New Police Accountability Director Gino Betts Has His Work Cut Out for Him

By Erica C. Barnett

Mayor Bruce Harrell announced this week that he was appointing Chicago prosecutor Gino Betts as head of the Office of Police Accountability, which investigates allegations of police misconduct. Betts served as the Cook County Assistant State’s Attorney; before that, he was an attorney at Chicago’s OPA equivalent, the Civilian Office of Police Accountability.

During a public forum in June, Betts emphasized his support for transparency into the disciplinary process, including when officers are  lose their certification to work as police officers from the state Criminal Justice Training Commission. (The state legislature expanded the list of potential reasons for decertification earlier this year.)

“We shouldn’t have officers floating from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, looking for employment” after being decertified, Betts said, “and I think [the list of officers who have been decertified] should be expanded to a national database. If you were SPD and you were disciplined or terminated, you shouldn’t be able to go to Chicago and become an officer.”

Betts also expressed support for taking accountability measures off the table during collective bargaining with police unions. Officers’ most recent contract, for example, allows officers to appeal the police chief’s disciplinary decisions to an outside arbitrator, a process that has led to several high-profile reinstatements, including a parking enforcement officer who expressed support for lynching and a police officer who punched a handcuffed woman in the face.

“I think police [unions] have done a masterful job, not only here in Seattle but nationwide, of turning what has historically been a labor negotiation [that] would consist of salaries, benefits and vacation days, things of that nature, and making it into a legal shield against police accountability,” Betts said.

The OPA has been without a permanent director since January, when former director Andrew Myerberg became Harrell’s public safety director. The office faces a significant backlog and sustains (upholds) allegations against officers infrequently.

Last week, the office declined to sustain one complaint against an officer who fired a 40mm launcher at a man who was apparently having a mental health crisis; the officer shot the weapon, which uses “less-lethal” projectiles, at the man after he tossed something in the officer’s direction from inside his apartment.

The OPA also declined to sustain any allegations against an officer who worked nine hours of overtime during two days when he was suspended without pay for a separate incident; although the summary of the case notes that this same officer had previously claimed excessive overtime (turning in timesheets indicating he worked over 90 hours a week) at least 15 times, the OPA determined that the issue was a lack of “sufficient supervisory oversight,” not the officer’s actions.

On Twitter, DivestSPD identified this officer as Joel Nark, a now-retired officer who had previously been suspended for claiming overtime he did not work. Although Nark retired from SPD (and was not interviewed by OPA in this latest case), he still serves on the three-member Public Safety Civil Service Commission (PSCSC), which hears certain appeals from police and firefighters who were fired, demoted or suspended; PubliCola covered his most recent election for the position last year.