By Paul Kiefer
A year-long audit of Seattle’s disciplinary system for police officers by the city’s Office of the Inspector General identified an array of shortcomings in how the Seattle Police Department hands out discipline and flags misconduct in officers’ records.
Among other discoveries, auditors revealed that SPD supervisors aren’t able to track when officers work highly paid overtime hours while suspended for misconduct, and that the officers’ misconduct records don’t appear to have an impact on whether their commanders decide to promote.
The OIG’s audit focused on the steps that follow a misconduct investigation by the city’s Office of Police Accountability, starting with how SPD decides to discipline officers who violates department policies.
The OPA director and SPD supervisors are responsible for choosing a range of possible consequences for an officer’s misconduct based on a review of past discipline for similar cases, but the police chief has the final say in how to discipline an officer. According to the audit, between 2018 and 2021, police chiefs chose the least-severe discipline in nearly half of all cases. When presented with a range between suspending and firing an officer, the chiefs—during the period the auditors looked at, Carmen Best and Adrian Diaz, along with short-term acting chiefs—chose suspension in every case the OIG reviewed.
At least six officers who hadn’t completed their suspensions were able to work enough overtime hours to offset the financial impacts of their suspensions, the OIG found. In one case, the auditors discovered that an officer worked nine hours of overtime on a day when they were supposed to be suspended.
If the police chief decides to throw out the OPA’s findings altogether, city law requires them to explain their decision in detail to the mayor, city council, and the city’s police accountability bodies. This happened in May, when Interim Chief Adrian Diaz overruled an OPA investigation that pinned responsibility for a widely criticized use of tear gas against protesters in 2020 on a well-known lieutenant. However, the chief is not required to explain his reasoning if he decides to ignore the OPA’s disciplinary recommendations. While the OIG acknowledged that it is rare for a chief to ignore discipline recommendations, the auditors warned that “a future chief may be able to undermine the accountability system and public trust” by ignoring discipline recommendations with impunity.
The OIG’s auditors also pointed out that basing discipline on similar misconduct cases has disadvantages. Some cases of misconduct are too novel to find an easy point of comparison, Judge said, and relying on disciplinary standards from a decade ago makes it difficult to adjust penalties to reflect new public concerns about police misconduct. While a police chief could decide to impose harsher consequences for some types of misconduct, such as excessive force or reckless driving, the auditors warned that police unions would likely challenge stricter discipline by appealing to an arbitrator: a tactic that frequently works in the union’s favor.
According to Judge, police departments have to find a balance between a uniform, transparent set of disciplinary standards and having the flexibility to handle the unpredictable moving parts in many police misconduct cases. “There probably isn’t a ‘right’ system for deciding how to discipline officers,” Judge said. Even departments that set well-defined standards for how to discipline officers run into problems, she added. “If the system involves classifying an officer’s misconduct on some kind of severity scale, you still wind up with supervisors finding a way to classify their officers’ misconduct as more- or less-severe.”
Of the 50 officers promoted to sergeant within SPD in the past three years, the auditors found that 13 had recent records of misconduct, including several who had recently been suspended.
The OIG refrained from suggesting any changes to SPD’s disciplinary system, citing the imperfections in other models the department could adopt. “We run into a challenge when we make recommendations,” Judge said. “Our job is to identify systemic problems within the department, but once we cross the line by telling them how to remedy it… We would just be grading our own work.”
The OIG’s audit also discovered that officers with histories of misconduct rarely have trouble rising through the ranks. Police chiefs promote officers based on their scores on a competency exam, and the auditors found few signs that Diaz or his recent predecessors—including acting chiefs—chose not to promote officers based on their disciplinary records. Of 50 officers promoted to sergeant between 2018 and 2021, the auditors found that 13 had recent records of misconduct when they were promoted, including several with recent suspension at the time of their promotions.
Some small policy violations may never appear on an officer’s record. The OIG’s auditors found that the OPA, with support from SPD commanders, frequently opts not to uphold misconduct allegations against officers for technical or inadvertent errors—failing to turn on a body-worn video camera, for example. Instead, the OPA often requires such officers to go through retraining, allowing the officer to walk away without the policy violation on their record. Until 2019, the OPA also had the option to hold officers responsible for minor misconduct without recommending any discipline; the office abandoned that strategy after SPOG overwhelmed the city with grievances about the OPA’s decision to mark officers’ records for minor misconduct.
The auditors also uncovered evidence that SPD supervisors and payroll staff haven’t stopped some some suspended officers from spreading out their unpaid time off over multiple weeks or months, making up for the lost hours with voluntary overtime. While breaking up an officers’ suspension across multiple weeks is sometimes a way to mitigate short-staffing, the department doesn’t have a way to confirm that an officer has a good reason to break up their suspension into small, less-impactful segments. Although SPD is supposed to require officers to serve their suspension within two pay periods, this rule is not strictly enforced. At least six officers who hadn’t completed their suspensions were able to work enough overtime hours to offset the financial impacts of their suspensions, the OIG found. In one case, the auditors discovered that an officer worked nine hours of voluntary overtime with SPD’s traffic unit on a day when they were supposed to be suspended.
Many of the OIG’s fundamental concerns about Seattle’s system for police discipline rest on the city’s contracts with the city’s two largest police unions: SPOG and the Seattle Police Management Association (SPMA), which represents lieutenants and captains. Both contracts have expired within the past two years, and the city’s labor relations unit won’t reach new tentative contracts until 2022 at the earliest. But the discretion of the police chief, who is ultimately responsible for how SPD disciplines its officers and who rises in the department’s ranks, features just as prominently in the audit’s findings. The next permanent police chief—appointed by mayor-elect Bruce Harrell—will have an outsize role in deciding whether the OIG’s concerns merit a renewed push to fix holes in SPD’s disciplinary system.