By Paul Kiefer
A bill that would create a framework for civilian oversight of law enforcement agencies across Washington state is making its way toward a vote on the floor of the state house, but police accountability experts say that the bill needs refinement to avoid unintended consequences.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jesse Johnson (D-30), would require every jurisdiction statewide that employs 15 or more law enforcement officers to create a “community oversight board” to receive and investigate civilian complaints about police misconduct. It also sets some rules for board membership, barring people who work for or have close ties to law enforcement and reserving seats on each board for community members.
Unlike most cities in Washington, Seattle already has a trio of police oversight bodies: the Office of Police Accountability (OPA), which investigates individual cases of misconduct; the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), which reviews Seattle Police Department policy and tactics and issues recommendations; and the Community Police Commission (CPC), which mostly plays an advisory role for SPD. In its current form, the bill would allow Seattle to keep all three bodies, but with some significant changes, including requiring the OPA to rebuild an all-civilian investigation team and potentially move outside of SPD, limiting its access to department records.
When the House Public Safety Committee fielded comments on the bill on January 26, OPA director Andrew Myerberg told the committee that he could not fully support the proposal. In its original form, the bill didn’t create a clear exception for accountability agencies like the OPA. “I do agree with the bill insofar that I believe civilians can do the work of police accountability and do it well,” Myerberg said, but he worried that the framework for community oversight outlined in the bill would require jurisdictions like Seattle to dismantle their existing civilian oversight structures and replace them with a single board tasked with both misconduct investigations and policy advising.
After the first round of testimony, Johnson worked with representatives from Seattle and Spokane, which also has an existing police oversight agency, to amend the bill with concerns like Myerberg’s in mind. The most notable adjustment was the inclusion of a clause allowing jurisdictions with “multiple similar oversight bodies” to retain those agencies if they comply with the rest of the bill’s contents. One of the goals of the changes, Johnson told PubliCola, “is to preserve the functions of the OPA as long as the membership rules for community oversight boards are implemented within the OPA.”
To do so, Johnson said, the OPA would need an all-civilian investigative team by January 2023. Currently, nine of the OPA’s 11 investigators are sworn police officers—a consequence of Seattle’s contract with the Seattle Police Officers Guild, which limits the number of civilian investigators. If passed, the bill would supersede Seattle’s agreements with its police unions. The bill would also require the OPA to reserve some of its civilian staff positions for people representing impacted communities.
The CPC, on the other hand, would not be required to replace its SPD representative until US District Judge James Robart lifts Seattle’s consent decree—an agreement with the Department of Justice giving a federal judge power to oversee reforms to SPD.
Additionally, the bill defines oversight bodies, such as the OPA, as “external to the law enforcement agency the body oversees.” The OPA is currently housed within SPD to give its investigators direct access to department records; if required to comply with that language, the OPA would have to move out of SPD, potentially creating a new set of hurdles for its investigators.
Anne Levinson, a retired municipal court judge and former OPA auditor, says the bill would improve civilian oversight of police departments statewide. But, she added, the bill still needs polishing to allow the proposed oversight boards to reflect specific local circumstances. As written, the bill would require jurisdictions of every size to create civilian oversight boards if they don’t have an existing civilian oversight structure, but Levinson says that may not be appropriate.
“Nothing hurts community trust and confidence more than to see an incident of serious misconduct that was investigated and determined to have occurred, only to have the agency say that the appropriate discipline cannot be imposed because the timeline was not met.”—Anne Levinson
“What we have seen nationally over the years is that what makes for the most effective structure for law enforcement oversight differs from community to community,” she said. “All communities need community at the table, but larger jurisdictions won’t be well-served to be dependent on community boards, volunteers and limited staff.”
Levinson said the updated bill still wouldn’t give the new civilian oversight bodies the ability to investigate police misconduct complaints filed by police officers, to oversee or review police disciplinary practices, or to review or oversee investigations into criminal misconduct by police officers. She is also concerned by the time limit the bill sets for investigations: as currently written, the proposal would require community oversight boards to issue findings within 120 days of receiving a complaint.
“It’s important that cases not drag on for years, but it is also important that accountability not be undermined by timelines that preclude the imposition of discipline,” Levinson said. “Nothing hurts community trust and confidence more than to see an incident of serious misconduct that was investigated and determined to have occurred, only to have the agency say that the appropriate discipline cannot be imposed because the timeline was not met.”
The bill passed out of the House Public Safety Committee on February 9, and it seems poised to make it to a vote on the house floor later in the session. Meanwhile, Robin Koskey, the Deputy Director of Seattle’s Office of Intergovernmental Relations, told PubliCola that the city is still working with Johnson to ensure the bill “is compatible with the current civilian oversight system in Seattle.”