As Seattle moves closer to appointing a new police chief, the Community Police Commission passed a series of sweeping proposals Wednesday to alter the police accountability and discipline system, including giving itself a greater role in overseeing the process.
Some of the recommendations would enhance the independence of the two civilian officials who currently oversee the Seattle Police Department’s internal investigations — the auditor who monitors the department’s Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) and the civilian director who runs the OPA.
The proposals, which will go to Mayor Ed Murray and other city leaders, represent some of the most significant work of the citizen body, which was created as part of a 2012 settlement agreement between the city and Department of Justice to address excessive force and biased policing.
The changes could occur during the leadership of the new chief, whom Murray plans to name the week of May 19.
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Under the proposals, the chief would still retain final authority on disciplinary decisions and the Police Department would continue to perform much of the work on internal investigations.
But in adopting the proposals, the commission made clear that it believes the accountability system needs to be better understood and bolstered with arms-length safeguards to assure its independence.
It recommended that the OPA’s name be changed to the Office of Police Accountability and the auditor’s title be changed to Office of the Independent Police Monitor, who would be different from the federal monitor overseeing the police reforms required in the settlement agreement.
“These changes are not merely semantic, but will provide greater clarity (in the case of the OPA) and underscore the independence and better reflect that the Auditor has responsibilities beyond simply case audits to include system evaluation,” according to the commission’s written recommendations.
The commission, which currently has 12 members with three vacancies soon to be filled, determined that it is in the best position to provide community oversight of the accountability system, replacing the citizen OPA Review Board that has seen its role significantly shrink in recent years.
The current auditor, retired judge Anne Levinson, and the OPA’s director, Pierce Murphy, worked closely with the commission in drafting the proposals, which call for the commission to play a key role in evaluating the performance of the two officials.
Levinson’s office should be wholly independent and external to the OPA and the Police Department, with its own budget and newly added staff, the commission said.
Murphy’s post should be functionally independent, according to the commission, operating in a location outside the department with clear symbols and communication that distance itself from the Police Department. Currently, for example, information on the OPA is housed on the Police Department’s website.
To achieve “balance” in its investigations, the OPA should add a civilian supervisor to receive complaints and two civilian investigators to supplement sworn officers who now perform those duties, the commission recommended.
Lisa Daugaard, co-chair of the commission and supervising attorney at the Racial Disparity Project at King County’s The Defender Association, said the civilians would add “expertise and institutional knowledge” to an office where sworn officers rotate out of the assignment.
The commission said it also should advise the mayor on the hiring and renomination of the monitor and OPA director, who are subject to City Council confirmation, and play a role in their removal for just cause. It also would recommend candidates for the jobs, serving as a search committee.
The commission emphasized that it would not review individual internal investigations, findings and disciplinary decisions, saying that is the duty of the monitor.
“Instead, the Commission’s role should be to provide public input into improving the accountability system and to represent public values in overseeing the accountability system’s effectiveness,” the commission said in the recommendations.
As part of its duties, the commission would provide advocates to help people who file complaints against the Police Department navigate the process.
The proposals come on top of 55 policy recommendations finalized by the commission last week aimed at, among the things, improving the timeliness, transparency and standards of the discipline and appeals process.
One proposal would address concerns over the reversals earlier this year of misconduct findings imposed on several officers, who instead were given additional training after challenging their discipline.
The commission would allow training to be an option when a misconduct allegation against an officer has been sustained, but training would no longer be a separate option.
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org On Twitter @stevemiletich