Seattle Mayor Ed Murray is fully backing Interim Police Chief Harry Bailey’s overturning of misconduct findings against seven officers, saying Bailey made the right decision in one of them and simply approved six other actions previously endorsed by his predecessor.
In a hastily arranged news briefing Friday evening at City Hall, Murray and Bailey sought to defuse a controversy that has prompted pointed questions from the City Council, raised serious concerns by a police watchdog and called into question the city’s effort to comply with federally mandated reforms to curb excessive force and biased policing.
Murray said Bailey acted appropriately when he reversed a one-day suspension of an officer who threatened to harass an editor for the weekly newspaper The Stranger, who was photographing the detaining of a man at a transit station.
Bailey instead imposed additional training, including making the officer create a presentation about best practices in working with the public and speaking at precinct roll calls about what he had learned.
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Although the action removed a misconduct finding from the officer’s record imposed in January by former interim Chief Jim Pugel, Bailey’s decision to convert the penalty to additional training met the city’s goal for police reform and shaping the conduct of officers, Murray said.
“While this could be perceived as a lesser punishment under the current legal framework, Chief Bailey believes, and I support him, that the framework for this process is reflective of what is most constructive — training, changing behavior.”
Murray noted the officer, John Marion, had no prior misconduct findings.
Murray said in the other six cases, Pugel, in consultation with city attorneys tentatively approved lifting misconduct findings and settling the backlogged cases with other measures as part of a process that began last September and concluded before he took office as mayor in January. The punishments for the misconduct findings varied.
Bailey signed off on those recommendations, Murray said.
However, in two of the cases the City Attorney’s Office recommended in a Jan. 13 memo to a police attorney that one was a “less likely” candidate to be changed and that the other should not be altered, according to a source familiar with the document. A copy of the memo was obtained by The Seattle Times after the news briefing.
Pugel could not be reached for comment Friday night.
Kimberly Mills, spokeswoman for the City Attorney’s Office, said because of the late hour of the news briefing, her office was reviewing the remarks and would likely defer comment until later. She said her office had to weigh its attorney-client relationship with the Police Department before commenting.
Friday’s developments came after Seattle City Council President Tim Burgess sent a pointed email to Bailey asking for an explanation of Bailey’s decision to lift Marion’s suspension.
Burgess sent his email Thursday night in response to a letter Bailey sent earlier in the day informing the council of his decision to reduce the one-day suspension and his rationale. Burgess copied Murray and one his top aides, Tina Podlodowski, who oversees police matters.
Burgess wrote in his email that he needed additional answers, saying some aspects of Bailey’s decision called for further explanation. A copy of the email was obtained Friday by The Times.
“As my questions indicated, I’m concerned that your review of prior cases, all fully investigated with final dispositions reached, will send a message that I don’t believe you intend and that is that you are reversing previous Police Chief findings merely because you don’t personally agree with the outcomes,” Burgess wrote.
Bailey, who is continuing to review other unresolved grievances, has agreed to appear next week before a special meeting of the council’s public-safety committee that was in the process of being scheduled, said an aide to Councilmember Bruce Harrell, who chairs the committee.
All of the reversals approved by Bailey stemmed from negotiations between the city and the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG).
The police watchdog, Anne Levinson, a retired judge who oversees Seattle’s police-accountability system, said Friday that Bailey’s handing of the cases raised serious questions.
“Based on what has been made public thus far, this reflects a very serious problem that has the potential to significantly undermine public trust,” she said. “It appears that cases where there was found to be misconduct, and discipline was to have been imposed, have been overturned, not by order of a court or an arbitrator but simply because the officers and the union did not agree with the result.”
Levinson said quality investigations and appropriate disciplinary reviews should determine whether officers are held accountable for misconduct, “not personal preferences or bargaining strategies.”
“These cases were investigated and the involved officers had all the rights legally afforded them throughout the process,” she added. “Removing findings of misconduct and withdrawing any discipline imposed after cases have been thoroughly reviewed, certified and closed is contrary to an open, transparent and effective accountability system.”
She said the handling of the misconduct “in this way corrodes whatever trust otherwise exists — both for the public and for officers working hard every day to do the right thing.”
Bailey, a retired assistant Seattle police chief, was appointed last month by Murray to replace Pugel as interim chief. He once served as a SPOG officer, but denied earlier this week that he was engaging in “payback” by lifting Marion’s suspension.
His handling of the disciplinary cases comes at a time when the city is under a federal consent decree approved in 2012, which requires the Police Department to address findings by the Department of Justice that officers too often resorted to excessive force and displayed troubling evidence of biased policing.
At the news conference, Bailey said he did not inform Pierce Murphy, the civilian director of the Police Department’s Office of Professional Accountability, of his decisions because he was not obligated to do so.
Murray said he has asked a special adviser he had hired to provide advice on police matters to review the “convoluted and Byzantine” grievance process to find ways to assure it occurs in a timely fashion.
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org On Twitter @seattletimes.com