Findings Against Former Police Misconduct Investigator Highlight New Oversight Challenges

Protesters gather at Seattle City Hall on June 3, 2020 (Bruce Englehardt via Creative Commons)

By Paul Kiefer

As protesters began to trickle away from a Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Seattle on May 30, 2020, an unmarked Seattle Police Department cruiser waited at an intersection near  department headquarters while a small crowd of demonstrators crossed the street. “God, I fucking hate these people,” said one of the officers in the cruiser as the crowd passed.

A small gap opened in the crowd as the traffic light switched to yellow. The cruiser’s driver—a sergeant, and the most senior of the four officers in the car—flashed the car’s warning lights and accelerated towards the protesters in the crosswalk. A few marchers dove to safety, barely escaping the cruiser as it passed. Onlookers watched as the cruiser sped away. Inside the car, an officer laughed.

Now, misconduct allegations against the sergeant, and how the city handled them, help illuminate how the last year’s protests have pushed the city’s police oversight bodies into uncharted waters.

The case of a sergeant who drove through a crowd of protesters is an unusual example of an OPA staffer being investigated for misconduct—and a unique example of an OPA employee facing an investigation unrelated to their work with the oversight office.

Within months of the incident, the sergeant took a new position as a misconduct investigator with SPD’s Office of Police Accountability. At the time of his transfer, the sergeant’s disciplinary record didn’t raise any red flags. While OPA Director Andrew Myerberg has a hand in deciding which officers transfer to and from his office, he said he wasn’t aware that the sergeant had driven through a group of marchers at the start of last summer’s protests, so he gave his approval to the new arrival.

Then a witness filed a complaint with the OPA about the near-hit-and-run, calling the sergeant’s actions “completely unprofessional and terrifying.” Although the sergeant wasn’t an investigator when he drove the cruiser into the crowd, his case is an unusual example of an OPA staffer being investigated for misconduct—and a unique example of an OPA employee facing an investigation unrelated to their work with the oversight office.

The OPA handed the investigation into the sergeant’s misconduct to a relatively new office: Seattle’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG), an oversight agency that conducts audits of systemic or policy-based problems within SPD—and, in cases like that of the sergeant, investigates misconduct complaints against OPA staff.

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The OIG’s ability to investigate OPA staff may help reveal some of OPA’s own vulnerabilities. As mandated by the city’s contract with the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild—Seattle’s largest police union—nine of the OPA’s 11 investigators are sworn police officers. The sergeant’s case revealed an inevitable challenge for the OPA: officers who transfer to the office from other roles in SPD may carry baggage, including a history of misconduct, that isn’t immediately apparent to the OPA director.

OIG’s ability to investigate OPA staff relatively quickly could improve Seattle’s police oversight system, but only if the OPA director has the power to remove problematic investigators from their staff. Whether the OPA director can successfully exercise that authority remains untested.

The sergeant also argued that his driving decisions weren’t a problem because they “worked out”—he hadn’t injured any demonstrators.

The OIG is not the first agency to investigate misconduct by OPA staff, but its creation by the Seattle City Council in 2017 vastly improved the efficiency of those investigations. Until 2017, Seattle’s Human Resources Department (or, in some cases, a private attorney) investigated most complaints against OPA staff. That structure was significantly slower than other misconduct investigations, in part because the investigators lacked significant experience in police oversight.

In findings released on April 7, Inspector General Lisa Judge ruled that the sergeant who drove through the crowd on May 30 had violated SPD’s standards for professionalism and safe driving. His decision to drive through a group of demonstrators, she wrote, “put an exclamation point on the community sentiment being expressed during [last summer’s] protests,” as did his failure to chastise his passengers for laughing as protesters dove to avoid their car.

Though the sergeant defended his decision to drive through the crowd by insisting that he had acted to prevent an agitated crowd from surrounding and breaching the cruiser, Judge was unconvinced. “If the crowd was diminishing,” she wrote, “it could have been possible to wait a few moments longer to allow the straggling pedestrians to clear the street.”

The sergeant also asserted that his driving decisions weren’t a problem because they “worked out”—he hadn’t injured any demonstrators. “If one of the individuals had stumbled or fallen, it might not have ‘worked out’ and someone might have been injured or worse,” Judge wrote. “The obligation to drive a police vehicle with due care should not require luck as a requisite to public safety.”

The sergeant’s case leaves one substantial question about discipline for OPA staff unanswered. Shortly after he joined the OPA, the sergeant voluntarily transferred out of the office after the OIG began its investigation into his conduct; the OIG did not disclose the unit to which he transferred in SPD.

Had the sergeant chosen not to leave the OPA voluntarily, his case would have brought the office even deeper into unexplored territory. According to Myerberg, the OPA director is theoretically able to transfer an officer out of the office if the OIG finds them guilty of misconduct. But putting that scenario to the test could have serious consequences for the OPA, because police unions may be able to contest an officers’ transfer out of the office as an unfair disciplinary measure. If pressure from an officer’s union—in the sergeant’s case, SPOG—could force the OPA to keep problem officers on staff, the credibility of its investigations would come into question.

The sergeant’s case also highlights an inescapable risk of assigning sworn police officers to investigative roles in an oversight agency: while an OPA director can screen candidates for superficial red flags, they may be unable to filter out candidates whose questionable judgement or willingness to overlook misconduct have not yet risen to the surface.

SPD has not yet decided how to discipline the sergeant. While SPD and oversight leadership deliberate about appropriate disciplinary measures, the sergeant is also undergoing re-training at the OIG’s direction for a separate incident during last summer’s protests.