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March 3, 2024

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SPD union chief claims ‘discrimination’ in probe into officer comments

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SEATTLE — The president of the Seattle police guild has accused the department’s accountability agency of “union discrimination” and conducting a “fishing expedition” by asking about his half of a phone call where he and his guild vice president seemingly downplayed the death of a young woman struck by a police cruiser.

Seattle Police Officers Guild President Mike Solan had already given a recorded, compelled statement to the Office of Police Accountability when he was called back for a “clarifying” interview he found inappropriate. Solan accused OPA and the Seattle Police Department of trying to violate his union rights and intimidate the guild, according to documents obtained by The Seattle Times through public disclosure.

The city and guild have been negotiating a police contract that expired nearly three years ago.

Solan said that in seeking a second interview, the department was trying to “infringe and intimidate SPOG board of director and executive board, into not being able to share free speech in regards to union matters,” according to notes of the interview compiled by OPA investigators.

The issue for Solan, according to the documents, was that he was called as a “witness officer” to statements made by the SPOG vice president, Officer Daniel Auderer, in a two-minute telephone conversation just hours after Officer Kevin Dave struck and killed Jaahnavi Kandula, a 23-year-old graduate student, in a South Lake Union crosswalk the evening of Jan. 23.

Dave was traveling at 74 mph, responding to a call of a drug overdose, when he struck Kandula as she ran across Dexter Avenue North at Thomas Street, apparently trying to beat the speeding police cruiser across the intersection. She was thrown nearly 130 feet and died later that night.

A criminal investigation into the crash is ongoing.

OPA got involved when an SPD employee reviewing body-camera video came across a brief conversation between Solan and Auderer, who had been called to the scene as a drug-recognition expert to determine whether Dave was under the influence. Auderer, who determined his fellow officer was not impaired, said he was unaware his body camera was on and recording.

In a two-minute conversation — only Auderer’s side is audible — the SPOG vice president laughs about the deadly crash and dismisses any implication the officer might be at fault or that a criminal investigation was necessary.

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He also laughed several times, saying at one point: “Yeah, just write a check.”

“Eleven thousand dollars. She was 26 anyway,” Auderer said, misstating the victim’s age. “She had limited value.”

The department’s attorney flagged the comments, and OPA in September opened an unprofessional conduct investigation into Auderer’s remarks. OPA officials have since added an additional allegation of possible biased policing to their probe.

Agency director Gino Betts rejected the union’s claims of discrimination.

“Completing a thorough, objective, and timely investigation is the Office of Police Accountability’s sole focus and motivation,” he said in a statement.

SPOG did not return an email seeking comment from the union, Solan or Auderer.

Auderer, on learning of the recording and related media inquiries, sought “rapid adjudication” of the complaint to OPA, according to the documents. That mechanism allows officers to admit to “minor to moderate” policy violations and accept reasonable discipline, forgoing formal watchdog investigations.

However, Betts rejected Auderer’s request to resolve the matter quietly and quickly, instead opening a formal investigation.

Auderer’s statements have since drawn international condemnation and sharp criticism from within the city. He faces a punishment of up to 30 days off without pay or possible termination if the allegations are upheld.

SPOG has said the comments were taken out of context and intended as sarcasm and disgust with a legal system the guild believes will now attempt to put a dollar value on Kandula’s life. No litigation has yet been filed over her death.

In his letter seeking rapid adjudication, Auderer said he “intended the commentary as a mockery of lawyers — I was imitating what a lawyer tasked with negotiating the case would be saying and being sarcastic.”

“You’re not laughing over the death,” Auderer told OPA Sgt. Corey George in a Sept. 6 interview, noting that he’s investigated “dozens and dozens and dozens” of fatal and injury crashes.

“You’re laughing over the absurdity of it. People suddenly being here one moment and not the next. As a police officer, you never really get over that.”

Solan was interviewed twice as the sole “witness officer” to Auderer’s comments. He criticized Betts’ decision to reject Auderer’s attempt to resolve the matter through rapid adjudication as “unconscionable,” and he defended the Jan. 23 conversation as cathartic.

“It’s how police are,” Solan said, according to notes of an interview he provided OPA on Sept. 12. Solan added that it’s “how we process trauma and tragedy.”

“Sometimes officers use sarcasm and humor to overcome emotional hurdles which can be very burdensome,” Solan said, according to the interview notes. “Police officers must process tragedy in a way that allows us to go to the next tragic event.”

Solan repeatedly said the conversation was mostly union-related and that he couldn’t recall his specific comments made nearly eight months prior. He declined to speculate on whether he thought Auderer had violated SPD policy.

And he bridled when he was called in for a follow-up interview that he said involved the same questions. Solan only agreed to answer after he was compelled to testify, under penalty of possible dismissal.

SPOG complained that it has “never seen another officer treated this way,” and Solan’s answers to the second round of questions were perfunctory.

“I’ll stand by what I just told you,” Solan said repeatedly, sometimes adding, “I recall that being union speech.”

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