Some Seattle police officers routinely — and illegally — ignored state and city mask mandates during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and refused to obey direct orders from the chief to comply, exposing what accountability officials called a “serious cultural issue” within the department, according to a recently released review by the Office of Inspector General.

The report states that the department was fined $17,500 last year after receiving two notices of “serious violations” of the Washington Administrative Code over officers’ refusal to comply with the mandates after inspections by the state Department of Labor and Industries. The report noted that it was difficult for command staff to demand officers comply with the regulations because some captains and assistant chiefs didn’t mask up, either.

L&I concluded the police department “did not provide a workplace free from recognized hazards that are causing, or likely to cause, serious injury or death.”

The department’s OIG, one of three civilian-run police oversight agencies, said the police chief gave officers “clear direction” and “explicit orders” about mask-wearing as early as March 2020 — followed by a string of increasingly stern reminders.

Interim Chief Adrian Diaz then issued a direct order in January 2021 that all officers comply with the city’s mask policy, saying any violation would be referred to internal affairs. But even then, officers continued to refuse.

“The emails demonstrate that command staff and supervisors struggled to gain widespread compliance with orders pertaining to masking,” the OIG report found.

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That same month, a captain emailed that he was “just stunned at the noncompliance.”

No officer was ever disciplined for refusing to wearing a mask, according to the report and a statement from the Office of Police Accountability. Inspector General Lisa Judge concluded this decision set a questionable precedent.

“The challenge is larger than just mitigating the spread of COVID-19,” she wrote. “Compliance — and public safety — may improve if all staff are held accountable for not following orders.

“Setting the precedent that mask orders do not need to be followed establishes a culture in which future, unrelated orders may be ignored as well,” the report said.

A statement issued Tuesday by SPD did not address the report’s specifics.

“The Department acknowledges the findings of this report and the concerns it states,” the statement said. “With mask mandates having ended and all employees on duty status fully vaccinated, we continue to focus our energy on the challenges at hand and are grateful to all the men and women of SPD who, like other front-line workers, continued to answer the call for service.”

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Diaz ordered his officers to mask up or face possible discipline following a highly publicized incident in January 2021 in which an SPD officer refused to wear a mask in a hospital emergency room. When a nurse handed him a mask, according to news accounts, he threw it away.

The report states that a physician contracted by the department to help mitigate COVID-19 exposure repeatedly urged officers to wear N95 masks and eye protection — not just to protect themselves but also members of the public. The department had 65,000 N95 masks available to officers at the time, according to the report.

“However, per the physician, some personnel resisted due to concerns of comfort, fogged glasses, communication difficulties and a belief that the COVID-19 virus was not real,” the report said.

That same doctor noted that officers’ widespread exposure to the virus — in a two-day period in July 2020, more than 50 police personnel reported exposure — pulled police off the streets and into quarantine at a time when the department and the Seattle Police Officers Guild were complaining of public safety threats arising from severe staffing shortages.

The inspector general’s office stated that it tried to quantify the costs incurred by the city due to COVID-19 exposure. While the OIG said it was unable to distinguish between time off due to quarantine and absences due to confirmed COVID cases or caring for a sick family member, it concluded that “SPD spent $5,642,087 on payroll costs coded as related to COVID-19” during a three-month period from March to June 2020.

The department spent $343,029 on COVID-related overtime from November 2020 to June 2021, the report said.

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The OIG report, issued on April 15, said the department also struggled with how or whether to discipline officers who refused to comply with mask mandates, noting that an email sent in June 2020 by an assistant chief made it clear that failing to comply was a misdemeanor crime.

Kristina Adams, the project manager for OPA, said Tuesday that “OPA has not issued sustained findings regarding mask compliance.”

Even so, no officer was ever charged, and the department command staff, despite its protestations and warnings, referred only a single case to the Office of Police Accountability. The public, by comparison, called OPA 98 times to make complaints about officers not wearing masks.

The agency has, however, issued “multiple supervisor actions,” which are not considered discipline. Adams said the OPA is “currently investigating multiple allegations of mask compliance issues.”

OIG investigators interviewed former OPA Director Andrew Myerberg, recently appointed as Mayor Bruce Harrell’s director of public safety, who said he chose “not to review mask noncompliance through the lens of insubordination” partly because “it seemed procedurally unjust to sustain an insubordination allegation against an individual officer when others higher in the chain of command might also not be wearing masks.”

“Director Myerberg stated that no one in headquarters wore masks and related that someone had sent OPA a photo of multiple lieutenants, captains and chiefs celebrating an event at headquarters without any masks,” the report said.

Myerberg told investigators that “he perceived the mask noncompliance as indicative of a serious culture issue within the SPD and stated that it was not sustainable for OPA to be the ‘thought police’ of the department.”

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