Report on Police Oversight Office Recommends Changing Process for Reviewing Misconduct Decisions

A protester talks with a Seattle police officer on May 31, 2020 (Flickr: Derek Simeone; Reproduced with a Creative Commons license).

By Erica C. Barnett

An external report commissioned by the Seattle Office of the Inspector General (OIG) after an investigator was caught approving, or certifying, investigations into police misconduct without proper review found multiple issues that led to poor oversight and communications within the office. But the report also concluded that most of the issues have been addressed since the incidents that prompted the review.

“Nobody likes to get a bad report card,” Inspector General Lisa Judge told PubliCola. “I believe that audits and reports like this that highlight areas for improvement and change make people and organizations better. This is the work that OIG does, so if I believe in it to help other organizations be better, I have to believe in it for myself and my organization.”

The OIG—a city office established by Seattle’s 2017 police accountability ordinance—is one of three entities charged with overseeing police accountability in Seattle; the others are the Community Police Commission and the Office of Police Accountability, an independent office inside the Seattle Police Department.

When someone files a complaint alleging police misconduct, the OPA reviews the complaint and decides, based on interviews and evidence, whether the complaint is valid and if it merits discipline; the police chief is in charge of deciding whether and how to discipline an officer. The OIG’s role in this process is to oversee the OPA and make sure their decisions are fair and valid.

The report, conducted by Los Angeles-based OIR Group, makes two substantive recommendations, along with nine recommendations that deal with management practices, employee wellness, and communications between the OIG and OPA.

According to the report, OIG moved Finnell out of what was then a two-person investigations unit in response to the complaint, “but no formal action was taken to investigate or address the allegations. Most significantly, there was no formal ‘course correction’ with the identified employee to ensure that Office expectations would be met for any future case reviews.”

First, it recommends that the office return to its previous practice of investigating reports the OPA closes without investigation by designating them as “Contact Log”—a determination that indicates that no officer was involved in an incident or that OPA doesn’t have enough information to investigate—individually, rather than doing quarterly audits of a sample of cases. This year, the OIG began reviewing individual contact log determinations after the fact, and will begin doing these reviews in real time next month. On Monday, city council public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold praised this new policy in her committee.

In 2021, the OIG’s annual report said that the office agreed with OPA’s “contact log” determinations 81 percent of the time, although that average reflected a dramatic drop, to 49 percent, after it switched to doing quarterly samples instead of individual reviews midyear. Many of the cases that were classified this way involved allegations of “serious misconduct,” including charges of bias and use of force during widespread protests against police brutality in 2020. The OIG made no judgment about whether the complaints themselves were valid or would have led to discipline.

Second, it recommends that OIG should have the authority to weigh in on OPA’s decisions before they go to SPD and to  what kind of discipline is appropriate for cops who violate policy or the law. “[I]nvolving the OIG in this process and requiring regular reporting on what it is finding would result in a level of transparency regarding this aspect of SPD’s accountability system that currently does not exist,” the report says.

The report itself came out of a series of complaints involving an investigator who was signing off on cases without reviewing them thoroughly. In 2020, an OIG investigator raised unspecified issues about another investigator, Anthony Finnell, and he was reassigned to another function that did not involve reviewing OPA investigations.

According to the report, after Finnell moved out of investigations, “no formal action was taken to investigate or address the allegations.  Most significantly, there was no formal ‘course correction’ with the identified employee to ensure that Office expectations would be met for any future case reviews.”

Later, apparently without Judge’s knowledge, Finnell was moved back to the investigations unit and started certifying cases was certifying OPA cases—determining that they were “thorough, timely, and objective,” as required by the 2017 ordinance—without looking at all the evidence.which eventually prompted a review of the unit that revealed a “broader problem” with investigations.

The South Seattle Emerald reported on Finnell’s certification of cases without reviewing evidence, and the fact that he continued to work in the investigations unit, last year.

Those issues surfaced in 2020 and 2021, but they were not the first time investigators had been discovered improperly certifying cases. In fact, another former employee who has since become an outspoken critic of OIG’s practices was fired by OIG in 2019 after certifying cases without fully reviewing evidence and changing dates to meet certification deadlines, multiple sources say.

“The buck does stop with me when it comes to the credibility of OIG,” Judge told PubliCola. “To the extent somebody working in my office wasn’t carrying out their duties in a way that fosters trust, [that] is not acceptable, so that’s why it was important to me to have an external person looking at this.”

The report refers repeatedly to “personality” clashes within the office between investigators who had very different approaches to the OPA and its work, ranging from adversarial to accommodating, and tremendous burnout and pressure to issue judgment on the OPA’s decisions in cases filed during the 2020 protests. “Within the office, tension among the Investigations team was palpable, with members hardly speaking to each other and accusations about one member’s work ethic and integrity being raised with management,” according to the report.

Many of these conflicts reportedly arose over whether to approach OPA with suspicion and confrontation—an approach that may turn up issues others miss but can foster ill will—or trust and accommodation, an approach that builds respectful working relationships but can lead to laxer oversight. At least four of the people who were involved in various iterations of this conflict, including Finnell, are no longer with the office.

Retired judge Anne Levinson, who served as the civilian auditor overseeing OPA before the OIG was established in 2018, said the report reveals the need for oversight agencies to continually examine their work and change their policies in response to new information and evolving expectations.

“Just as the oversight system works to ensure that police leadership regularly examine their policies, systems, and training when incidents, complaints, audits, or other indicators flag a need for improved practice, oversight officials too must adapt, examine, and improve,” Levinson said, pointing to recent legislation addressing complaints naming the police chief, the use of body-worn video, and reforms to the county’s inquest process. “I view this kind of report not as indication that the sky is falling, but rather as a good thing—OIG leadership recognized they could do better, and they asked for outside review and guidance.”

“In addition, with the appointment by the Mayor of the next OPA Director, the report is well-timed as the agencies can level-set and refine approaches to best follow through on these recommendations.”

In addition, Levinson noted, Mayor Bruce Harrell just appointed a new OPA director, Gino Betts, to replace former director Andrew Myerberg, who is now a public safety advisor to Harrell. “The report is well-timed, as the agencies can level-set and refine approaches to best follow through on these recommendations,” she said.

Most of the staff mentioned in the report are no longer with the OIG, and the investigations staff has grown from two investigators to three investigators plus a supervisor.

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