Although Kathryn Olson's term as civilian director of Seattle's Office of Professional Accountability expired in May 2010, Mayor Mike McGinn has not officially reappointed her, and City Council members have questioned her status.
Even as the city of Seattle has reached a settlement with the Department of Justice over police reforms, the future of the civilian who oversees the Police Department’s internal investigations remains unsettled.
Kathryn Olson, whose initial three-year term expired in May 2010, has continued as director of the Police Department’s Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) although Mayor Mike McGinn has not officially reappointed her to a job federal and city officials have described as a “lynchpin,” nor submitted her name to City Council for a required confirmation vote.
As a federal judge prepares to consider on Friday the July 27 settlement, McGinn has declined to shed light on how Olson fits into the Police Department as it moves forward in addressing the U.S. Justice Department’s concerns about discriminatory policing and excessive force by officers in Seattle.
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Although the delay has left Olson in an awkward position, McGinn has declined to give her a public vote of confidence, saying through a spokesman that he doesn’t discuss “personnel decisions.”
City Councilmembers Bruce Harrell and Tim Burgess, both mentioned as potential opponents of McGinn’s in next year’s mayoral election, have raised questions about Olson’s status since early 2011. Most recent was a request from Harrell, the chair of the council’s public-safety committee.
In a June 18 letter emailed to McGinn and City Attorney Pete Holmes, Harrell noted that the OPA director is limited to nine years in office, with three-year terms that each must be approved by the council.
“Because of the issues that we have been examining within our Seattle Police relative to police accountability, I understand why there has been some delay in the confirmation process; however, I would like to know when the confirmation packet will be delivered to our Committee,” Harrell wrote.
Harrell also asked for an interpretation of when McGinn and Holmes “believe her second term would begin, or has begun.”
Confirmation of the OPA director is “critical to rebuilding and maintaining trust between the community and our police department,” Harrell wrote.
In a second email dated Aug. 8, Harrell expressed frustration, telling McGinn and Holmes that while he had received some “courtesy contact” regarding the issue, “no clarification has been furnished.”
McGinn’s spokesman, Aaron Pickus, wrote in an email to The Seattle Times on Tuesday that the mayor has been communicating with Harrell “about the future of the OPA.”
“As a general practice, we do not discuss personnel decisions with the press,” Pickus wrote.
In a second email, Pickus added, “Regarding Kathryn, many of these decisions were on hold during the Department of Justice investigation and negotiation process. Now that we have a settlement agreement with the Department of Justice, we have informed Councilmember Harrell that action will be forthcoming.”
Holmes’ spokeswoman, Kimberly Mills, said in an email that she couldn’t comment because his legal advice to a client is confidential.
Olson, reached Wednesday while traveling, said she couldn’t talk and the issue would be addressed next week.
She began serving in May 2007, after being named by Mayor Greg Nickels as OPA’s second director. She succeeded Sam Pailca, who was appointed after OPA was created in 1999.
As OPA director, Olson oversees the intake, classification and investigation of complaints against officers, certifies investigative findings and makes recommendations on disposition and discipline to the police chief.
Olson, 59, who earned nearly $157,000 last year, has largely avoided public criticism during her tenure and currently serves as president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, a nonprofit organization that works to establish or improve oversight of police officers.
While the Justice Department found deficiencies in some of OPA’s workings, Harrell said Wednesday that last month’s settlement didn’t alter the OPA and complimented the quality of its reports and investigations.
Police officers also seem to be supportive of Olson, Harrell said, while noting that community organizations and accountability advocates have been critical.
McGinn needs to “reconcile these perspectives” and determine whether to reappoint her, Harrell said.
“I see it as a sign of mismanagement,” he said of the lengthy delay, calling it a “slap in the face for those who are advocating for accountability and transparency.”
Harrell said determining if Olson is the “right person for that job” is as important as the overall structural changes included in the settlement, which grew out of the Justice Department’s finding in December that Seattle officers too often use excessive force. Federal attorneys also cited troubling evidence of biased policing against minorities.
Hearing on Friday
U.S. District Judge James Robart is to hear arguments Friday on why he should approve the settlement, which calls for a court-appointed monitor to oversee broad reforms related to the use of force, including discriminatory policing.
As part of the settlement, the city agreed to set up a Community Police Commission, made up of citizens, to review the monitor’s reports and make recommendations on various issues, including the OPA’s structure and the role of the director.
“The Commission may consider whether the proper balance has been struck between civilian influence within the SPD and the director’s oversight function,” according to the memorandum.
Burgess, who served as chair of the public-safety committee until Harrell took over in January, said McGinn’s inaction on Olson “certainly creates doubt and ambiguity, both for her and the Police Department as a whole.”
“I don’t quarrel with the mayor not wanting to discuss people and personnel matters, but I do quarrel with their failure to make governing decisions about these critical positions and that’s why it has been so frustrating,” Burgess said. In addition to the OPA, he cited two civilian positions on the Police Department’s Firearms Review Board where reappointments have languished.
Pickus said Wednesday he expected those positions to be reappointed, but Burgess criticized what he described as a “general lack of attention” to critical appointments related to public safety.
Burgess said he spoke to Carl Marquardt, McGinn’s legal counsel, about Olson’s status in March 2011 and that a member of his staff continued to press Marquardt.
Burgess said he was informed in early December that the mayor’s office soon planned to submit Olson’s name and wanted the council to move quickly on confirmation. He said he responded that a careful review couldn’t be done until January.
After the Justice Department’s report and conclusions came out Dec. 16, Burgess said, the mayor’s office has been “silent ever since.”
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org