By Paul Kiefer
An annual report by Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability (OPA) released on Tuesday contained a revealing statistic: Of the nearly 1,500 misconduct allegations brought against Seattle police officers last year, the largest number—more than 20 percent—involved unprofessional behavior. In one well-publicized case, an officer refused to wear a mask inside Harborview Medical Center; in another, an officer referred to a trans protester as “that.”
The Seattle Police Department’s professionalism standards are broad, so unprofessional conduct can include anything from insulting a member of the public to covering up mistakes. Consequences for unprofessional behavior are generally light, typically ranging from “training referrals”—often a conversation with an officers’ supervisor—to written reprimands that appear on an officer’s permanent record. In certain cases, the OPA can resolve complaints quickly through a process called “rapid adjudication”; however, the OPA did not resolve any complaints through rapid adjudication in 2021.
While a federal court has tracked SPD’s progress toward reducing racially biased policing and excessive force for the past decade, professionalism issues have not sparked similar scrutiny. Recent OPA data suggests that officers accused of violating SPD’s professionalism standards are more likely to be disciplined—more than half of the misconduct cases the OPA sustained since January involved unprofessional behavior—but in reviews of SPD practices by accountability agencies, professionalism concerns draw only brief attention. The Office of the Inspector General’s most recent assessment of SPD’s protest response in 2020, for instance, suggested that “SPD officers should eliminate their use of sarcasm or confrontational dialogue with protesters” but made no other mentions of unprofessional behavior.
Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who chairs the council’s public safety committee, told PubliCola that professionalism issues within SPD aren’t new, though the OPA’s recent policy recommendations for SPD generally have not addressed those problems.
Some accountability advocates say that although systemic reviews of SPD pay relatively little attention to professionalism complaints, disrespectful or unprofessional treatment of the public by police officers still matters. “The issue of professionalism and the police force cuts to the heart of culture change,” said Leslie Cushman, a spokesperson for the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability. “Disrespect is disregard, it is dehumanizing, and it is thumbing their nose.”
According to the OPA’s report, bias allegations were the second most common source of misconduct complaints, making up about 12 percent of all allegations. The number of complaints about excessive force fell by more than half from 2020 to 2021, though much of the increase in 2020 was driven by SPD’s response to city-wide protests.
The OPA sustained a quarter of misconduct allegations in 2021—an 8 percent increase over the year before. Of the 98 SPD employees disciplined for misconduct, 10 were subject to multiple OPA investigations. Two of the four employees SPD fired in 2021 were terminated for their presence at the US Capitol during an attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election on January 6, 2021; the OPA also found that the officers, Alexander Everett and Caitlin Rochelle, had lied to investigators about their location during the attack. Meanwhile, officers appealed 13 OPA decisions in 2021, including six officers suspended for misconduct. As of the end of 2021, 93 of the 101 disciplinary appeals brought to arbitrators by SPD officers since 2016 were still unresolved.