SPD’s Million Dollar Parking Lot – TheStranger.com | CarTailz

According to the jury in a recent court case, protesters aren’t the only ones the Seattle Police Department has harmed with poison gas. After SPD was found negligent in its failure to protect a downtown sergeant from carbon monoxide poisoning on the job, the jury awarded the officer $1,325,000 in damages.

The officer’s lawsuit stems from years of internal complaints about poor ventilation leading to unsafe levels of carbon monoxide in the precinct patrol garage, where officers spend between 15 and 45 minutes at the beginning and end of their shifts. After the officer, Sergeant David Hockett, sued the department for failing to fix the problem, the department eventually accommodated him by allowing him to park on the garage roof.

But it shouldn’t have taken two and a half years of litigation and a million-dollar judgment to resolve this workplace hazard. The SPD’s decision to fight Hockett’s lawsuit rather than address the issues Hockett brought to the department’s attention raises questions about senior command staff’s commitment to retaining their officers amid a staffing crisis.

“You will literally be poisoned”

In 2017, the SPD became aware of a problem with newly purchased police cruisers, with car exhaust fumes seeping into the passenger compartment. The department notified its police officers and asked them to report any symptoms of possible carbon monoxide poisoning, such as confusion, headaches or dizziness. Sergeant Hockett, who said he experienced all of these symptoms and more, responded to the email that he and a team of doctors had tried to determine the cause of his illness and was relieved to learn of the probable source.

But as Hockett soon found out, the new cars weren’t the only problem. The ventilation system in the underground garage where he parked his squad car wasn’t bringing in enough fresh air to push the exhaust fumes out of the police cars, which were idling during shift change.

The cops said they idled their cars because of computer problems. During the trial, witnesses from the department testified that the computers in the precinct’s report writing room took a long time to boot up, so officers often sat in their cars typing their reports into the already booted terminals in their vehicles. Because the computers were draining the car’s batteries, the department installed an aftermarket system called IdleRight that would automatically turn on the car’s engine when the battery needed recharging.

After an official filed an anonymous complaint about the emissions problem with the state Department of Labor and Industry, which regulates workplace safety in Washington, state investigators conducted a full inspection of the garage. They determined the ventilation system was faulty and made three recommendations to SPD: upgrade the ventilation system to handle increased car exhaust levels, install carbon monoxide monitors to keep track of exposure, and ban cops from excessively spending a lot of time in the garage.

While SPD followed the first two recommendations, Hockett’s attorneys presented evidence in court showing that the department hadn’t actually done much to stop cops from hanging around the garage. In fact, they placed a foosball table and a ping-pong table right in the path of an idling car’s exhaust pipe, which Hockett’s attorneys caught on video:

In a statement, the department said it “encourages all employees to proactively identify safety concerns in the workplace.” During the trial, however, senior SPD officials struggled to heed the department’s advice.

Hockett’s lawyers have questioned several members of the SPD leadership team about the video. Although the brake lights of what appeared to be a moving car were reflected off the ping-pong table, not one said they could clearly tell if the car was idling and therefore posed a safety hazard.

One of Hockett’s lawyers, Sumeer Singla, said in a telephone interview that the SPD had since removed the foosball table, but that, to his knowledge, the ping-pong table remained in the garage. I have asked the SPD for additional information on the steps the department has taken to stop police from breathing toxic air in the garage, but they did not address the issue in their statement.

The SPD’s “head-in-the-sand” approach to officer safety prompted Singla to tell the jury in the closing arguments that “[f]or 15 minutes into the shift change, there are officers who aren’t in the best shape they need to patrol the streets…because they’re literally being poisoned in the 15 minutes before they leave.” The jury agreed and found that SPD had been negligent in protecting Sgt. Hockett got carbon monoxide poisoning at work.

“Mr. CO”

Taking a step back, it’s natural to wonder why this matter required litigation at all, let alone two and a half years of what Singla called the “most aggressive litigation tactics” he’d seen in 20 years as a lawyer. After years of investigating this case, Singla believes the “hostile” treatment Hockett endured after raising grievances stems from the SPD leadership’s refusal to accept or tolerate criticism from its rank and file officials.

On this point, too, the jury at the trial with Singla agreed. Of the $1,325,000 in damages that the jury awarded Hockett, they specifically attributed $1 million to the hostile work environment Hockett endured when he began campaigning for the health and safety of his colleagues. Despite Hockett’s excellent track record of service in the department, including multiple commendations and awards, the command staff fostered a toxic culture that marginalized Hockett within the department, earning him the nickname “Mr. CO”, which is the abbreviation for carbon monoxide.

The punitive treatment Hockett received at work for taking measures to avoid inhaling toxic gases, such as For example, contacting the IdleRight vendor to clarify whether the system was designed for use in a closed garage (it isn’t) and relaying that information to his superiors went well beyond attribution.

Examples of the hostile work environment at SPD after Hockett complained about CO exposure

Downtown police officers mocked Hockett for his obsession with breathing clean air on the job, and left pictures like this in his workspace. Command staff even intimidated Hockett for reaching out to the IdleRight vendor and installing his own carbon monoxide monitors. They ordered him, as Singla put it, to “shut up and get in line.”

A hole in the blue wall of silence

After Hockett filed his lawsuit, the SPD’s human resources department finally gave him a place to stay so he no longer had to park in the poison garage. Well, at least for a while.

As a testament to the SPD leadership’s recalcitrance throughout this ordeal, Hockett’s open-air parking spot was temporarily revoked just two weeks after he was given it. Only after another complaint to the human resources department was he given the accommodation back. So if you’re wondering if mean statements from city council members might not be the sole reason for department turnover in 2020, you’re not alone.

Several of Hockett’s colleagues took the stand to tell the jury that while Hockett may be out of the way, they still don’t believe it’s safe for officers to spend time in the downtown precinct garage. Apparently they considered it serious enough to jeopardize their career prospects within the department and said so in open court.

Singla told me a current SPD official testified that they “didn’t want to touch the pot” by voicing their concerns about the toxic air internally after seeing what happened to Hockett. Another testified that they held back from raising similar concerns to avoid “Rock.”[ing] das Boot” and jeopardize their chances of advancement.

While it’s extremely unusual for police officers to step out of line and openly criticize their superiors, one final detail that came to light during the trial helps explain why they seemed compelled to do so.

Those officers testified that the garage isn’t the only place they breathe in dangerous levels of carbon monoxide. Due to a hole in the wall of the Sergeant’s study next to the garage, the toxic gas has also entered their offices, apparently causing the same headaches, dizziness, and confusion that cops suffer when they spend time in the garage between shifts .

The cops working in that room eventually followed Hockett’s lead and took matters into their own hands to try to keep their air clean by attempting to seal the hole with duct tape. This solution worked for a while, but according to testimonies in court, the tape soon disappeared without explanation.

Sure, some cops take it upon themselves to blame local politicians for their decision to go on the way out. But all that needless conflict about fixing a basic workplace safety hazard should give you pause the next time you hear that newly minted chief Adrian Diaz, who was acting as interim chief the entire time Hockett was suing the department, local politicians responsible for the personnel crisis of the SPD.

After all, Diaz had a chance to lead by example and demonstrate what supporting enlisted officers looks like, but instead he chose to push Hockett’s lawsuit and have his officers inhale toxic gas at work until a jury told him so that was that law broken. Now the taxpayers are on the hook for more than a million dollars as the price of that stubbornness.

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