Tag: Anne Levinson

State Proposal Creating Community Oversight Boards for Police Could Have Unintended Consequences

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.

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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”

After Appointment of New SPD Monitor, Experts Reflect on the Past and Future of the Consent Decree

New Consent Decree Monitor Dr. Antonio Oftelie. Photo via Leadership for a Networked World.

By Paul Kiefer

Merrick Bobb, who served for seven years as the court-appointed monitor for reforms to the Seattle Police Department mandated by the Department of Justice in a 2012 agreement between the city and federal government known as a consent decree, quietly resigned from his position on August 31.

In a letter explaining his decision, Bobb expressed dismay that SPD’s responses to this summer’s protests left him wondering whether “lessons learned and techniques trained under the consent decree were lost, or, at least, set aside.” Looking beyond the department’s protest response, Bobb also pointed to SPD’s “‘bizarre and arcane’ discipline and accountability systems” (referring to the language of one of his team’s earlier reports on SPD) as another primary reason for the department to remain under federal oversight.

US District Judge James Robart appointed Dr. Antonio Oftelie, a fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, to replace Bobb as monitor. Robart appointed Monisha Harrell, the board chair of Equal Rights Washington and a (now outgoing) Community Police Commission commissioner, as deputy monitor. In a new order on Monday, Robart also appointed two associate monitors: Matthew Barge, a senior consultant at the Policing Project at the New York University School of Law, and Ronald Ward, a Seattle attorney who served as deputy monitor alongside Merrick Bobb.

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Oftelie is stepping into the monitor role at a time when the position demands a heavier hand than Bobb has provided since Robart ruled that the city was in compliance with the consent decree in 2018. After that ruling, Bobb said in an interview with KUOW’s Ross Reynolds on Thursday, he believed that his “job was done” as the monitor. “We’d brought the department to that point [of compliance].” But Bobb added that SPD’s protest response made it clear that “there needed to be a new monitor and new team to deal with new facts on the ground.” In that interview, Bobb did not mention that Robart ruled that the city had fallen partially out of compliance with the consent decree in May of last year because of accountability-related concerns.

Oftelie says that police accountability will be one of his priorities as monitor. In an email to the Seattle Times this week, Oftelie specifically said that his team’s focus will be on “SPD’s accountability and transparency structures”—the Office of Police Accountability (OPA), the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), and the CPC. But according to some local accountability experts, Oftelie’s proposal to reassess the city’s accountability structures will unnecessarily retrace the steps of longtime accountability advocates while real accountability reforms continue to languish. Continue reading “After Appointment of New SPD Monitor, Experts Reflect on the Past and Future of the Consent Decree”

Seattle Mayor’s Proposal To Move Police Investigations Out of SPD Could Have Unintended Consequences

As calls to defund the Seattle Police Department continue, Mayor Jenny Durkan has proposed moving about $56 million out of the Seattle Police Department’s budget into other parts of the city budget—a ledger swap that could actually cost the city more money than the current system and could, advocates say, actually weaken the accountability system.

When announcing the transfers, Durkan’s office described the changes as “actions to transform the Seattle Police Department and reimagine community safety” by responding to requests from community stakeholders. However, it’s unclear where the impetus for the specific changes the mayor proposed—moving 911 dispatch, the Office of Police Accountability, and the Office of Emergency Management out of SPD—came from.

OPA is the city agency that conducts police misconduct investigations. Under the mayor’s proposal, it would move out of SPD and become its own department, most likely reporting “directly to the Executive and Council,” a spokeswoman for Durkan, Kelsey Nyland, says. “Our hope is that by making them a separate office from SPD, there will be an increase in community confidence in their independence from SPD.”

When asked where the mayor got the idea to move OPA of SPD, specifically, Nyland pointed to the “Blueprint for Divestment” produced by King County Equity Now and Decriminalize Seattle, which includes these three items at the end of a long list that includes a hiring freeze, the elimination of the Navigation Team, the elimination of community outreach implicit bias training, and communications, and the elimination of overtime pay.

The agencies that deal with police accountability, including the Community Police Commission—an independent oversight body—and the OPA itself, were apparently not consulted about the change or asked whether they had concerns. (The CPC only received notice about the changes the mayor was proposing a few minutes before her public announcement). But three years ago, when police accountability advocates like the CPC, the ACLU, and the Public Defender Association were crafting a sweeping police accountability bill, they explicitly kept OPA under SPD’s aegis because doing so allowed them direct access to unredacted SPD files and to SPD personnel.

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Retired judge Anne Levinson, the former OPA auditor whose recommendations for improvements to the accountability system were endorsed by the CPC in 2014 and incorporated into the 2017 accountability legislation, says the point of that ordinance was to create a firewall between the accountability agencies and SPD while preserving their direct access to data and records, case management systems, 911 calls, and other records.

“The usual progressive position is that in order to accomplish that, they also need to be totally outside of the department,” Levinson says—”not under the department’s organizational umbrella. But when we looked at others across the country, we frequently saw not only were they not well-resourced, but they did not have full, , immediate, and unfettered access to all the information they needed to do thorough investigations. Some have to issue subpoenas or public records requests just to get basic evidence. So we said that until the City can ensure no loss in full, direct, and unfettered access to systems and evidence, OPA should not be moved to a stand-alone City agency. It makes a very significant difference.”

Nyland says that maintaining “unfettered access to SPD data and case files” is the “north star” for Durkan, one that could potentially be achieved by by creating a new “data-sharing system between SPD and OPA” and amending the accountability ordinance.

Public Defender Association director Lisa Daugaard, who served on the CPC and worked on the 2017 law, says that “similar civilian-led oversight bodies in other cities have had extreme difficulty getting access” to records in a timely fashion and have had to resort to subpoenas. “Subpoena power still leaves the agency at arm’s length and taking a shot in the dark about what to ask for,” she says. “It’s extremely helpful that OPA can access the records and data it needs from within the organizational structure.”

OPA director Andrew Myerberg, who at the city attorney’s office in 2017 and worked on the bill, recalls that “the decision was made unanimously [in 2017] to keep OPA in SPD” in order “to preserve access to data and people.”

Myerberg says that not only would the changes likely be subject to collective bargaining (something Durkan acknowledged in her announcement), they would also require approval under a federal consent decree and amendments to the 2017 ordinance. For example, although moving OPA out of SPD could increase community confidence in its independence, Myerberg says, the legitimacy of OPA decisions might be called into question if no one from SPD is in the room when OPA is reviewing investigations. Continue reading “Seattle Mayor’s Proposal To Move Police Investigations Out of SPD Could Have Unintended Consequences”