to go hunting for conspiracy theories, narrow them down so it won’t take the city 15 years to produce all your documents!) Around the same time, another individual had taken it upon herself to call my employers, potential employers, past employers, and even other media outlets where I’d merely appeared as a guest, in an effort to make it hard for me to get work or do public appearances. (I’ve seen a lot of these emails and they typically describe me as irresponsible, not a real journalist, unethical, and motivated by some kind of vague, nefarious hostility—basically the email equivalent of the comments I was getting on Slog back in 2007.) The person was also upset about my views on homelessness, and lives in the same North End neighborhood as the two records requesters.

I’ve struggled for a long time with what to do about harassers. Contrary to what seems to be popular belief, I don’t like the attention, and I certainly don’t understand why people form negative obsessions about people they don’t know. I’ve blocked a few people on social media, including one person who created a dozen or more new Facebook profiles every day (you know, Facebook – the place where you can’t hide behind fake names?) to get around my blocks. I briefly blocked another person who sent me nearly 100 increasingly threatening private messages in a few hours one weekend afternoon. Typically, I unblock these people once they’ve simmered down, because I try to be an open book; only a few have concerned me enough to talk to a lawyer or law enforcement.

I’ve been living my life online for a long time, and I’ve been the subject of online abuse for just as long. But I have seen a shift recently, not in the level of anger, personal vitriol, and gendered name-calling (the very name of this blog is in part a response to people’s incredibly clever comments about knowing what my middle initial stands for) but in the prevalence of conspiracy theories, as if the city, journalists, and advocates (especially homeless advocates) were somehow colluding to destroy Seattle to make themselves rich at everybody else’s expense. You see this on Nextdoor, certainly. But you also see it in emails to council members—like the one below, which was sent to all nine council members by one of the women who filed records requests for my emails.

Which reminds me of another pro tip: Public disclosure law applies to everyone.

From: [REDACTED]

Sent: Tuesday, December 13, 2016 11:49 AM
To: Herbold, Lisa <Lisa.Herbold@seattle.gov>; Bagshaw, Sally <Sally.Bagshaw@seattle.gov>; Sawant, Kshama <Kshama.Sawant@seattle.gov>; Harrell, Bruce <Bruce.Harrell@seattle.gov>; Juarez, Debora <Debora.Juarez@seattle.gov>; Gonzalez, Lorena <Lorena.Gonzalez@seattle.gov>; O’Brien, Mike <Mike.OBrien@seattle.gov>; Johnson, Rob <Rob.Johnson@seattle.gov>; tim.burgress@seattle.gov
Subject: NORTH PRECINCT

 

Seattle City Council Members:  Dec 13,2016

It is my understanding the N Precinct has lost all funding for a new building. It is clear per your FB Ms Sawant that you truly don’t give a FUCK about law enforcement! And before the rest of the CMs take issue with my language this is your co council members words per a quote she referred to recently from an article about not giving 13 FUCKS as a grown women!

I find the lack of leadership within this council to be appalling and harmful!  You stand for nothing and cave to everything. You continually glorify in constantly appointing people to different committees or positions. Yet when it comes to THE SEATTLE POLICE DEPT policy decisions you are ineffective!

You are elected officials you were elected to form policy that serve and protect ALL PEOPLE of the city and you are failing!

Your lack of leadership regarding law and order in our city is in my opinion criminal!  The NORTH END is the LARGEST area to be covered yet has the least amount of officers working out of a building that NONE OF YOU would ever work out of. You sit in the glass palace of downtown doing what regarding public safety ? Evidently not much as crime is going up!  Tax paying citizens of this city deserve way better then what any of you are doing.

If your agenda is to make this city a living shithole then you are doing a great job just look around. It is a matter of time folks before the National Guard is called in and I am not joking!

I personally think the FBI needs to get involved and soon, as it appears a money making racket out of the homeless situation is occurring.

When you  have $100s of millions of dollars leaving this city into the hands of providers who are not held accountable. There is no transparency. And yet the homeless numbers are increasing!  A federal investigation is needed to weed thru this mess you all have created.

In addition if  you all had done a better job accounting for past spending maybe the Feds would have recognized the City of Seattle state of emergency regarding homelessness over a year ago! The way you spend money with no accountability its not surprise  the FEDS are looking the other way. You don’t spend wisely to begin with why give you more?!

In closing you should know that I do live in the North End and I can guarantee you that if I call 911 and do not receive a response in a timely manner   and it leads  to anyone in my family being harmed this city will see a lawsuit the likes they have never seen. THE OFFICER SHORTAGE, THE LACK OF PROPER TRAINING FACILITIES and having laws on the books that officers are told to not enforce  are what is  causing a  rapid decay in this city and you all policy makers are on the hook. Its called DUE PROCESS !

 

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Nextdoor Claims it Will Excise Racial Profiling from Site

Nextdoor, the “private social media site for neighborhoods,” announced this week that it is taking new measures to end racial profiling by its members, by explicitly (and belatedly) banning the practice and deploying new software that will bar members from posting the race of suspects when reporting crimes in its “crime and safety” section unless they provide at least two other physical identifiers, such as hair type or clothing style. (Of course, those descriptors could be “black,” “dreads” and “hoodie,” which defeats the purpose of a ban on racial profiling).

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It’s easy to see how members might get around this ban. For example, because posts show up sequentially in the main Nextdoor feed, so anyone reading the site’s feed will see posts whether they’re tagged “crime and safety” or not, they might just post under a different category. Or they might skip the race category entirely, describing a suspect’s race in the “other information” box, like so:

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The real problem, as with most complaints about user behavior on Nextdoor, appears to be that the company doesn’t have enough employees (or, perhaps, sufficient motivation) to actually monitor and respond to user behavior, and instead allows individual “leads”—who tend to include the most motivated early adopters in a neighborhood—to decide what behavior is and isn’t allowed in a neighborhood, as well which users will be tolerated, and which will be harassed and ostracized until they leave the site in frustration. 

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Predictably for a site that regularly features calls for citizen-led vigilante justice against the homeless, some Nextdoor users are already screaming “Censorship!” According to NPR, “Some residents worried the grass-roots campaign was just the PC police. [Oakland city council member] Campbell Washington [who urged Nextdoor to make the changes[ recalls people writing in with questions: ‘Why would you engage in anything that limits people’s expression? And especially people who are trying to keep their neighborhoods safe.'”

In Seattle, at least, the racial profiling changes aren’t likely to have too much impact, since most of the profiling that goes on here seems to deal with people’s perceived housing and substance use. On the front page Nextdoor in Ballard, Magnolia, and nearby neighbors at the time this post is going up, there’s a 128-comment thread going on that started with a photo of some homeless people’s belongings in Ballard, sarcastically headlined, “[Council member Mike] O’Brien’s New Street Art Installation.” In the thread: Comments calling the people who live in the park “transient bums who have seeked out and found the most coddling path of least resistance to their chosen lifestyle,” saying they are “part of a huge bicycle thievery ring,” and suggesting that “Ballard needs a vigilante problem, not an addict safe haven probem [sic].”

 

Recommended reading: A sociological view of Nextdoor from The Society Pages, which suggests, somewhat optimistically, I think, that by requiring users to identify people using markers other than race, the site might teach people to see others differently too.

 

Despite Concerns, Police Using Nextdoor to Help Set Neighborhood Policing Priorities

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As other city departments, including the Department of Neighborhoods and City Council offices, have backed off from using Nextdoor—the private, homeowner-dominated social media site—to communicate with Seattle residents, the Seattle Police Department has taken the opposite approach. (Nextdoor, which is dominated by homeowners, has come under fire as a hotbed of racial profiling by white homeowners in cities from Oakland to Seattle.

Since February, when I first reported that Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole did a private, members-only “town hall” with Nextdoor members, ostensibly as part of SPD’s outreach to the public,  the department has steadily increased its use of the website as a communications tool. In fact, every month since the town hall, the number of citywide posts from the official police department Nextdoor account has gone up—from one in March, to two each in April in May, to three in June, to eight in July. Additional precinct-specific alerts appear to have increased in frequency as well, based on the number of posts in three precincts. (SPD spokesman Sean Whitcomb says there has been “no strategy to ramp up Nextdoor engagement,” which he says “fluctuates.”)

It isn’t just event notices. SPD has also used the site to help Seattle University set up focus groups to determine how communities across the city perceive crime and safety issues in their neighborhoods. The focus groups are being conducted by Seattle University, but will be used, along with a separate survey also done by SU, “to inform and revise the [Micro-Community Policing Plans] priorities and strategies,” according to SPD’s website. “MCPPs will then be used in conjunction with crime data to direct Seattle police resources and services to target unique needs of Seattle’s micro-communities.” SPD has identified ten micro-communities for its surveys and focus groups.

This work, in other words, will directly impact where SPD resources and services are directed, according to SPD. According to SU researcher Jessica Chandler, who (like all the other researchers in SPD’s five precincts) has a seattle.gov email address and posts to Nextdoor from SPD’s official agency Nextdoor account, SPD and the university have done no online outreach outside Nextdoor, and the online RSVP page is an internal Nextdoor page accessible only to Nextdoor members.

SPD spokesman Jonah Spangenthal-Lee says SU has “’publicized’ their focus groups via direct outreach at [the Downtown Emergency Service Center], through community groups,  such as the Asian Pacific Islanders Directors Coalition and the Chinese Information and Service Center. Information was also sent to  Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos for distribution to constituents, and included in a story in the Capitol Hill Times.” The department’s Facebook page does not appear to have mentioned or provided any information about the focus groups.

In a recent Nextdoor post responding to a North Precinct resident’s question about outreach avenues other Nextdoor, Chandler replied, “We are currently working to have the focus groups shared through other avenues soon! In the meantime, if you would like a flyer I would be more than happy to email one to you. Send me a personal message if so!”

Under state public disclosure law, most communications between city email addresses and citizens are public. But because Chandler’s communications—like Chief O’Toole’s “public town hall” on Nextdoor—took place behind Nextdoor’s firewall, they aren’t accessible to the general public. If you aren’t a Nextdoor member and you want to access government agencies’ conversations there, you have to first know that they exist and second, file a public disclosure request and wait for the results. SPD has a significant backlog of records requests, meaning that even routine requests often take months, so by the time you find out about a conversation, say, on policing priorities in your neighborhood, chances are it will be too late to do anything about it. (One decision that was made in real time is the relocation of a focus group, via private message, to a location more convenient to a single Nextdoor member; “Chandra: I am willing to change locations to better accommodate! I will PM you, thanks!” Chandler wrote.)

Why doesn’t everyone in the city who wants to know what city agencies are up to just join Nextdoor? For one thing, some people, including many renters, move often and have to join by asking Nextdoor to send a physical postcard to their home so they can prove they actually live there. For another, Nextdoor is a private site that asks residents for their home addresses and targets its marketing based on those addresses; it also makes people’s addresses public to their immediate neighbors, which could raise privacy concerns. Anecdotally, many people have told me they left Nextdoor because of the toxic environment it seems to breed in certain neighborhoods, and because they felt bullied by neighbors whose political views differed from their own. But the bottom line is that just as people shouldn’t have to join Facebook to read city departments’ Facebook posts, which they don’t, citizens shouldn’t have to give a private company their personal data to access public information about what taxpayer-funded agencies are up to.

SPD’s Spangenthal-Lee responded to questions about why the SU researchers were posting from official City of Seattle Nextdoor accounts and had government email addresses by directing me to SU. “[Chandler is] posting as a researcher on the previously mentioned study, which is being conducted under a research agreement between SU and SPD. The study is being conducted independently, and I’d direct you to Seattle U for questions about their research/methods,” he said.

I talked to Chandler by email. In response to my questions about the SU-SPD partnership, she said:

As Seattle University was hired to work with SPD, we are evaluating how they implement the Micro-Community Policing Plan, knowledge and understanding of MCPP, and crime and safety concerns. That is where the focus groups come in to play. There is [a research assistant] in each precinct, all graduate students like myself, and we are all conducting focus groups with each micro-community. The idea behind the plan is that no tw3o areas are the same therefore, the crimes and concerns will not be and will need different resources and strategies. At the end of the project, we report on if MCPP is working, adjustments that should be made, etc.

After I raised questions about the city’s decision to do business on Nextdoor, Mayor Ed Murray said he would reconsider the city’s use of the site to communicate with residents; on Monday, Murray’s temporary spokesman Jeff Reading said the review of the city’s social media policy has been “on pause” since former Murray spokesman Viet Shelton left in March and will resume now that new spokesman Benton Strong has started. Whitcomb said of Nextdoor generally, “Nextdoor engagement is important to us. It is one of many digital platforms that we use.”

 

Nextdoor Emails Show City’s Vision for Partnership

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Emails between city of Seattle decision-makers and officials at the private social-networking site Nextdoor reveal that the city planned to use Nextdoor as a key portal for delivering information about neighborhood events; distributing surveys to help determine what neighborhoods’ priorities are; and as “a smart, efficient way to educate/inform residents about SeaStat and our soon to be (officially) announced Community Policing Micro Plans,” according to an email from SPD spokesman Sean Whitcomb to Jeff Reading, his then-counterpart in Murray’s office, back in October 2014.

Anyone without a Nextdoor account cannot access any of those public communications; the private site, based in San Francisco, is only accessible to members, and those members can only communicate with others in their immediate neighborhood.

In February, I reported that Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole held a “public town hall” on Nextdoor that was only accessible to Nextdoor members, who make up a tiny percentage of the city. After Nextdoor canceled, then reinstated, my membership when I reported some of the questions neighbors asked O’Toole during the virtual public meeting, along with details about her responses, the city said it would consider ending the partnership.

Since then, both Mayor Ed Murray and chief technology officer Michael Mattmiller have told me that they are working to figure out how to make communications with Nextdoor, which are subject to public disclosure laws like any city communications, more transparent, and are considering ending the partnership altogether. However, the city continues to partner with the site and provide updates to neighborhood residents by posting privately to members, who make up a tiny fraction of the city, there. Mattmiller did not return calls for comment.

In October of 2014, SPD’s Whitcomb told mayoral spokesman Reading enthusiastically, “I think we are ready to go with Nextdoor! Our plan is to tie it in to SeaStat as a community engagement and feedback tool.” Nextdoor even offered to write press releases and social media communications for SPD for the launch, though it’s unclear whether SPD took them up on the offer.

SeaStat is a relatively new program in which SPD gathers data and meets twice a month to identify and target crime “hot spots.” Community micro policing  is an outgrowth of SeaStat, which involves using data to target police patrols. Both are directly informed by the priorities to which residents on Nextdoor choose to draw SPD’s attention, as well as issues SPD identifies in Nextdoor-specific surveys. As the SPD Blotter blog put it back in 2014, “Nextdoor users will have an active role helping inform SeaStat, since officer deployment will be based not only on crime data, but also on community feedback. Look for neighborhood specific surveys on how SPD can improve community safety and police services in the near future.”

The potential issue with using Nextdoor as a barometer and guide for police deployment is twofold. First, Nextdoor’s membership  represents just a fraction of city residents; in Columbia City, for example, just a fifth of households are signed up; in Ballard, 16 percent; in Pinehurst, 11 percent; in Magnolia, 19 percent. Although it’s impossible to tell how many of those members are homeowners and how many are renters, the residents who comment tend to self-identify as homeowners, at least on the dozen or so Nextdoor neighborhood boards I’ve seen.

Using Nextdoor as any kind of gauge for where the city should focus police resources, in other words, is to do outreach to a tiny, self-selected fraction of the city, in contrast to the much broader way government agencies typically communicate with neighborhood. It’s kind of like determining city policy based on an unscientific survey posted on a departmental website on seattle.gov.

Second, as I’ve pointed out previously, the closed-loop nature of the system can lead neighborhoods to whip themselves into a frenzy over relatively minor issues such as discarded needles, “suspicious” or unfamiliar people, people living in their cars who don’t obey parking laws, and litter, without the context of what’s going on in other neighborhoods.

For example, Nextdoor members in Ballard and Magnolia routinely post photos of people they describe as “suspicious,” in some cases accusing them of specific crimes, without their knowledge or consent; tacitly condone vigilantism against homeless people they feel are creating litter and committing property crimes; and have threatened to dump garbage and human waste on the lawns of Murray and council member Mike O’Brien, who represents Ballard, one of the epicenters of Nextdoor-based overreaction. (Nextdoor members also frequently post tangents that violate the site’s ban on personal attacks, and have harassed and threatened me personally within the site itself and in off-site communications that refer to things I have written about Nextdoor.)

How much does any of this matter? In terms of city policy (as opposed to civil discourse), maybe not that much. Nextdoor is, after all, merely “another tool in the toolbox” for outreach by SPD and other city offices and departments—including, currently, the mayor’s office, the Department of Neighborhoods, Seattle Public Utilities, and the city as a whole.

And it’s not like the city doesn’t have a longstanding policy of basing policy on which group shouts the loudest—at a meeting on Monday evening, in fact, a city staffer admitted that Murray had promised to preserve most single-family zoning in perpetuity “after a big outcry from [homeowners in] the neighborhoods.”

But I do wonder: What message is the city, and Murray in particular, sending by continuing to partner with Nextdoor and using it as a tool to communicate with, and get feedback from, neighborhoods? Intentionally or not, I think they’re saying that they want to provide yet another way for a small, motivated cadre of agitated homeowners to direct and shape city policy.

Magnolia Pepper-Spray Guard Pleads “Complete Fear for My Life” from Sleeping Victim

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Pepper-spray victim Andrew Harris’ car, whose front window security guard James Toomey said was “so tinted that I couldn’t see inside” without stopping to approach the vehicle

A couple of updates about the Central Protection security guard, hired by the private Magnolia Patrol Association, who pepper-sprayed, handcuffed, and detained Andrew Harris, a neighborhood employee and resident who is currently living in his car. Magnolia homeowners pay the MPA to hire security to patrol the neighborhood, which some believe has become a hotbed of drug and property crime.

 

First, the following is a letter posted on NextDoor that is described as Toomey’s report to his supervisor at Central Protection. The letter differs in numerous key ways from both Harris’ description of events and what Toomey himself told police at the time.

Toomey, as I first reported, pled guilty to forgery (a felony) and violating a no-contact order (a gross misdemeanor) in a case related to domestic violence charges by his ex-wife in 2004. As part of his sentencing, he was required to complete treatment for domestic violence and anger management. As a felon, Toomey had his gun privileges revoked but managed to get a court to restore them in 2011. In 2014, KIRO 7 has since reported, Toomey was  arrested and charged with two counts of fourth-degree assault for pepper-spraying two teenagers and slamming one of the teens’ head on the ground in Tacoma. In that case, as with Harris’, Toomey claimed he thought his victims were “doing drugs,” according to KIRO. He was sent back to anger management classes and the charges were supposed to be dropped in 2017 as long as he didn’t break the law.

Here’s that account (sic throughout):

While beginning patrol through 27th street I was flagged down by two males in a car with reflective vests on (Assuming workers from one of the Companies back here off of 27th ) They pointed down and informed me of an Old Silver Toyota had been parked on the side by Commodore for several hours and a white male inside possibly smoking some sort of drugs out of a glass bubble pipe

I thanked them for the information and told them I would check it out. i immediately saw the vehicle when i turned on 27th side of the street “27th ” before hitting Commodore. I drove past it several times attempting to see who was inside and what they were doing.

The vehicle unfortunately had tinted windows – So tinted that I couldn’t see inside while driving past. So I ended up driving behind the vehicle and took pictures of the license plate and make of vehicle.

It was a Silver Toyota Celica License plate # …

After taking the pictures I got out to investigate who was inside the vehicle and what they were doing. I got out and walked up to the driver’s side window, I immediately saw a white male with blankets over him and what looked like some sort of glass pipe.

I knocked on the window and said, “Sir Hello, Sir are you okay? At first the male didn’t move at all, and I thought to myself hopefully he didn’t overdose or something. So I continued to knock and yell out, t’ Hello sir, are you okay, hello?”

I then got worried about the male because no matter how many times I knocked or called out to him he never even moved. So now I was worried if he was even alive. So I figured to try to see if his driver’s side door was unlocked and attempting to do a Health & Welfare check on the male but right as I grabbed the door handle he jumped up and came to and gave me the finger and told me to ” FUCK OFF and told me to leave him alone!” I then informed him that the people from the businesses had reported you and want you to leave because they stated that they saw you doing drugs and you’ve been here for several hours. That’s the only reason I am even checking on you, because the City of Magnolia has contracted security to patrol the entire City and to investigate any suspicious RV’s or vehicles. Plus I was very concerned about your welfare because you didn’t move at all.

He didn’t care nor listen to me he just continued to give me the “finger” while cussing me out. So I left and walked back to my patrol vehicle and called 911.

911 Operator asked if I would be waiting or in the area when Officers arrive. I said, Yes I’m patrolling but will still be in the area if needed.

I then left and drove up 27th a couple blocks and parked on the side while updating my report. I continued to watch the Silver Toyota from my Rear view mirror.

All of a sudden the male started pulling around and raced up directly behind me. I immediately got scared about what he was about to do. As he was walking up to my driver’s side door he was yelling and cursing saying, ” MOTHER FUCKERS IVE FUCKING HAD IT YOU MOTHER FUCKERS HARASSING ME!” As he was yelling this he grabbed my door and ripped it open and started to grab me pulling me out while cursing me I then knocked his hands away from me and pulled out my pepper spray and started to spray his face. I was in complete fear for my life at this moment. He then stumbled towards his vehicle and then turned towards me yelling and screaming again attempting to grab me. I pepper sprayed him again and turned him around to handcuff him.

I handcuffed him and called 911 again. This time to update them that now the suspicious male that I had just reported to police just several minutes ago drove up behind me and ripped open my door and attacked me. I informed them that I had pepper sprayed him and currently have him in handcuffs.

911 operator sent Fire Department to clean the pepper spray off the males face and sent Police officers. Fire Department arrived on scene and asked what had happened. They washed the males face off and then we all waited for police officers to arrive.

Police officers finally arrived after about a 35 min wait. They asked me as to what happened, after I explained they walked over and interviewed the male. The Police officers then explained to me that they have called their supervisor to come down, because it was my word against his word, and the male in question was3atinE completely different things. Officers said, “It was a He said/She said incident.
Officer Norton # 7436
Case # 16-74839

The Police Supervisor stated to the male and I that we were free to go and they are not arresting anyone and they were just going to tum this report into the King County prosecutor to see if anything would be filed. Before leaving scene I was informed that the male is homeless and lives in his vehicle and currently works at the Shell Gas Station in Magnolia directly across from the Starbucks off of McGraw.

I left scene and made contact with Executive Director of Magnolia Patrol Joe Villarino & Central Protection Security Manager Denis.

This account differs in a few key ways from Harris’ description of events. First, Harris says Toomey attempted to open his door, not the other way around. Second, Harris said he was sleeping in his car, not smoking unspecified drugs. No pipe was recovered from Harris’ car, and Toomey did not mention anything about drugs or a pipe in his official account to the Seattle Police Department. In that version of events, Toomey said he saw Harris sleeping, knocked on the door, got into a “verbal argument” with Harris, then “drove up the street.” Toomey told SPD Harris then pulled up behind him, walked to the door and tried to open it, then tried to “grab” Toomey but Toomey easily “‘slapped'” [Harris’] arms away. At this point, Toomey’s account to SPD says, Toomey followed Harris to his car and “the two continued verbally arguing,” Harris “again tried to grab” Toomey, and Toomey shoved him onto the hood of Harris’ car and cuffed him.

For the other discrepancies, both between Toomey’s account and Harris’ and between Toomey’s account in this memo attributed to him and the account he gave to police immediately after the incident, see my original post.

MPA board member Christian Binkley sent this letter out to Magnolia Patrol Association subscribers last week. MPA executive director Joe Villarino had no comment when I asked him about the incident, except that it was under investigation.

Dear Friends and Neighbors,

I am writing this letter to you today to share our stance on the incident that occurred recently between one of our contracted neighborhood security staff and a member of the community. We at the association are fully aware of the incident and we remain sensitive to the concerns of the neighborhood we organized to protect, as well as that of the involved community member.

As you can expect, there are two wildly differing accounts of what happened and rest assured we are working closely with local law enforcement and Central Protection to establish the facts of the incident. We owe our supporters and the rest of the community full transparency of the situation once those facts are revealed. We ask that you remain neutral and free from preconceived judgment until that time, regardless of what you may see in the media.

We also owe our supporters continued patrols despite the ongoing investigation into the claims. Part of establishing a community service dedicated to providing the neighborhood with an extra set of eyes on the lookout for nefarious activity is anticipating that these kinds of allegations, whether proven to be true or fabricated, would most likely surface. Prior to the launch, we had evaluated these risks and took the necessary steps to safeguard the service we promised to our contributors and non-contributors within the neighborhood. It would be foolhardy of us to stall the service now leaving the area vulnerable to recidivism and undue criticism, especially since the service has received such widespread news coverage and support from other neighborhoods around the city who are eager to take a stand against criminal activity and victimization with their own patrol programs.

Again, we want to assure all of you that we take this incident very seriously and the neighborhood’s supportive trust is tremendously important to us. Newly released statistics have shown that you and your property are safer now than you have been in in recent years and it is my belief that it is due to the ongoing presence of this service. So many of your neighbors have shared their overwhelming appreciation for the consistent professionalism of our contracted security staff that I feel this association, partnered with that continued supportive trust that I mentioned, can grow into a model of communal solidarity and protection. The association makes you and your property’s safety our foremost priority and we will continue to offer everyone in the neighborhood the added security you asked us to provide.

Your Thankful Neighbor,

Christian Binkley
Board Member
Magnolia Patrol Association NPO

Magnolia Resident Pepper-Sprayed by Private Security Guard

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Image via Central Security.

[UPDATE: On Monday afternoon, I received a copy of the police report about the pepper-spray incident. According to Toomey’s account, he approached Harris’ car after two people approached him and “explained that there was a person [Harris] parked in a vehicle … and possibly doing narcotics.” At that point, Toomey told the officers, he approached Harris’ car and found him sleeping, knocked on his window, got in a verbal altercation with Harris, and left to call 911 “to report the suspicious incident.” (That incident being, so far, the presence of a man sitting in his car in a legal parking spot.)  then, Toomey told the police, Harris drove up behind him, got out of his car, and “attempted to grab” him twice before Toomey pepper-sprayed him, pushed him onto the hood of Harris’ car, and handcuffed him before calling 911 again.

Toomey’s account differs from Harris’ in a few respects. He claims Harris tried to “grab” him and does not mention knocking Harris’ phone, which SPD officers found shattered underneath Toomey’s Hummer, to the ground. He also doesn’t mention attempting to open Harris’ car door, which Harris claimed he did. Finally, he claims to have only pepper-sprayed Harris once, “striking him in the face,” whereas Harris says Toomey actually chased him back to his car while spraying him–an account that is consistent with Harris being shoved and cuffed on the hood of his own car, rather than the Hummer’s.]

Two days ago, on a quiet residential street in Magnolia, a private security guard employed by Central Protection, a company hired by Magnolia residents to combat what they view as an epidemic of crime in their neighborhood, pulled his blue-and-white Hummer over behind a parked car owned by Magnolia resident Andrew Harris. Within the next five minutes or so, the officer, James Toomey, had pepper-sprayed Harris in the face and, reportedly, knocked Harris’ Android phone out of his hand, sending the phone’s face, body, and battery scattering in different directions.

According to Harris’ account, he was sitting in the car before his shift at the local 76 station, where he’s a longtime employee. (He also works at the Spirit of Magnolia liquor store across the street). Here’s what Harris, whom I reached during his afternoon shift at the 76 station yesterday, says happened next: The security guard approached him and demanded to know what he was doing parked on the street. (Harris says he was parked in a legal, public parking spot with no time limitations). Harris rolled his window up and refused to respond. At that point, Harris says, the security guard opened his door and demanded that Harris get out of the car.

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Image via Central Protection Services’ “Training” page.

After initially refusing, Harris says, he got out, walked over to the guard’s Hummer, and asked if he could videotape the conversation. He says Toomey told him “Yes.” When he turned on his camera, though, Harris says the security guard slapped the phone out of his hands hard enough to send it under the Hummer, where he knelt to retrieve it. At that point, he says, the guard began pepper-spraying him in the face and chasing him to his car, where Harris says he pinned him up against the door. After Toomey sprayed him again–in Harris’ account, telling him, “You’re going to jail!” Harris continued to confront him, demanding that he call EMS to treat his injuries. Harris says the guard slapped police-style metal handcuffs on him before telling Harris he would “lie to the police and tell them I assaulted him.” When officers arrived, they took statements from both Harris and Toomey, and ultimately decided to let Toomey go.

Harris says he was unable to recover his phone, which he says disappeared from the place it had fallen next to the Hummer. “I think he took it” to make sure no videotaped evidence existed, Harris says.

“I consider myself an upstanding member of this community,” Harris told me yesterday. “I live here, I work here, and even though I may disagree with the use of private security patrols around here, this guy didn’t have any reason to assault me.” Harris says the sergeant who ultimately responded told him SPD would send the incident information to the King County prosecuting attorney’s office, which would decide whether to press charges against the security guard.

Harris admits that he got short with the officer–“I said, ‘what the fuck are you doing?'”–but insists that he did nothing to provoke the use of force, which he says continued as the officer chased him back to his car, “pepper-spraying me the whole way back. … It still hurts” physically, Harris said more than a day later.

Central Protection didn’t return calls for comment, which is why right now, I (and other media) only have Harris’ side of the story. The police report should shine some light on Toomey’s version of events.

According to the website for the Magnolia Patrol Association–the private group that pays for Central Protection to patrol the neighborhood with homeowner contributions–the group believes that private security are (unlike police) allowed to stop and interrogate anyone at any time for any reason if they view that person as suspicious.

“The police are not allowed to speak to anyone unless they have a reasonable suspicion that a crime may be afoot. Further, they must be able to articulate this suspicion in clear language,” the MPA website says. In contrast, “Private security can interact with anyone at any time. Because they do not represent the Government and [sic] the Constitution does not apply to private security.”

A police report shedding some light on Central Protection’s version of events should be available later today. I also have a call out to SPD, whose spokesman, Sean Whitcomb, told me yesterday that he is gathering information on the incident before commenting on what happened.

However, the Magnolia Patrol Association does not deny that one of their officer pepper-sprayed Harris. In an email, MPA president Joe Villarino told me, “We are sorry that the incident occurred to a long time employee of Magnolia 76 Gas Station. No other comments from MPA will be made until our full investigation are completed.” Villarino referred me to the neighborhood blog Magnolia Voice, which quotes Villarino as saying, “I did receive the [Central Protection] report and all I can tell you is it’s a different version of what happened. There’s no witnesses, so that’s why I think [SPD] decided to forward the report to the prosecutors about [Harris’s] version of being pepper sprayed and handcuffed. Our policy is ‘observe and report.’ Our understanding is that [Tonney] observed and reported and then called the police.”

On the neighborhood social media site NextDoor, where Harris initially reported the incident under the headline, “Thanks for the pepper-spray, Magnolia!,” most responses have been sympathetic. A few, however, have suggested that Harris’ account is suspect because he openly opposed the private police force and “has strong opinions on RVs” counter to the prevailing view in the neighborhood, which is that they are an eyesore at best, a menace at worst. Many on the site subsequently pointed to Harris’ “clear potential for bias” and what they felt were inconsistencies in his account.

I’ll update this post with more details from SPD when I get them.

NextDoor, IRL

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Going to a real-life meeting organized via NextDoor, the social media app that allows neighbors to talk to each other “privately” online, is … well, a lot like going to a virtual meeting on NextDoor, only considerably more awkward. (To the NextDoor member who posted later that I “avoid eye contact” with people: Actually, I only avoid eye contact with people who have verbally accosted me, because I don’t owe anyone who mocks me online the opportunity to also berate me in person.)

This past Saturday, a group of about a dozen NextDoor members (and presumably a few folks who heard about the meeting through other means) met with District 6 council member Mike O’Brien and SPD North Precinct Captain Sean O’Donnell at the Salmon Bay Eagles club in Ballard to talk (and vent) about homeless encampments, property crime, squatters, and RVs.

After some introductory remarks from O’Donnell (O’Brien, who arrived late, sat down quietly to wait for questions), residents unloaded their grievances and frustrations on the two city representatives–and demanded answers. Over the course of nearly two hours, neighbors told SPD and O’Brien they feel the city doesn’t take property crimes seriously, doesn’t enforce the law against “camping” in public places, doesn’t do enough to keep squatters from living in houses slated for redevelopment, and doesn’t pay enough attention to North End neighborhoods, where property crime has increased even as crime overall has declined.

“What about us?” one woman asked pointedly, after O’Donnell explained the measures SPD is taking to deal with RVs and unsanctioned encampment. “We work hard, we try to pay our bills, and we are just barely making it by, and we get home and our car has been completely rifled through, things been taken, our house has been burglarized. I feel, and I know others have felt, the lack of concern from police” who ask car-prowl victims to fill out online police reports instead of coming to their homes to investigate, she said. “And if you see a police car, it’s like, ‘Oh my god! We got a police car!’ I’ve talked to other people on NextDoor and we just don’t see them.”

Another speaker, who lives in  Ballard, said her house was burgled and although the police showed up in 13 minutes, she felt they didn’t do enough to catch the guys who stole between $6,000 and $8,000 worth of stuff after coming in through an unlocked window. “You’re terrified every time you come home,” another woman chimed in. “I go in before my kids because I’m like, ‘I hope we didn’t get robbed today. I’ve lived here for 12 years and I’ve never felt that fear before.” Another speaker said she no longer keeps her insurance and registration in her car for fear that prowlers may get her personal information, and wondered, “If we get pulled over [without registration], are we going to get in trouble?” (The answer is yes.)

For his part, O’Brien said burglars had broken into his house twice in the past year, and although “I want someone there, because I’m pissed, I also know there’s nothing they can do, so I’ve filled out reports online.” (O’Brien’s burglar was ultimately caught and implicated in more than 100 nearby break-ins.)

Needles, tents, and the dubious distinction between the “deserving” and “undeserving” homeless, occupied a big chunk of the morning, as neighbors expressed concern that their children and pets would step on an infected needle or be forced to learn about adult problems too soon.

“I would like my children to be children, and I would like my family, as taxpayers, to be able to use the parks and the open spaces that we have and be able to walk my dog without having to worry about what we’re going to step in or on, including the crazy guy … pacing,” one speaker said. “That is not something that I really want my 10-year-old daughter to have to be aware of when she’s simply taking may dog for a walk. These are the kinds of things that ruin our quality of life.” 

A second speaker, from Ballard, added, “There are people camping right next to one of our landmarks, the Chittendon Locks. They’ve always camped up there, but now they’re right there, right next to the road where you can see them, and so I’m wondering, is there any effort to get those people to move along?”

A lot of attention has been paid to Mayor Ed Murray’s characterization of some NextDoor members, on this blog, as “working themselves into a paranoid hysteria.” Although many people at Saturday’s meeting took strong umbrage with that characterization, it seems fair to call the belief that your child will step on a disease-infected heroin needle both paranoid (I haven’t been able to locate a single reported example of this happening in Seattle) and somewhat hysterical. Certainly, city streets are no place for needles, and the city should have a system that allows users to discard them safely and to clean them up if they do not, but needles are also a fact of life in a city (and a country) with a heroin epidemic of unprecedented size. The wonder isn’t that homeowners are finding needles in Magnolia and the side of Ballard with water views; the wonder is that they haven’t appeared there sooner.

One of the speakers acknowledged as much—sort of. “Seattle is not alone in this battle agains the homeless and the drug addicts. This is a countrywide problem,” she said. “Exactly what the answer is, I don’t know. I don’t mind helping the people that want help and are willing to work for their help, but the people that don’t want the city’s help—they have to go.” She told a story about a man who wanted to camp in front of her house and was tapping a phone pole with a knife—threateningly, she said—while waving a stick in the air. O’Brien responded that even if that person was theoretically open to accepting help, he certainly wasn’t at that moment—and decades of experience have shown that just throwing people in jail because they’re addicted or homeless or mentally ill doesn’t solve those problems, and often makes them worse. “It’s not like walking up to this guy, who’s probably in crisis, and saying, ‘Would you like treatment now’ [is going to work], because he’s probably going to say no,” O’Brien said.

“So we have to keep managing that and keeping an eye on that person until he’s ready to say yes. And then when he says yes, we need to have a bed immediately available or a place to do, and we often do not have that.”

Finally, several people demanded “better data” to know how the city should be spending its money—why are people being turned away from Tent City, how many are addicted to drugs, and how many people are simply unwilling to accept services from the city? O’Brien, saying he was frustrated that in a city with thousands of people sleeping unsheltered every night, residents still demand more data before making any policy changes, told one resident, “If I tell you there’s 50 people or 100 people or 1000 dpoeple does it make a difference? We need more beds. … We know that there’s a massive demand for all those services [the city provides]. No one needs to wait to see the count.”  That speaker pressed on, claiming that she had dutifully voted for housing levies, transportation levies, and “been patient through all the new construction” in her neighborhood, and yet problems like homelessness, the affordable housing shortage, and traffic persisted. “How do we really make it work this time?” she demanded.

O’Brien, lacking answers to rhetorical questions like “I voted to raise my taxes, so why isn’t it all better now?” (in the online world, this is known as concern trolling), pointed out the obvious: As long as the city, and the entire US, are in a homelessness crisis produced largely by an economy heavily rigged in favor of the very rich, pushing the visible manifestations of that crisis down in one place will only make them pop up in another.

“We’ve got people who made hundreds of millions of fraudulent loans on Wall Street that are not going to jail for a day and we’re sitting here arguing over whether we should arrest someone who’s addicted to heroin because they lost their housing,” O’Brien said. “We can’t fix that in this room, but as a society we have to talk about how do we make that better.”

Back on NextDoor, the handful of people who posted about the meeting called it a productive opportunity to talk about their issues with city officials in the room. I’d agree with them on one point—having a two-way discussion with your precinct captain and council member, even if you think they aren’t doing enough to assuage your fears about crime or dirty needles, is far better than yelling into the echo chamber of a site like NextDoor, where someone’s sighting of a “suspicious van” can quickly escalate into posted images of the van’s license plate and multiple calls to 911.

People on NextDoor have posted irrelevant personal information about me, links to photos so people know what I look like when they go to meetings, and insults that clearly violate NextDoor’s code of conduct (a code they were vigilant in enforcing when they temporarily kicked me off the city for reporting on a “town hall” meeting the police chief held on NextDoor late last month). Regardless, I plan to keep reporting on the site both because it remains an official partner with the City of Seattle, which continues to post updates and information available only to NextDoor members, and because shining a light (anonymously) on what neighbors say behind the supposedly closed doors of a private social media site says a lot about what drives the most politically active (and powerful) residents of our city, which in turn drives policy that affects all of us.

Private social media websites didn’t exist when I first started covering city politics, but they do now, and what happens on them is sometimes newsworthy, especially when they shape city policy. In the North End, there’s clear evidence that they have done just thatat a meeting in Ballard, Police Chief Elizabeth Kathleen O’Toole referred to her NextDoor town hall before announcing a special property crimes task force, dedicated “almost exclusively” to north Seattle neighborhoods. As long as NextDoor serves as an organizing tool for a small but vocal group of neighbors who have the ear of City Hall, I’m going to keep writing about what those neighbors are saying there. 

My NextDoor Suspension: Updates

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Ars Technica and Geekwire have both covered the story about NextDoor temporarily booting me off their service because I published some of the questions their members asked police chief Kathleen O’Toole in what was billed as a public forum on the site. (NextDoor is an official “partner” with the City of Seattle; I have filed records requests to find out more about what that entails.) In an email, a NextDoor representative told me that posts from O’Toole herself were public, but that the questions citizens asked her during this town hall, which SPD explicitly billed as a public forum, were private and proprietary. NextDoor restored my service after I wrote about their decision to kick me off for allegedly violating their terms of service.

In the case of communications with public officials, at least, those terms of service bump up against state law. The state’s public records act makes all communications with city officials like the police chief a matter of public record, so NextDoor was incorrect when they said those records aren’t public; they are.  However, their suspension of my account raises a more fundamental question of whether the tens of thousands of people who share information and opinions on NextDoor have a reasonable expectation that everything they say there will stay there.

NextDoor is enforcing its terms of service as if the agreement not to share information contained therein is as ironclad as attorney-client privilege: Any leaks must be tracked and punished. However, they’re simultaneously pretty lax about punishing people who publish private information about public officials, such as their home addresses; as I write this, city council member Mike O’Brien’s home address has been public on the site for several days, and some NextDoor denizens are agitating for homeowners to set up camp in front of his house. And they’re still partners with the city, which posts information about public meetings, service opportunities, and criminal activity on the site.

So Nextdoor wants to have it both ways: To be a “partner” with cities and conduit for city officials to share information with and solicit feedback from residents, and to be a private social media app where neighborhood residents can say things to each other that they wouldn’t want to say in a public forum. I maintain it can’t be both, and that it shouldn’t be either.

Gated Community NextDoor Booted Me for Publishing What People Say There

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Call the mods! It’s a NextDoor screengrab!

Earlier this evening, I received an email from NextDoor–the private social network that the city is using as a “public outreach” platform for events like yesterday’s “town hall” with police chief Kathleen O’Toole–kicking me off the platform.

The reason NextDoor gave me was that I had violated their terms of use by publishing information about what people were saying to each other on their site. Most of the comments I’ve highlighted have been about homeless encampments and RVs in neighborhoods like Magnolia and Ballard, for which NextDoor serves as a forum to vent about the homeless in terms that would, and have, shocked many of my readers when I’ve simply printed them verbatim.

“While I understand your motives for sharing this in your recent blog post [ECB: Nope, you don’t], the fact still stands that Nextdoor is a private social network and the content within should remain as such,” NextDoor representative Juli (no last name given) wrote. “We ask that you please edit your blog post to remove the private information from Nextdoor.”

This letter, which I assume originated with a complaint from someone who was unhappy that I brought their comments to light outside the gated community of NextDoor, is particularly timely in light of SPD’s defense of O’Toole’s town hall yesterday. In tweets directed at me (@ericacbarnett), SPD insisted that NextDoor is open to all; today’s email makes clear that NextDoor is very much a private club that allows neighbors to say to each other things that they wouldn’t say publicly–much like a traditional country club. Or, say, a gated community. Residents of my neighborhood can’t see what residents of your neighborhood say, and non-NextDoor members (a group that includes anyone without a fixed address, and, now, me) can’t see any of it.

This matters, for a few reasons. First, NextDoor is an extremely useful source of information for city officials and members of the media about what residents of different neighborhoods are concerned about. More important, it matters because NextDoor complaints actually influence city policy.

You could see that happening in real time yesterday. After a barrage of questions from north-end homeowners about car prowls, mail thefts, and other property crimes (which drowned out a smaller handful of questions about gang violence, guns, and police brutality in neighborhoods like the Central District), O’Toole responded only to the questions about property crimes, and last night announced the creation of a special property crimes division that will focus “almost exclusively,” in her words, on the north end.

So I ask, again, why are Mayor Ed Murray, the entire Seattle City Council, and the Seattle Police Department using NextDoor–a private social network dominated by homeowners and the whiter, more privileged parts of the city–as a conduit to their constituents?