Tag: police accountability

Community Police Commission Questions Proposed SPD Policy Changes

 

A commercially available pepper-ball launcher, one of the “less lethal” weapons SPD wants to use for crowd control. Image via Amazon.

By Paul Kiefer

Members of Seattle’s Community Police Commission (CPC), one of three city-level police accountability bodies, expected to spend an hour of their Wednesday morning meeting asking questions of Seattle Police Department Assistant Chief Lesley Cordner, who appeared at their last meeting to present an array of changes the department has proposed for its crowd management and use-of-force policies. Those proposed changes include the creation of a special team to investigate use of force at protests and allowing officers to use pepper-ball launchers to target individual protesters they believe are breaking the law as an alternative to blast balls, which can hurt protesters standing nearby.

But Cordner’s second appearance before the CPC did not go as planned; in fact, she didn’t appear at all. Instead, a post appeared on SPD’s Blotter blog on Wednesday night inviting questions and suggestions from the public about the proposed revisions.

SPD first announced plans to revamp some of its policies in a blog post in late October, responding to both public criticism of the department’s response to Black Lives Matter protests and recommendations from the city’s police oversight agencies, including the CPC. In that post, SPD said the policy changes are intended to reduce the visible police presence at protests “when safe and feasible”; to ensure that journalists, legal observers and medics can work freely during protests; to prioritize de-escalation; and to create “new strategies to address individuals taking unlawful actions in otherwise lawful crowds.” The post also claimed that the department had already made “significant changes” to their crowd management tactics; the policy revisions would theoretically cement those changes.

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Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

Any proposed revisions to SPD’s policies have to undergo a review and revision process that involves the CPC and other oversight bodies, namely the Office of Police Accountability, the Office of the Inspector General, and the Department of Justice, which oversees reforms at SPD through an arrangement called a consent decree. SPD didn’t share the draft policy revisions with the CPC until shortly before Cordner’s introductory presentation at their meeting on December 2, so commissioners sent a list of questions about the policy to SPD on Tuesday, December 15, in advance of Cordner’s scheduled appearance the following day.

The questions were uniformly critical of SPD’s proposed policy changes. Commissioners saw little overlap between SPD’s proposals and the list of policy recommendations they issued in August. One of the questions pointed out that the revised policies would still allow SPD to use blast balls, which the CPC has pressed the department to abandon since 2016. Another noted that the revisions would actually add a weapon—a pepper-ball launcher, which is akin to a paintball gun—to SPD’s arsenal instead of removing weapons. (SPD told PubliCola on Thursday that some specialty units were already allowed to use pepper-ball launchers; the new policy would only expand the number of officers authorized to use them). A third asked why the revised policies didn’t raise the requirements for SPD to issue a dispersal order at protests, despite both the CPC and OIG raising concerns about unreasonable dispersal orders since last summer. Continue reading “Community Police Commission Questions Proposed SPD Policy Changes”

Police Accountability Agencies to Review SPD’s New Protest Policies

By Paul Kiefer

At the end of October, after months of criticism from the city council, police oversight bodies and protesters, the Seattle Police Department announced in a blog post that they had “undertaken significant changes” to their protest management tactics. The post promised that SPD would reduce its visible presence at demonstrations to help quell tensions; that their officers would respect the roles of journalists, legal observers and protest medics; and that their protest response would focus on de-escalation and, when necessary, target individual law-breakers instead of largely law-abiding crowds.

But for more than a month, that promise of changes to SPD’s use-of-force and crowd management tactics seemed hollow. To have any real significance or consequence, the changes need to be enshrined in SPD’s policy manual. An crucial early step in that process took place last Wednesday, when SPD Assistant Chief Lesley Cordner appeared before the Community Police Commission (CPC), the civilian oversight body tasked with providing input on police reform, to present a slate of proposed changes to SPD’s protest response and use-of-force policies.

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If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter. Earlier this month, we took a look back at just some of the work we’ve been able to do thanks to generous contributions from our readers, but those pieces represent just a handful of the hundreds of stories we’ve published this year.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely and exclusively by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

The proposed changes include an update to the manual emphasizing the importance of the right to protest and  acknowledging that “the unlawful acts of some members of a crowd do not automatically turn an assembly from peaceable to unpeaceable.” They would also create a special team to investigate use of force at protests; specifically forbid officers from placing their knee on the neck of a person they’re arresting (a response to a well-publicized incident at a protest on May 30th); and allow officers to use pepper-ball launchers to target individual protesters they believe are breaking the law as an alternative to blast balls, which can hurt protesters standing nearby.

Other proposed revisions would require SPD command staff who lead protest responses (incident commanders) to provide explanations after the fact for any decision to issue a dispersal order to a crowd, and requires the incident commanders a “reasonable effort to ensure that the order is heard or received.”

According to Cordner, the department brought the tactical changes into the field before consulting with Judge James Robart, the federal district court judge who oversees police reforms mandated by a 10-year-old settlement agreement between Seattle and the Department of Justice known as a consent decree. Any changes to SPD’s use-of-force or protest management policies require Robart’s stamp of approval. Cordner’s presentation to the CPC is a step in that direction: the CPC, as well as the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) and the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), will review the proposed changes and suggest edits before a final draft of the policy revisions goes before Robart.

In response to last summer’s protests, the CPC, OPA and OIG issued their own recommendations for changes to SPD policy. During her presentation, Cordner claimed that the proposed changes to SPD policy reflected many of the accountability partners’ recommendations, including those the CPC issued in August.

That is only nominally true:  the current draft revisions do not include many of the OPA and OIG’s most crucial recommendations, including a wholesale end to the use of tear gas for crowd control and greater restrictions on when SPD can declare an unlawful assembly. For its part, the CPC generally avoided suggesting specific policy changes; Cordner called the one clear policy proposal included in the CPC’s recommendations—that SPD document every decision to issue a dispersal order and make the documents public within 24 hours of an incident—an “infeasible” proposition.

The CPC will have a chance to ask Cordner questions about the current draft revisions during their regular twice-monthly meeting on December 16 and will respond and suggest their own changes next year. The OPA and OIG will also have opportunities to weigh in on the proposed changes. Both offices began reviewing SPD’s protest response policies to identify areas for improvement during last summer’s protests; those reviews will play a crucial role in shaping their suggested policy revisions.

After the CPC issues a response, they will work with SPD, the OIG, the OIG and other accountability leadership to piece together a final slate of policy revisions. That final draft will go before Judge Robart in early 2021; if he approves to the changes, SPD’s policies could catch up with what they say are already their current tactics next year.

 

Proposal Would Grant Full Subpoena Power to Seattle Police Accountability Bodies

By Paul Kiefer

On Thursday morning, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and city council member Lisa Herbold announced a new proposal to explicitly grant subpoena power to the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) and the Office of the Inspector General (OIG). Subpoena power would allow the two police accountability bodies to compel testimony from people who were involved in, or who witnessed, police misconduct but refused to testify. It would also allow the two offices to compel witnesses to hand over records and other evidence in police misconduct cases. If witnesses refused to testify or provide evidence, the proposed law would allow the OPA and OIG to turn to the City Attorney’s Office to obtain a court order enforcing the subpoena.

If passed, the legislation would fulfill a three-year-old promise to expand the powers of the OPA and OIG. The city’s 2017 police accountability ordinance explicitly granted the OIG and the OPA the authority to issue subpoenas during investigations if a witness refused to cooperate, but those powers were placed on the bargaining table during the 2018 contract negotiations with the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG).

During that process, which largely neutralized the 2017 ordinance, the city’s negotiating team agreed not to implement those elements of the accountability ordinance. Although the contract allowed the city to unilaterally bring SPOG back to the bargaining table to negotiate the OPA and OIG’s right to issue subpoenas, the negotiating team has not revisited the issue.

As a result, although SPD officers have been required to comply with OPA and OIG investigations for the past three years, the two offices have had no legal recourse if a witness decided not to testify. Neither office has needed to issue a subpoena to obtain testimony or evidence from an SPD officer, so the ordinance would be a proactive measure.

In a press release accompanying the announcement, Durkan said the proposal would “set the City on better footing to pursue stronger accountability measures in our collective bargaining agenda for the next round of negotiations with SPOG,” which expires at the end of the month.

Herbold’s public safety council committee will take up the legislation on December 8.

Scathing OPA Investigation Finds Officer Crashed into Parked Car, Lied About It

Image by diegoparra on Pixabay.

By Paul Kiefer

This post was updated on December 4th, 2020.

In January, a woman in South Seattle called 911 to report that someone had crashed into her parked car and fled the scene. She hadn’t seen the crash, but she had seen a Seattle police officer park in front of her car, look at it, and leave. Over the phone with a 911 operator, she asked for that officer to return to the scene.

On Wednesday morning, Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability (OPA) released scathing findings from an investigation stemming from that hit-and-run. According to the OPA’s report, the police officer who stopped to survey the damage, then responded to the call, was also the driver who had crashed into the parked car in the first place. OPA investigators found that the officer tried to dissuade the woman from filing a report; denied responsibility; and lied to the car’s owner, his sergeant, and the OPA.

Despite the efforts of the officer’s sergeant to reduce the officer’s punishment, Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz fired him.

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If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter. Earlier this month, we took a look back at just some of the work we’ve been able to do thanks to generous contributions from our readers, but those pieces represent just a handful of the hundreds of stories we’ve published this year.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely and exclusively by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, no secondary businesses behind the scenes.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

The crash and its aftermath were a cascade of unforced errors. The officer’s in-car video showed him crash into the back of a parked Toyota Prius, reverse, then park in front of the Prius before leaving the scene two minutes later. The Prius’ owner had seen him get out of his patrol car, but he drove away while she was getting dressed to step outside and to ask what had happened. When she finally spotted the damage, she immediately put the pieces together.

But when the officer volunteered to respond to the scene, he feigned ignorance, even after he acknowledged that he had stopped by the car only minutes before. He told the Prius’ owner that unless she could provide the license plate number of the car that hit hers, she would have to pay for the damage out of pocket. When the woman and her companion confronted him, the officer tried to claim that he had stopped to inspect their car while looking for a black Mercedes with no license plate. When asked why that would involve examining a white Prius, body-worn video captured his attempt to deflect: “Any car I pass, I look at. That’s just what I do,” he said. Continue reading “Scathing OPA Investigation Finds Officer Crashed into Parked Car, Lied About It”

Officials Announce Changes to Police Union Negotiation Strategy, But Accountability and Bargaining Experts Say More Should Be Done

Mayor Jenny Durkan (center) and City Council member Lisa Herbold (right)

By Paul Kiefer

On Wednesday, Mayor Jenny Durkan and City Council member Lisa Herbold announced a pair of adjustments to the make-up of the bodies responsible for negotiating collective bargaining agreements with Seattle’s police unions. For the first time, all three of the city’s accountability partners—the Office of Police Accountability, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), and the Community Policing Commission (CPC)—will formally advise the city in preparation for, and during, negotiations with the police unions, and they will be able to attend bargaining sessions when police accountability is on the agenda.

Previously, only the OPA advised the city. This will be the first time the CPC, which represents the interests of the public rather than any branch of city government, will have an official role in police contract negotiations.

Second, a member of the City Council’s central staff will now sit at the bargaining table itself; in the past, the bargaining team was composed entirely of the mayor’s staff and staff from departments indirectly under the mayor’s direction. The move was foreshadowed in a January 2020 council resolution “affirming the city’s good faith intent” to consider addressing community and oversight groups’ concerns about the police union collective bargaining process, but that resolution did not name any specific changes to the city’s bargaining strategy.

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In comparison to the last round of contract negotiations, these changes mark some notable shift in Durkan’s approach to negotiations. During the end of the last bargaining process in 2018, both the council and the accountability partners relied on second-hand information provided by the mayor’s office to monitor negotiations and assess proposed contracts. This year, accountability advocates hope that these shake-ups will ensure that longstanding recommendations for improving accountability within SPD are finally enshrined within the police union contracts.

In the press release that accompanied the announcement, OPA director Andrew Myerberg cast the move as a step toward “ensuring public trust and confidence” in the city’s bargaining process with the police unions; he was echoed by Inspector General Lisa Judge, as well as by CPC co-chairs Rev. Harriet Walden and Prachi Dave, who wrote that the inclusion of the CPC in the negotiating process will be “an opportunity to help ensure the reforms in the landmark 2017 Police Accountability Ordinance are fully implemented.”

“Just because you have a [council] representative at the table doesn’t mean that the bargaining process will proceed in a way that’s transparent to the public.”—Peter Nguyen, former Labor Relations (LR) representative during police contract negotiations

The 2018 Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) contract—and Durkan’s approach to negotiations—drew widespread criticism from accountability experts, including retired judge and former OPA auditor Anne Levinson and the CPC,  who said that the contract undercut major improvements to accountability that were enacted in the historic 2017 accountability ordinance.

A key problem, Levinson told PubliCola, was that — as she understands — the Mayor’s Office’s goal during the negotiations was not to ensure that the reforms they promised to the public were fully realized. “At a minimum [the Mayor’s Office] should have been saying, ‘here is how a proposed provision is different than what the community was promised and what was adopted in the accountability ordinance,’ or, ‘here is how the proposal would lessen, rather than strengthen, accountability and not serve the public as well,” said Levinson. “There was an obvious lack of an independent voice for accountability reform and community perspective.”

Peter Nguyen, who represented the LR at the bargaining table with SPOG in 2018 (and worked as a legislative aide to council member Dan Strauss) but no longer works for the city, shares Levinson’s view. He was one of only five people on the city’s negotiating team that year, sitting beside then-counsel to the mayor Ian Warner, private attorney Otto Klein, and representatives from SPD’s Human Resources unit and SPD’s command staff.

Nguyen’s interview with PubliCola was the first time he’s gone on record to speak about the city’s labor negotiations strategies; it’s rare for labor negotiation professionals to give interviews on the subject. “The major failure of transparency when it comes to police bargaining in its current form in Seattle,” Nguyen told PubliCola before the mayor’s announcement, “is that negotiations can and essentially are driven by a single individual [the mayor] who cannot possibly reflect the collective interest of our entire city when it comes to public safety, and who is not subject to the proper checks and balances which would safeguard the public good.” Continue reading “Officials Announce Changes to Police Union Negotiation Strategy, But Accountability and Bargaining Experts Say More Should Be Done”

Morning Fizz: As the City Debates Police Accountability and Homelessness, Brutality Allegations and Encampments Proliferate

Seattle Police Department officers and other members if the Navigation Team watch as a person experiencing homelessness gathers their possessions during an encampment removal at the Ballard Commons earlier this year.

1. Last Wednesday, acting Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz announced a new partnership between his department and the Los Angeles-based Center for Policing Equity (CPE), which specializes in producing “analyses to identify and reduce the causes of racial disparities in policing.”

In a press release, Diaz said the CPE will spend the next several months studying SPD’s “functions, training, policies, accountability measures and impacts on communities of color”; the researchers will then “convert” their findings into “strategies to ensure [that] SPD eradicates public safety inequities moving forward.”

In her September executive order launching an assessment of SPD’s functions and possible areas for civilianization, Mayor Jenny Durkan also included the CPE as a source of “subject matter expertise” alongside the city’s own accountability partners, including the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) and the Community Policing Commission (CPC).

This is not the CPE’s first time in town. In 2015, after the CPC asked SPD to review its crowd control policies in the wake of that year’s Black Lives Matter protests, then-police chief Kathleen O’Toole included the CPE on a panel of experts tasked with reviewing the department’s crowd control tactics and presenting recommendations for improvement. The CPE did not release its 23-page report until 2017, and the panel never presented their recommendations publicly. The CPE’s recommendations were generally unremarkable: for instance, the analysts suggested that “SPD should further pursue explanations of the elevated severe use of force during demonstrations.” 

Diaz’ announcement gave no indication that the new CPE study will be any more transformative than its last one, not least because he did not name any accountability mechanism attached to the analysts’ recommendations (some accountability mechanism may exist, but a CPE representative didn’t respond to a request for comment on that front). 

Moreover, the scope of work that Diaz described suggests that the CPE’s study could easily overlap with the work of the city’s existing accountability bodies, including the Office of the Inspector General and the Office of Police Accountability. Inspector General Lisa Judge, whose office is currently working on a sentinel review of SPD’s protest response, told PubliCola that the CPE analysts should “engage with the current accountability structure and assess whether they’re actually doing anything different and whether there is value added.” There could be room for the analysts to collaborate with her office, she added, so long as they respect “the ongoing work of accountability partners.”

2. As the city council and Mayor Jenny Durkan continue debating what will will replace the Navigation Team, which Durkan formally dismantled in September, encampments have continued to proliferate around the city. Although one could argue that encampments are merely a symptom of a longstanding crisis Seattle has failed to adequately address, the city’s decision to temporarily stop sweeping people aggressively from place to place during the pandemic has exacerbated the visibility of the crisis. 

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Prior to COVID, the Navigation Team was conducting hundreds of encampment removals a year. Post-COVID, they dramatically scaled back this work, doing sweeps only at encampments that were the source of large numbers of complaints or that presented significant public safety issues, like the large encampment that was recently removed from a cracking, partially demolished pedestrian bridge downtown.

A large encampment at the Ballard Commons, across the street from the Ballard public library, was removed in May after neighborhood residents and community groups complained that it made the park feel dirty and unsafe. Like all sweeps, this one redistributed, but didn’t visibly reduce, the number of people living unsheltered in the neighborhood. Since then, not only has the Commons been thoroughly repopulated by unsheltered people, the people who were ordered to leave in May seem to have simply moved a few blocks away, a predictable outcome whenever encampments are swept. Continue reading “Morning Fizz: As the City Debates Police Accountability and Homelessness, Brutality Allegations and Encampments Proliferate”

Anne Levinson: For Real Police Accountability, Here Are Two State Laws We Must Change

By Anne Levinson

In early June, as Seattle residents protesting police brutality were being met daily with disproportionate and seemingly indiscriminate force by law enforcement, several current and former elected officials reached out to me asking what state legislators could do in the next session to strengthen accountability in law enforcement.

It was a question I welcomed. During two terms providing independent oversight for Seattle’s police accountability system, I had reviewed thousands of misconduct complaints and investigations, observed dozens of police trainings, conducted a special review of Seattle’s police disciplinary system, issued reports highlighting needed accountability system reforms, identified for the city in detail the provisions in the police contracts that had tilted the system and were detrimental to the public, and helped draft and secure passage of the 2017 police accountability ordinance.

And when a new Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) contract was ratified in the fall of 2018, over the unanimous objections of more than 30 community organizations, I provided expert witness testimony, explaining to the judge overseeing the federal consent decree the ways in which the contract threatened to corrode community trust and confidence. The judge agreed, finding the City partially out of compliance with the consent decree in May 2019 and directing the City to tell the court by that July how it planned to remedy the identified barriers to accountability.

A year later, in May 2020, the city had still not submitted its plan to the court and yet it asked the court to largely end the consent decree. Then the demonstrations began.

So when I was asked that question last June—with a governor, Senate and House leadership, committee chairs, and other legislators interested in police reform; many labor leaders no longer accepting the proposition that they couldn’t be both pro-police reform and pro-labor; and the city still out of compliance with the consent decree—it was clear that the time had come for the state to lead.

Several potential state-level reforms were already garnering public attention in our state and elsewhere, including truly independent investigations of deadly-force incidents; qualified immunity reform; demilitarization of police; reforms to the inquest process; elimination of no-knock warrants; and establishing a statewide public database on use of force.

But there are two other reforms I had  recommended that have not gotten much public attention until recently: (1) Removing police accountability from the collective bargaining process; and (2) Strengthening the law for officer decertification to address serious misconduct. Each is critically important and long overdue.

First, the state must clearly exempt police misconduct and disciplinary systems from Washington collective bargaining law so that every local and state law enforcement agency can establish strong, effective, and transparent accountability mechanisms that serve the public as they should, rather than continuing to provide only as much accountability as police unions will accept.

Police are not the same as other public sector employees. Others aren’t required to carry and use guns. They haven’t been given broad discretion to take your liberty and sometimes your life. It’s why there is a separate accountability system to address misconduct. And it’s why there is a consent decree. The provisions in police contracts can have very different impacts on the public than similar provisions in other public sector contracts.

Across the country, police contracts no longer just address wage, benefits, and other subjects traditionally thought of as “working conditions,” as other labor contracts do. Instead, police contracts have been used to shield officers from accountability when misconduct occurs, diminish transparency, and preclude or weaken civilian oversight. It’s why I so strongly opposed ratifying Seattle’s police contracts in 2017 and 2018 and weighed in on behalf of the community to the federal court.

These barriers to accountability—and others—were brought to the attention of city officials, and many were addressed in the ordinance. And yet, unbeknownst to the public, the reforms never took effect because of what the city later agreed to in the police contracts.

Here are a few examples of provisions in Seattle’s police contracts that impede accountability and walk back reform efforts.

The contracts reinstated officers’ ability to appeal discipline through multiple routes, including to an outside arbitrator. (Eliminating this ability was a priority in the 2017 accountability ordinance). As reform advocates, chiefs, and local elected officials have seen in thousands of cases across the country, arbitrators routinely substitute their own judgment on discipline, overturning chiefs’ decisions, ordering officers who committed serious misconduct to be reinstated.

This weakens the chief’s power to hold officers accountable in line with public expectations, allowing arbitrators to overturn disciplinary decisions for any number of reasons, including minor procedural issues, even in cases where the chief’s decision is supported by a preponderance of evidence. It allows hearings to be closed to complainants, the public, and the media, and allows months, if not years, of delay before appeals are resolved. As of August, Seattle has 80 appeals pending, some going as far back as 2016.

What other barriers to accountability are buried in Seattle’s police contracts? If a complaint of misconduct involving dishonesty or excessive force is not made within a certain period of time, or if a complaint isn’t fully investigated within 180 days, the officer cannot be disciplined, regardless of the misconduct or the reason for the delay. How the days are counted is filled with vague conditions constantly subject to challenge.

There’s more. The burden of proof required to prove misconduct has been raised to an undefined “elevated” standard for any termination that results from misconduct that could be considered “stigmatizing” to the officer. Only certain misconduct complaint and investigation files are retained; others must be purged. Civilian oversight is limited when the alleged misconduct is criminal, even though these cases often involve the most serious types of misconduct. Civilian oversight subpoena authority has been narrowed. Officers are allowed to use vacation and sick leave when the discipline is supposed to be days without pay. Officers under investigation – and their union representatives – are allowed to withhold relevant information during the investigation and raise it later, as evidence to challenge discipline. Officers’ names must be redacted when case information is made available to the public.

And more. The long-recommended oversight of secondary employment (off-duty work as an officer) by independent, civilian management was never implemented. Instead, it was included in the SPOG  contract and then rolled back. There are limitations on the number of civilian investigators. Different ranks are treated differently. And there are even contract provisions that require the public to pay for a large part of the union president’s salary.

These barriers to accountability—and others—were brought to the attention of city officials, and many were addressed in the ordinance. And yet, unbeknownst to the public, the reforms never took effect because of what the city later agreed to in the police contracts.

In court filings, the city argued that all these types of police contract provisions are commonplace. The success of police unions in embedding structural barriers to accountability across the country is thus ironically used as a reason to stifle reforms. The city also argues that the public and the judge should understand that police contracts continue to have these provisions because the nature of bargaining requires give-and-take. That is exactly the problem.

Police, like all employees, deserve contracts that provide for fair wages, benefits, and good working conditions. But there is no reason to continue to accept the argument that standards and practices to address police misconduct must be considered “working conditions” that cannot be determined by police management and local government leaders outside the bargaining process.

Police have been granted extraordinary powers to use discretion in a range of ways that have enormous impact on the public, including taking away liberty and the use of deadly force. Legal and procedural safeguards against police abusing these powers in ways that undermine public trust should not be subject to the give and take of bargaining. Nor should the public have to pay so that their community can receive constitutional, effective, and respectful policing.

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If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. I’m truly grateful for your support.

Second, the state must completely overhaul the law enforcement decertification law.

Washington is one of 45 states that require law enforcement officers to be trained and licensed (“certified”), with standards for revoking that license (“decertified”), as many other professionals must be

How and when decertification happens is fundamentally important to accountability. If an officer is fired or convicted of a crime, but not decertified, the officer can simply go to another law enforcement agency. Washington’s law for decertifying officers is limited in scope and riddled with loopholes that allow problematic officers to move from department to department with impunity or to avoid accountability if their agency does not act.

Back in early 2014, when providing independent oversight of Seattle’s police accountability system, I recommended that Seattle work with other cities and counties and the state legislature to overhaul the law. We also included reform of the decertification law in the city’s 2017 accountability ordinance. But the city never really took it on. So when asked what police reform the legislature should prioritize in the next session, significantly overhauling the decertification law was also at the top of my list. Senator Jamie Pedersen, Chair of the state Senate’s Law & Justice Committee agreed, and in early June offered to be the prime sponsor of a bill that will enact a wide range of reforms.

To really remedy the gaps and loopholes that make Washington’s law—and most all decertification laws in other states—so ineffective, improving one or two elements of the law is not enough. So I’ve recommended many changes, starting with making sure that the grounds for decertification cover the wide range of misconduct that should result in an officer losing their license.

Continue reading “Anne Levinson: For Real Police Accountability, Here Are Two State Laws We Must Change”

OPA Releases First Findings from SPD Protest Response Complaints

SPD officer seen placing his knee on a demonstrator’s neck on May 30 (Screenshot from video by Matt McKnight, Crosscut)

By Paul Kiefer

On Friday morning, the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) released the first set of five completed investigations into alleged misconduct by Seattle Police Department officers during the protests that followed the murder of George Floyd in May. These investigations amount to only a tiny fraction of the OPA’s remaining protest-related caseload. The office consolidated more than 30,000 complaints it has received about SPD’s response to demonstrations into more than 100 separate investigations.

The documents released Friday included two investigations stemming from high-profile incidents during the first days of the protests: One in which an officer was accused of kneeling on two demonstrators’ necks during an arrest downtown on the night of May 30; and a widely-publicized incident in which an officer pepper-sprayed an seven-year-old child earlier the same day.

OPA Director Andrew Myerberg only found evidence to sustain two of the four complaints that stemmed from the nighttime arrests. Based on video of the incident, Myerberg concluded that the officer had only kneeled on the neck of one of the demonstrators and instead kneeled on the other demonstrator’s head.

In an interview on Thursday, Myerberg said that “a knee on the head is not against [SPD] policy,” but added that “it’s not encouraged, and [officers] aren’t trained to do it.” Kneeling on a demonstrator’s neck, however, is now against department policy; at the time of the arrest, those restraints were only “strongly discouraged.”

If the OPA had been able to conclude that the officer had intentionally used a neck restraint to restrict the protester’s breathing, the office would have been able to recommend more serious disciplinary action. Myerberg said the SPD policy manual defines a prohibited neck restraint as the intentional application of pressure to a subject’s neck for the purpose of “controlling a subject’s movement or rendering a subject unconscious.” Myerberg said he couldn’t disprove the officer’s claim that he had unintentionally placed his knee on the man’s neck, but he did determine that “what the officer did was not proportional or necessary, because even if inadvertent, the risk of harm is pretty substantial.”

Therefore, the OPA concluded that the officer had unintentionally violated the department’s use of force policy. The OPA also sustained a complaint that the same officer had inappropriately cursed at and threatened demonstrators, calling one woman a “bitch” and telling a fellow officer that he would “fuck up” another demonstrator.

Interim Chief Adrian Diaz will now be responsible for determining how to discipline the officer for both offenses. ”

The OPA also sustained a professionalism complaint against a different officer for an  incident in which the complainant filmed him saying, “I have a hard-on for this shit and, if they cross the line, I will hit them” while responding to a demonstration. The officer in question admitted his wrongdoing to the OPA‚ saying he said he had been quoting a movie (“Top Gun”).

His admission of wrongdoing opened the door for Myerberg to make use of a new disciplinary track for SPD officers called rapid adjudication, which began as one of the accountability reforms proposed by former OPA Auditor and retired Judge Anne Levinson in 2014 and adopted in 2018 as part of the Seattle Police Officers Guild contract.

In a rapid adjudication case, the officer accepts a disciplinary action and waives the right to an investigation or an appeal, saving the city and themselves from an investigative process that could last up to 6 months. The goal of rapid adjudication, or RA, Levinson said, “was to create a department in which officers can admit their mistakes and acknowledge responsibility. Typically, union contracts prioritize due process‚ officers have the right to investigations, for instance—so there wasn’t room for officers to admit wrongdoing.”

In this case, the officer will only receive a written reprimand. At the moment, Myerberg’s office doesn’t measure the efficacy of disciplinary actions in changing officers’ behavior, but he hopes they will start tracking that data in the future. “We could look at recidivism,” he says, adding that a punishment as minor as a written reprimand could still incentivize good behavior because multiple reprimands are grounds for the department to suspend or terminate an officer.

Myerberg’s office did not sustain the complaint against the officer who pepper-sprayed the seven-year-old, concluding instead that the officer had not intended to spray the child and therefore hadn’t violated department policy. The OPA wasn’t able to interview the child or his father (who was pepper-sprayed alongside his child) after the family’s legal counsel didn’t respond to the OPA’s interview requests.

However, based on body camera footage and officer testimonies, the OPA found that the father and child were standing behind a woman who was trying to wrestle away an officer’s baton; when that woman ducked, the pepper spray hit the child. The bodycam footage also appeared to disprove the father’s claim that he and his child had been praying with members of their church just before the incident: the footage showed the father yelling obscenities at officers in the lead-up to the incident.

Because a picture of the child crying after being pepper-sprayed circulated widely on social media, Myerberg expects the OPA’s findings in that case to be unpopular, but he also doesn’t believe his office has legal grounds to push for disciplinary action against the officer. Instead, he said, the City Council’s crowd control weapons ordinance—the subject of an ongoing court battle—could provide recourse in similar situations in the future.

Because the ordinance bans the use of several less-than-lethal weapons (including pepper spray) in crowd-control scenarios, Myerberg said that in the future, “officers could be liable even for unintentional harm.” It would not, however, open the door to retroactively punish the officer for pepper-spraying the child on May 30.

The OPA also declined to sustain complaints in two other cases. In one, protesters alleged that an officers violated the department’s use of force policy by pushing them back with batons; one complainant added that because of his sexual orientation, the officers’ aggression “seemed homophobic.” After reviewing the bodycam footage, Myerberg found no reason to conclude that the officers had used excessive force, nor did he find evidence that the officers acted out of bias.

The second case arose from a complaint that an SPD officer pushed down an elderly man on Capitol Hill on May 30th. The person who filed the complaint, however, heard about the incident second-hand, and Myerberg’s office couldn’t find any witnesses or video evidence of the incident to back up the complaint.

The OPA will continue to release protest-related findings on a rolling basis. Myerberg’s office has not given a timeline for the next sets of investigations, but the OPA website includes a dashboard showing the progress of demonstration-related complaint investigations.

Girmay Zahilay: In November, a Chance to Begin Rebuilding Public Safety from the Ground Up

By Girmay Zahilay

On the evening of November 5, 2019, I stood in front of a packed room at Rumba Notes Lounge in Columbia City and delivered my victory speech. I had just been elected to the King County Council and I was overwhelmed with gratitude. I told the audience of family and friends that “we did not come here to start a movement, we came here to build on the work of those that came before us.”

As I spoke those words, I thought of all of the struggling, organizing, and advocating that prior generations had done for our benefit. I saw black and white images of people marching for Civil Rights; I saw Black students being attacked with fire hoses while protesting; I saw Native Americans fighting for their land and sovereignty.

The work of those that came before us weighed on me so heavily that my voice cracked during my speech. How could we ever live up to what our past heroes had accomplished? They had endured once-in-a-generation battles and fundamentally changed society for the better.

Back in November 2019, I could have never imagined that just months later our nation would enter its own once-in-a-generation battle. I had spent my entire campaign talking about affordable housing, zoning policies, and criminal justice reform. But the trials and tribulations of 2020 have made so much more possible than the usual reform-style policies. This year, we have a powerful opportunity to fundamentally improve our society. We have the political will to rebuild our institutions from the ground up and better serve the most vulnerable in our region.

This November, King County has the rare opportunity to begin shaping a fundamentally better system of public safety—one that is rooted in public health initiatives, community-based alternatives, and economic justice for marginalized communities.

Among these powerful opportunities is the chance to transform our vision for public safety. For King County residents, this starts with adopting Charter Amendment 6 in November. This amendment will empower the King County Council to transfer certain public safety functions, such as crisis response, away from the Sheriff’s Office and into the hands of the community organizations that should have been in charge of responding to community needs all along.

The murder of George Floyd highlighted what Black organizers and advocates had been saying and working on for decades: our systems of policing are racist, unresponsive to root causes of crime, and frequently introduce lethal force to situations that do not warrant it.

Here in King County, the police killings of Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens, Tommy Le, Charleena Lyles, and many others, were preventable. We could have saved their lives and we can save countless others moving forward. We can better serve our neighbors who have been most harmed by state action. We can put people on track to get the support they need. We can accomplish these goals not by reforming the institutions we already have, but by reimagining public safety altogether.

This November, King County has the rare opportunity to begin shaping a fundamentally better system of public safety—one that is rooted in public health initiatives, community-based alternatives, and economic justice for marginalized communities. In addition to empowering community-based organizations, it would give the groups that are already working to keep their neighborhoods safe the resources that they need to do so on a bigger scale.

Our default response to every challenge in our region should not be to deploy officers armed with guns. The future of public safety looks like a diverse toolkit of effective public health solutions. Mental health support teams can respond to mental health crises, rapid response social workers can tend to people in need, and trusted mentors and violence interrupters can help our youth. Unarmed code enforcement professionals can address noise complaints and traffic infractions.

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As our laws stand, however, the King County Council does not have the authority to transfer public safety functions away from traditional law enforcement. Our King County Charter, the local constitution governing our region, says that the King County Sheriff’s Office “shall not have its duties decreased by the county council.” This prohibition, combined with the fact that our King County Sheriff is an independently elected position, insulates the Sheriff’s Office from external policy instruction.

Rising to the promise of this moment requires us to amend the King County Charter and remove the restrictive language that ties the Council’s hands. When King County residents open their ballots this November, they will choose to approve or reject “Charter Amendment No. 6”, which if approved, would give the King County Council the authority to change the duties and structure of our regional system of public safety.

A more effective and equitable approach to safety is around the corner with Charter Amendment Number 6 as step one.

This potential change is one I would have never thought possible last year at my election night party. But in 2020, we have entered an unprecedented battle, and it has brought with it an unprecedented opportunity. Policymakers should use this momentum to go beyond surface level reforms and rebuild our systems from the ground up.

Our federal, state, and local governments have a long history of devastating Black, Indigenous, and communities of color. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is that our fates as human beings are intertwined. If one group is especially vulnerable to the virus, we will all be less safe. The same holds true for the racist impact of our criminal legal systems. If Black and Brown people continue to be over-policed, criminalized, and incarcerated, with divesting longterm social and economic consequences, we will all be less safe.

Let’s rise to meet this moment. Let’s rebuild our systems to better serve the people we have most harmed, and let’s ensure safety, prosperity, and justice for all.

Girmay Zahilay is a King County Council council member representing District 2, which includes central and southeast Seattle.

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”