Seattle PD Public Affairs Unit Implodes Over Hempfest Doritos


From Seattlish

So, we finally got our grubby mitts on the Seattle Police Department’s summary of the Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) complaint filed against local hero, Public Information Officer (PIO) Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, after our city’s award-winning Dorito Hempfest outreach incident*, and man, that shit is a mess. The gist, on the surface, is that one officer, later revealed to be recently-transferred PIO Jeff Kappel through a pretty jarring missed redaction, felt Whitcomb, whose name is redacted in the report although he was already named in the press repeatedly as the officer in question, created a “hostile work environment” after Hempfest. Whitcomb, he says, expressed “controversial views” that “he deemed were attacks on Christians and Homosexuals.”

The investigation found that his “hostile work environment” meant that Whitcomb took “quite notable corrective action” against Kappel, such as “suggesting transfer [and] changing work hours.” Kappel alleges that this “was a systematic plan to remove him from the unit.”

However, the investigation found that while testimony “paint[s] a picture of spirited political conversation as a matter of course,” that “no parties have witnessed negative name calling” and “this conversation does not appear to be unwelcome conduct.”

The “controversial views” themselves were not specified, but another member of Kappel’s shitlist was: A colleague, not a sworn officer, with a name that takes a very long line to redact, also with heavy involvement in the Doritos Incident: Jonah Spangenthal-Lee, also identified by his past association with The Stranger.

Jonah Spangenthal-Lee, a cop-loving Seattle hipster with a shitty grasp of journalism ethics

Jonah Spangenthal-Lee, a cop-loving Seattle hipster with a shitty grasp of journalism ethics

In case you missed the Incident itself, here’s a quick summary: The first Hempfest after the passage of I-502, which legalized marijuana, a crew of Public Affairs Department volunteers handed out bags of Doritos at Hempfest detailing what is and isn’t legal under the new laws. They looked like this:


Other than the Doritos resulting in SPD’s first positive blitz of press coverage in several years… That’s it. But some people in Public Affairs did not like it (edit: despite participation being 100% optional), based on their political ideology.** And, despite a heavily-redacted report, it’s pretty easy to figure out who.

Renee Witt*** says in her interview that she disagreed with the Dorito bags, but says that fellow officers treated her respectfully. This is not the case with Kappel, who appears to have filed the complaint against Whitcomb and Spangenthal-Lee. We have the 22-page summary, and not the 450-page report (YET), but you’d think that such serious allegations would at least be mentioned in something besides name-only.

Kappel filing his complaint against Whitcomb and Spangenthal-Lee, which also alleged Kappel was being “forced out” of his unit, turned Public Affairs upside-down. Whitcomb, the managing officer of the unit, was temporarily pulled from the job — and everything went fucking bananas. He wasn’t around for the Kurt Cobain 20th deathiversary, which went fucking abysmally, with the detective originally on the case saying that shit was re-opened and Public Affairs having to scramble to shut down the media frenzy. The press conferences on disciplinary action that Harry Bailey held after being appointed interim police chief may as well have been held in a clown car. During the three weeks when Spangenthal-Lee was out, the blotter was boring and horrifyingly pun-free.

Ordinarily, there’s no shame in fucking over your workplace if you’re genuinely in a hostile work environment — because fuck ‘em. But despite specific examples as to Kappel’s misconduct (“extensive coffee breaks” and “baiting” arguments, for example) this EEO report gives us no insight into the nature of any alleged anti-Christian or homophobic sentiment; from what we can tell, the dude didn’t want to participate in spreading the word about marijuana law. At the crux of his allegations are various disciplinary actions against Kappel by Whitcomb, which he says were retaliation for his opposition to I-502 and the Dorito giveaway. However, while some testimonies in the investigation acknowledge that Kappel may have been treated unfairly, nobody has anything objectively positive to say about the man that would refute any claim that disciplinary actions — not even serious action, but talking-tos and shift changes — weren’t warranted.

However, negative complaints abound: He is “the weakest performer in the Media Unit,” alleges one employee from outside the Media Unit. Another officer, this one from inside the Media Unit, says that Kappel is “not a productive member of the unit,” owing it to the unit’s “more social media-oriented approach, which [he] was not able to adapt to.” Yet another member of the Media Unit described Kappel as “a weak employee” that is “stuck in the past, refusing to adapt to the new operations of the Media Unit … [He] has openly and insubordinately attempted to sabotage various messages being put forward by the Media Unit.”

The investigation is quick to point out that there’s no record from Whitcomb of Kappel’s misconduct, but only one interview summary from the document makes no mention of Kappel’s work performance — and the rest describe notable performance issues.

The most concrete evidence against Spangenthal-Lee and Whitcomb, who full disclosure, both have pretty congenial relationships with the Ish, actually rests on Spangenthal-Lee’s shoulders — but not as an SPD employee. The complaint summary digs up a bunch of dirt from when SPD first pulled Spangenthal-Lee, an alum of The Stranger and Publicola, into the fold — an experienced crime journalist, he seemed, to some, to be just what the department needed. But some officers weren’t comfortable with Spangenthal-Lee’s appointment… and backed up a pattern of workplace “humiliation” with Spangenthal-Lee’s past record at SPD. (The full report includes an article from Seattle Met and various articles from The Stranger, unspecified.)

“[Redacted] states that he remembers [Kappel] as being the only unit member to oppose [Spangenthal-Lee’s] hiring, but that it was because [Spangenthal-Lee] had worked at a publication hostile to SPD (The Stranger),” says one interview summary. “He does, however, acknowledge that [Kappel] had mentioned some mean-spirited articles that caused … concern, but does not remember if it was because they are anti-Christian.”

Another unspecified officer says that while he “did not witness” Whitcomb or Spangenthal-Lee commit any of the acts alleged, he described Kappel as “stuck in the past, refusing to adapt to the new operations of the Media Unit.” He continues that Jeff “was opposed to the Doritos event, but that [he] was opposed to almost anything that wasn’t traditional, so that there was no special note made of his objection.”

That officer says that the only opposition to Spangenthal-Lee’s hiring was his experience at The Stranger… and while we’re not sure which of Spangenthal-Lee’s articles were called into question, we do know that many of his writings that could be perceived as anti-Christian were calling out blatant homophobia — but not Christianity itself.

The investigation even called from the woodwork leftover sentiment against Spangenthal-Lee from his 2012 hiring process; these allegations are so serious that we’re actually wondering why they were included in the first place. The full investigation has more details, but two officers, Detective Monty Moss and Lieutenant Eric Barden (both of whom we’ve reached out to for comment), say that Spangenthal-Lee was previously investigated for hacking into SPD phone systems. Sources close to the case have told us that this is completely false, despite Moss and Barden’s statements to the contrary. Reports from the time of the incident say that Spangenthal-Lee was asked about news leaks within the department upon his hiring, but like a good journalist, he wouldn’t reveal his sources.

Whitcomb’s interview summary mentions that he denies allegations against Spangenthal-Lee, stating that those that opposed the hire were being paranoid. SPD sources have also told us that the allegation is totally bogus.  Besides, Spangenthal-Lee was already hired over two years ago. Why is this just coming up now? Whitcomb didn’t — and in fact, couldn’t — make a unilateral hiring decision.

We’re told that a sister document to the EEO complaint, an Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) filing, contains even more sentiment against the current direction of SPD’s Media Unit — and yet another OPA alleges exactly the opposite, that Spangenthal-Lee and Whitcomb were, in fact, the ones who were harassed within the department. (We’ve requested both documents, and should hear back next week.)

The EEO report calls the timing of Kappel’s disciplinary action in relation to Hempfest into question, positing that suggesting a shift change, or a shift in department, was, in fact, retaliation. But let’s look at the timing a different way. After a year and a half of growing positive press for a transparent and approachable public outreach strategy, the investigation — spurred from a member of the Media Unit that is, by all accounts, resistant to change — comes at a suspicious time for Old Guard pushback.

Without speculating, though: What happened to Whitcomb and Spangenthal-Lee? They stay to pun and blotter another day. While investigators found some complaints to be valid and others not, ultimately the decision was up to then-interim chief Harry Bailey — who found the report “inconclusive.”

We’ll probably never be at Hempfest to get a bag of chips from these dudes directly, because fuck Hempfest, but man, we’re so glad that two SPD employees working hard for a non-cagey, non-hostile relationship with the public get to keep up the good work. Because, you know, to protect and serve and all that.

And of course, this isn’t entirely about media and public outreach strategy — it’s a clusterfuck indicative of a conflict that stretches across the whole department. For example, that #NotAllCops statement to counter a lawsuit from multiple enforcement officers defending their right to the use of force. This all comes just in time for our new police chief, Kathleen O’Toole, who’s apparently known for fixing messy police departments and speaks frequently about “rogue cops.” We’re waiting with bated breath for how this’ll turn out.

SPD EEO Investigation 13-0505: Summary

* Names for the incident in the report include “Hempfest, the Doritos event,” “The Hempfest/Doritos incident,” “Hempfest (the Doritos incident),” “volunteer event at a pro-marijuana rally/festival,” and “a controversial distribution of snack foods at a pro-marijuana festival.”

** Are all cops really allowed to be selective with which laws they support? This seems like a bigger issue.

*** Since Public Affairs is a small department, some interviewees and subjects were easily-identified. There’s Witt, the only female PIO in the department. Spangenthal-Lee is repeatedly mentioned in the context of his being not an officer, and through his previous involvement with The Stranger. There’s Whitcomb himself — the complaint against him actually made local headlines when news first broke. A few parties’ identities remain unclear, but redaction doesn’t do much for the major players.