The City Council on Monday is scheduled to vote on police-accountability legislation. It’s been a long road, but more work is needed to strengthen community oversight.
OUR city and nation have been through the cycle many times: A case of egregious police conduct, followed by heightened community concern, followed by partial fixes or no fixes at all, followed by new cases of misconduct, and more community outcry. It’s a predictable cycle, and it’s time to break out of it.
On Monday, the City Council is scheduled to vote on police accountability legislation. It’s been a long road, and the journey isn’t over. First, the legislation can’t take effect until the federal judge overseeing the consent decree accepts it. Later, certain aspects of the legislation must be bargained with the city’s police unions. Still, the council vote is a critical step, and our political leaders have an opportunity to make Seattle a national leader in community oversight of police.
Many important Community Police Commission (CPC) recommendations serve as the foundation of the current package, and we are glad the City Council seems poised to approve those measures. Nonetheless, several outstanding questions involving the role of the community and the authority of the CPC deserve council and public attention and remain to be answered:
• Is the city committed to full funding?
The current legislation gives the CPC extensive responsibilities and establishes an Office of Inspector General (OIG) with broad authority. Funding levels currently are limited, however. Some council members are on record as calling it “woefully inadequate.” Yet the council may approve legislation without committing to providing adequate staff and funding, and that would be a mistake.
• Will the CPC have real oversight authority or just be a sounding board?
It is essential that the police-accountability system and police services reflect community priorities and values. This requires a community board, representing community interests, to exercise system oversight, which will provide legitimacy for the accountability system and give the public greater confidence in SPD. Instead of simply providing “input,” the CPC should be given authority to evaluate the performance of the OPA Director and Inspector General.
The CPC should also be able to add topics to the Office of Inspector General workplan to ensure community priorities are addressed. Examples could include identifying and solving problems with 911 response times, addressing unintended consequences of body-worn camera policies, and verifying that discipline is fairly and consistently applied.
• Will elected leaders prioritize critical accountability issues in collective bargaining?
We believe police reform can be achieved while honoring the collective bargaining rights of police employees. But civil rights of community members are directly affected by collective bargaining agreements. The city should include representatives from the oversight agencies as its technical advisers when bargaining with the police unions. The city should also release to the public its starting bargaining position on all issues related to police accountability. These measures will show the public just how well the city supports constitutional policing and police accountability and will aid in ensuring these goals are a priority.
We know the council faces a tough decision right now that involves critical items that must be bargained: The CPC proposes a revamp to discipline and appeals processes to make them fairer. But it is unclear whether the unions will support these legislative reforms.
Later this year Seattle is expected to reach “full compliance” with the consent decree, which starts the countdown for the federal monitor and court to exit. What comes after federal supervision?
Let’s complete what community leaders started when they first asked for a Department of Justice investigation six years ago. Through the CPC, let’s put community experience, expertise and knowledge to work on a daily basis — not just in times of crisis — maintaining and building on improvements achieved under the consent decree.
Please contact your council members. Ask them to make sure the CPC is not just a “paper tiger” destined to be ineffectual. Ask them to include reforms to the discipline and appeals processes in the legislation, and to put the CPC and the other oversight bodies at the service of city negotiators in bargaining.