Microsoft Teams chat messages between the Seattle Police Department (SPD) and Seattle’s IT department directors on June 8, 2020 cast new light onto the decision to abandon Seattle’s East Precinct. The records obtained through public records requests appear to show that SPD and the City planned to abandon and evacuate the precinct itself at the direction of Mayor Durkan, and in coordination with SPD command staff, directly contradicting public facing comments by Chief Best.
Specifically, the messages show SPD’s then-Chief Operating Officer Mark Baird relaying messages to the IT department, claiming that Mayor Durkan had made the decision with respect to abandoning the East Precinct.
At 4:23pm, Seattle IT’s then-Client Service Director Jimi Robinson stated that the decision was made by Mayor Durkan in a Teams group chat: “There will be no one in the building. The building is being boarded up and fenced. All access is being blocked from the building. Mark [Baird] wanted me to tell everyone that this was a last minute decision by the Mayor and there just wasn’t time to get equipment out. I will leave it up to the security folks to make the call on wiping the computers or not.”
At this moment, SPD and IT appeared to frantically strategize on what materials to remove from the precinct, and what files within the precinct to possibly destroy. Replying to Robinson, Dan Lewis, who is IT’s digital adoption lead, wrote “Please include Rebecca [Boatwright] from SPD for legality. If evidence related to active cases is lost from machines… could impact ongoing cases. This was a major concern when we changed email retention.”
At this point, Seattle IT’s Jim Loter issued an order: ”please stop on the teams chat…please contact Saad [Bashar]… he’s asking for no further communication on this channel on this topic until you sync with him.” Bashir, at the time, was the City’s Chief Technology Officer. Loter would subsequently replace him as CTO in 2021.
The Teams chat messages surface multiple new facts in SPD’s decision to abandon the East Precinct. As the above chat was underway, Carmen Best was giving a press conference at SPD headquarters downtown. During this press conference, Best stated, “We are not going to evacuate or abandon the East Precinct.” Yet, this statement was in direct opposition to what the department was actively executing. Seattle’s IT department was actively planning with command staff to evacuate the precinct, including SPD’s then Chief Operating Officer Mark Baird. Best’s press conference statements appeared to try and publicly discredit tweets at 2:55pm, that “three police sources confirm preparations are underway to abandon East Precinct.”
However, it appears that Best and SPD were caught off-guard by the leaked information. A draft memo from 2:33pm of her proposed remarks shows that Chief Best planned to say, “In order to provide for increased officer safety and facility security I have ordered changes to our deployment strategy.” Nowhere within the draft remarks does Best discredit reports of leaving the East Precinct. As the South Seattle Emerald reported, she appeared well aware of planning going into the decision and told Assistant Chief Lesley Cordner to route all decision making through her.
An abbreviated transcript of the Teams messages uncovered through public records requests is presented below:
Jon Engstrom [SPD] [3:22 PM]: It is on q13 and twitter now so I can share that to some degree we will be giving up the east precinct today. I can’t say anything else but we will be pretty much out of contact dealing with that. I have no info on the equipment inside but have notified our CSD and secops.
Jon Engstrom [SPD] [4:04 PM]: they are haulling [sic] stuff out, no idea who is managing the digital assets such as unencrypted desktops and devices
Braden Heil [IT] [4:09 PM]: from live feeds / twitter they have moving trucks and normal SUVs. Jimi would be are [sic] only hope to figure out what they are moving out.
Jon Engstrom [SPD] [4:10 PM]: I have notified my chain that you need info, I know Jimi was just recently looped in and is fighting fires too
Jimi Robinson [IT] [4:10 PM]: I am asking right now what they want to move out? Waiting to hear back from Command Staff
Jimi Robinson [IT] [4:11 PM]: Loter, Jim I am talking to Mark Baird now. Will give you more info soon.
Jimi Robinson [IT] [4:12 PM]: News conference going on right now
Andrew Cushman [Chief Information Security Officer (CISO)] [4:17 PM]: I want to wipe the machines in the building
Andrew Cushman [CISO] [4:17 PM]: can you get an opinion from Mark Baird please
Andrew Cushman [CISO] [4:18 PM]: can you please clarify what is happening then> when i hear abandoned i think it’s not occupied so confused how people would work from there
Jimi Robinson [IT] [4:19 PM]: They are locking up access but verifying. Fencing and boarding up the entrances. There is secure back access.
Jimi Robinson [IT] [4:23 PM]: OK, sorry was getting up to date info from Mark. There will be no one in the building. The building is being boarded up and fenced. All access is being blocked from the building. Mark wanted me to tell everyone that this was a last minute decision by the Mayor and there just wasn’t time to get equipment out. I will leave it up to the security folks to make the call on wiping the computers or not.
Dan Lewis [IT] [4:30 PM]: Please include Rebecca B from SPD for legality. If evidence related to active cases is lost from machines… could impact ongoing cases. This was a major concern when we changed email retention. I’m sure there would be impact here at the machine level also.
Jim Loter [IT] [4:31 PM]: please stop on the teams chat
Jimi Robinson [IT] [4:31 PM]: Engstrom, Jon – I am hearing from Mahaffey that all access is blocked.
Jim Loter [IT] [4:32 PM]: Engstrom, Jon please contact Saad at 425-XXX-XXXX. he’s asking for no further communication on this channel on this topic until you sync with him.
While the chat ends, the story did not. The East Precinct remained shuttered for a little over a week as the nearby community became the national focus for protests against police brutality and racism. Barriers, plywood, and eco block fortress wall remained through most of Durkan’s remaining single term in office. The narrative created by police at the time fed into a growing national perspective that CHAZ then CHOP were an assault on the rule of law with the closed police station at its heart. It has taken almost three years to piece together how much of that narrative was incorrect and fabricated by the Seattle Police Department.
Glen Stellmacher (Guest Contributor)
Glen Stellmacher is a licensed architect. He is a graduate and former lecturer at the University of Washington. His work can be found around Seattle and in print within Advancing Wood Architecture: A Computational Approach, Trajectories, a compendium of research on robotics, digital design, fabrication and sustainable forestry practices and online.