Seattle Goes For Unprecedented Accountability Over Cops
February 6, 2017 (Fault Lines) — If all goes as planned, the City of Seattle will soon be the only major city in the country where investigations of police misconduct are conducted by both civilian and police investigators as opposed to police investigating police. Seattle Mayor Ed Murray is well aware the city isn’t happy with their cops and his press release reflects that sentiment:
For the first time in our city’s history, there will be strong civilian oversight of the Seattle Police Department, including an independent Inspector General, a stronger Office of Police Accountability and a Community Police Commission. Change does not occur overnight, which is why we’ve been engaged for months – years since the beginning of the Consent Decree – to ensure we get police reform right.
A new Office of the Inspector General will be created which will encompass the more or less ineffective Office of Professional Accountability, and the Community Police Commission will be made permanent.
The legislation ensures that police are required to respond in detail to reforms put forth by the CPC and OPA. The cops don’t have to like the recommendations. Mayor Murray has stated that while he is in office, he will order the police chief to implement them unless they violate a union bargaining term or established law.
The consent decree was put in place in 2012 after 34 Seattle community groups went to the Feds over the brutal tactics of Seattle police. The Justice Department found that Seattle cops were too quick to blow people away use excessive force and that their policing had a disproportionate effect on communities of color.
When there is talk of police reform, one element always seems to rear its ugly head: Police Unions that oppose any measure to remove power from their members. The Federal District Court Judge who has authority over the Seattle consent decree is James Robart who flat-out stated he and the city would “not be held hostage” by the Seattle Police Officers Guild during contract negotiations. Yet oddly, presidents of both SPOG and the Seattle Police Management Association during interviews had no objections to the reforms.
Many people are concerned that Attorney General Jeff Sessions under President Trump who bought into the “War against Cops” fallacy will weaken consent decrees in cities all over the country either by dissolving them or via lack of enforcement. However, wrestling control of the Seattle consent decree from Judge Robard would not be an easy task, as he is clearly committed to reform and has his finger on the pulse of reform efforts across the country. He’s certainly not afraid to say “Black Lives Matter.” Or:
Black people are not alone in this. Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans are also involved. And lastly, and importantly, police deaths in Dallas, Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, and let’s not forget Lakewood, Washington, remind us of the importance of what we are doing.
Unlike in Oakland, as reported here on Fault Lines where the consent decree was followed by plenty of scandal and a tepid reform effort, Judge Robard seems especially vigilant. One provision of the decree states:
No change, modification, or amendment to the Settlement Agreement will have any force or effect if not set forth in writing, signed by all the Parties to the Settlement Agreement, and approved by the Court.
Mayor Murray seems committed as well, or at least committed to the idea that 34 community groups are and can influence an election wherein someone else could be sitting in his seat at the Mayor’s office next election. Seattle is a very conservative town with a bit of light liberal foam on top. Conservatives generally side with the cops. For that many community groups to become activated, the cops have to be pretty blatant in their abuses.
The silence of the unions in the face of these reforms is a curious thing. It’s just not in their nature to agree to reforms with little or no comment unless those reforms would have no serious effect. In the past, when cops got into trouble, the OPA would make a recommendation to the Chief of Police regarding whether or not to discipline the officer. Cops then had a few more options if they didn’t like the findings. One is the Public Safety Civil Service Review Board, and other is the Disciplinary Review Board, the latter being stacked in favor of the officer due to its three member panel being two thirds cop. Then there’s always arbitration.
Unless the DRB is eliminated or replaced with civilians and the PSCSRB is either eliminated or restructured cops are still going to have a few loopholes to escape hot water. Plus the new reform package has been put forth as a sort of exo-skeleton, there’s no meat on it yet and things can get watered down over the long period of implementation.
It’s ambitious to try taking the cops out of the disciplinary mix. Having peer officers in charge of disciplinary investigations is a mockery of the system. The real test is to see whether cops are still investigating themselves when it’s all said and done.