By Paul Kiefer
A bill that would create a framework for civilian oversight of law enforcement agencies across Washington state is making its way toward a vote on the floor of the state house, but police accountability experts say that the bill needs refinement to avoid unintended consequences.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jesse Johnson (D-30), would require every jurisdiction statewide that employs 15 or more law enforcement officers to create a “community oversight board” to receive and investigate civilian complaints about police misconduct. It also sets some rules for board membership, barring people who work for or have close ties to law enforcement and reserving seats on each board for community members.
Unlike most cities in Washington, Seattle already has a trio of police oversight bodies: the Office of Police Accountability (OPA), which investigates individual cases of misconduct; the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), which reviews Seattle Police Department policy and tactics and issues recommendations; and the Community Police Commission (CPC), which mostly plays an advisory role for SPD. In its current form, the bill would allow Seattle to keep all three bodies, but with some significant changes, including requiring the OPA to rebuild an all-civilian investigation team and potentially move outside of SPD, limiting its access to department records.
When the House Public Safety Committee fielded comments on the bill on January 26, OPA director Andrew Myerberg told the committee that he could not fully support the proposal. In its original form, the bill didn’t create a clear exception for accountability agencies like the OPA. “I do agree with the bill insofar that I believe civilians can do the work of police accountability and do it well,” Myerberg said, but he worried that the framework for community oversight outlined in the bill would require jurisdictions like Seattle to dismantle their existing civilian oversight structures and replace them with a single board tasked with both misconduct investigations and policy advising.
After the first round of testimony, Johnson worked with representatives from Seattle and Spokane, which also has an existing police oversight agency, to amend the bill with concerns like Myerberg’s in mind. The most notable adjustment was the inclusion of a clause allowing jurisdictions with “multiple similar oversight bodies” to retain those agencies if they comply with the rest of the bill’s contents. One of the goals of the changes, Johnson told PubliCola, “is to preserve the functions of the OPA as long as the membership rules for community oversight boards are implemented within the OPA.”
To do so, Johnson said, the OPA would need an all-civilian investigative team by January 2023. Currently, nine of the OPA’s 11 investigators are sworn police officers—a consequence of Seattle’s contract with the Seattle Police Officers Guild, which limits the number of civilian investigators. If passed, the bill would supersede Seattle’s agreements with its police unions. The bill would also require the OPA to reserve some of its civilian staff positions for people representing impacted communities. Continue reading “State Proposal Creating Community Oversight Boards for Police Could Have Unintended Consequences”