By Paul Kiefer
Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability (OPA) is less than halfway through the 142 investigations it launched into the Seattle Police Department’s response to last summer’s protests—the result of nearly 20,000 individual complaints. Since September, the office has closed 55 of those investigations.
Relatively few of the investigations resulted in the OPA finding an officer guilty of misconduct significant enough to merit discipline: The office only ruled that officers seriously violated department policy in 12 cases. Some involved well-publicized incidents. For example, the OPA ruled that an SPD officer breached department policy when he threw a tear gas canister at an NBC news crew in Cal Anderson Park on June 1, hitting correspondent Jo Ling Kent in the arm. Of the 12 officers involved in those incidents, SPD has issued written or oral reprimands to six, including the officer who threw the tear gas canister at the news crew. The other six officers await a disciplinary decision from Interim Police Chief Adrian Diaz.
But the OPA isn’t limited to deciding whether or not an officer needs discipline. The office’s rulings on protest-related misconduct allegations have been a window into the OPA’s toolkit—and into the strategic thinking of its director, Andrew Myerberg.
In about 20 percent of protest cases, Myerberg recommended “training referrals” instead of discipline. A training referral directs SPD to re-train an officer on the specific policy or practice they violated; the OPA typically issues the referrals to first-time offenders.
In one case, an officer received a training referral for having his body-worn video camera off when he fired a pepper ball at a reporter reaching into her bag at a protest on Capitol Hill; after watching the bodycam footage from a nearby officer, the OPA concluded that SPD couldn’t hear the reporter identify herself as press, and believed she was reaching into her bag for something to throw at him. Another officer was referred to training after insinuating that he would ticket a bicyclist who questioned why SPD officers were using a Seattle Public Schools property as a staging ground.
La Rond Baker and Erin Goodman, the co-chairs of Seattle’s Community Police Commission—one of the OPA’s counterparts in the city’s police accountability system—said it was unclear that training referrals are having their intended effect. “We believe there needs to be a critical conversation both about the effectiveness of these trainings, and the negative effects limited disciplinary sanctions might have on the culture of the Seattle Police Department and public trust in Seattle’s accountability system,” they told PubliCola in a joint statement.
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Myerberg says that the OPA hasn’t collected data about how well the training referrals work—for example, by tracking whether officers who go through mandatory training break the rules again—because of staffing restraints. “We have anecdotally looked at behavior changes,” he said, adding that his office hasn’t seen any noticeable patterns of repeat offenses. Nevertheless, the OPA hasn’t formally reviewed the recidivism rates of officers who receive training referrals.
He also argues that issuing training referrals for first-time offenses that aren’t serious uses of force, bias incidents or dishonesty is a matter of fairness. Recommending more serious consequences for those first-time offenses wouldn’t be appropriate, Myerberg said, because “there’s no other employer that would hold their employees to that high a standard,” particularly given the unusual pressures of officers’ jobs—though, as police accountability advocates pointed out routinely over the past year, no other employer gives its employees the right to detain or kill. He added that issuing training referrals is an opportunity to push SPD supervisors to take a more active role in correcting officers’ behavior and department culture.
Management Action Recommendations
In some cases—like that of the British journalist who SPD officers arrested at Cal Anderson park last July—the OPA ruled that officers acted in line with department policy, but that their actions pointed to flaws in policy or training (rather than in the officers’ judgment). When those situations arise, Myerberg can issue a “management action recommendation” to suggest changes to the department’s policy manual and training curriculum.
Since September, Myerberg has issued eight of those recommendations. Those include a recommendation that SPD train its officers to make fewer misdemeanor arrests at protests to avoid escalating tensions, and that the agency screen its social media posts for accuracy. Current SPD policy only requires the department to screen tweets about shootings by officers and other incidents in which police kill or seriously injure people. Continue reading “Investigations into Police Conduct at Protests Provides Window into Office of Police Accountability”