In early August, Seattle venture capitalist and big-time Democratic political donor Nick Hanauer was driving near his home in Shoreline and came across a scary sight: SWAT officers with full body armor, military-style weapons and an armored vehicle surrounding a house.
Hanauer was angry at the display of force and texted King County Executive Dow Constantine to demand answers.
Over the next several days — as national controversy erupted over the militarized police response to protests in Ferguson, Mo. — Hanauer texted back and forth with Constantine, at one point threatening to politically shame King County Sheriff John Urquhart over the police-militarization issue.
The text messages were released to The Seattle Times after a request to Constantine’s office. The back-and-forth exchange is both entertaining and provides a window into Hanauer’s personality and relationship with local elected leaders.
(We profiled Hanauer earlier this year as a driving force behind the national and local efforts to raise the minimum wage. He also helped launch Initiative 594, the gun background check measure, and has donated nearly $1.4 million to the I-594 campaign. He and his wife have donated $5,900 to Constantine’s campaigns since 2009.)
On Aug. 8 at 12:41 p.m. Hanauer texted Constantine: “What the hell? There was an army of armed soldiers in my neighborhood and a thousand police cars. On greenwood and 150th. Is this your doing? What is going on?”
Constantine replied 16 minutes later: “I have no idea what you’re talking about. Also, I am not the Sheriff.”
Hanauer: “Don’t these people work for you? Do we often call out armed soldiers in our county to settle disputes?”
Constantine: “Again, what are you talking about? Was it SPD? WSP? As for the Sheriff, I sign their checks but all police authority was transferred, by public approval in the 1990s of a charter amendment, to an independently elected Sheriff. So no. They don’t.”
On Aug. 14, as the controversy in Ferguson raged, Hanauer continued the conversation: “I presume you have seen what is going on in ferguson. Do we have police in our county to dress like these idiots? Is that what I saw in my neighborhood??”
Constantine responded a couple days later with information he got from the sheriff’s office, saying the police response Hanauer had seen was a raid on a known drug house. Quoting the sheriff’s office response, Constantine said the operation, which involved about 20 deputies, “netted 12 suspects, at least 2 with previous convictions of violent offenses.” He said most of the suspects left the house after deputies surrounded it and gave a verbal order. Others didn’t leave until a flash-bang device was detonated.
Hanauer: “My objection isn’t to the raid. My objection is to a Militarized police force. This is a horrible trend in our country and if it is happening in our area then we need to end it. Now. Rolling military vehicles into neighborhoods is totally unacceptable. Who is the sherif (sic)? Who gave them the authority to do this?”
Constantine: “John Urquhart. You likely to voted for him. The power is the police power of the state. It was vested in a separately elected sheriff by a voter approved charter amendment in the 1990s.”
Hanauer: “I’m on it. If this guy has militarized our police force then I am going to make sure that the good people of Seattle know that. And then the shit is going to hit the fan. Find someplace to hide.”
Constantine: “OR we could begin a rational conversation about the militarization of police forces following 9 11, and the contrast with our proven strategy of community policing which is employed throughout the region.”
Constantine followed up later, telling Hanauer he’d had a couple conversations with Urquhart about police militarization. “He wants to have a sit-down with you.”
Hanauer and Urquhart now plan to have that meeting on Monday. In an interview, Urquhart said he wished Hanauer had contacted him directly to begin with instead of texting the county executive to complain. But, “when Nick Hanauer calls, Dow answers,” Urquhart noted.
Urquhart said he agrees with Hanauer that police across the country have become too militarized, pointing to small departments getting surplus tanks and other equipment from the U.S. military.
Urquhart said SWAT teams can be overused. But he said he watches the sheriff’s SWAT unit “like a hawk” to make sure it is only deployed when justified.
But he said Hanauer was wrong to criticize the Shoreline raid in August.
“We had a flophouse, a drug house, that we’d had numerous complaints from the community about. We knew there were people in that house that had guns in the past that had warrants for their arrests,” Urquhart said. In that situation, he said a SWAT team is justified — to protect officers, suspects and the public.
Hanauer said, via text message, that he didn’t want to comment until after his meeting with Urquhart.