Misconduct findings against six Seattle police officers will not be reinstated after a special review found that Interim Police Chief Harry Bailey acted properly when he lifted the disciplinary actions, Mayor Ed Murray said Wednesday.
In a late-afternoon letter to City Council members, Murray said it was clear the cases “were handled in a manner consistent with standard practice and the current system.”
But Murray said the review revealed “serious flaws” in the disciplinary-appeals process and that he has ordered a broader review of the entire internal-investigation and discipline system.
Bailey, who was appointed by Murray in January, came under intense scrutiny last month when it was revealed that, in considering pending appeals of officer discipline, he had reversed the misconduct finding of an officer who in July threatened to harass a weekly-newspaper journalist observing and photographing police actions.
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Bailey changed the finding to a referral for additional training, saying he didn’t realize the misconduct finding would be removed.
Days later, after public outcry, Bailey reinstated the misconduct finding at Murray’s direction.
But Bailey left intact his order to lift reprimands and short suspensions imposed on six other officers in 2010 and 2011, saying the reversals had been tentatively approved by his predecessor, former Interim Chief Jim Pugel. The cases ranged from an officer who failed to arrest a domestic-violence suspect to one who lost a container with cocaine in it.
Murray, however, ordered his special adviser on police matters, Bernard Melekian, to review the six cases to determine if the misconduct findings needed to be reinstated.
Melekian’s five-page report and recommendations were provided to City Council members Wednesday, including a timeline.
In it, Melekian recommended that decisions on settling appeals be moved outside the Seattle Police Department (SPD) — a fundamental shift in the appeals process.
In an interview with The Seattle Times, Melekian, a former Pasadena, Calif. police chief and ex-U.S. Justice Department official, said Seattle’s practice of letting police chiefs settle appeals of their own disciplinary actions ran counter to common practice.
On the history of the six cases, Melekian said that although no documentation has been found to show Pugel approved settlements, Pugel first did so at a Sept. 15 meeting.
Melekian said he spoke to several people who reported Pugel had signed off on the decisions as part of an overall review late last year of pending appeals.
Melekian did not identify the people and acknowledged he did not interview Pugel, who is currently engaged in negotiations with the city that could end his 31-year career with the Police Department.
Pugel, an assistant Seattle chief, earlier was given an ultimatum by Bailey to retire or be returned to his civil-service rank of captain, according to a source familiar with the matter.
Bailey, an assistant Seattle police chief who came out of retirement, issued his directive to Pugel as part of a shake-up in the top ranks of the department after Murray took office in January. Murray has pledged to carry out police reforms mandated under a consent decree with the Justice Department to address excessive force and biased policing.
In a written statement Wednesday night, Pugel said, “Any claim that I ‘tentatively’ or otherwise reversed any of the disciplinary decisions that I made, before the current interim chief was appointed, is not true. I did not approve any settlements. There would have been a record.”
Pugel said city officials could have asked him. “To this day none of them have contacted me. There is no record of me approving these settlements because I did not,” he said.
“It is true that the union proposed lessening or even eliminating some discipline,” Pugel added. “But I concluded the proposal was not in the best interest of the city, or the Seattle community.”
Pugel said in 2013 he understood the interest of the city’s leadership and the community in the Police Department “moving forward” with reforms.
“Our priority was not revisiting unremarkable personnel decisions that had been made after a full and fair process,” he wrote. “Appeals from those decisions could be determined by a neutral arbitrator.”
Bailey’s decision to reverse misconduct findings and instead impose more training threatened to undermine the reform effort.
But Melekian said in Wednesday’s interview that Bailey was following longstanding procedures used by previous police chiefs when he reversed the six cases, although a briefing he got on them from a department attorney, Renni Bispham, was not as “thorough” as it could have been.
Melekian’s report said a Jan. 13 memo from the City Attorney’s Office that gave varying assessments of how to resolve the cases was seen by the Police Department “as approval” of the settlements, even though the memo “seemingly intended to provide a general legal discussion.”
“The Law Department has taken the position that they were not providing approval, merely providing input into the decisions made by SPD management,” according to the report.
Bispham also recommended settlement of the case involving the officer found to have acted unprofessionally with the journalist, the report said.
But the case was not reviewed by the City Attorney’s Office, the report said.
Because the case wasn’t handled in accordance with normal procedures, the decision to reinstate the misconduct finding in that case was justified, Melekian said in the interview.
Murray, in his letter to the City Council, said Melekian’s review revealed the appeals process is “too slow, very confusing and without the transparency, checks and balances and certainty officers and complainants alike deserve.”
Melekian, who has been asked by Murray to conduct the broader review of the internal-accountability process, said in his recommendations that no settlement should be finalized without the concurrence of the City Attorney’s Office, since it has to defend the case, and labor-relations officials.
Additionally, the practice of using so-called training referrals in lieu of a sustained finding of misconduct should be reviewed, his report said.
Anne Levinson, the retired judge who serves as the civilian auditor of the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA), said Wednesday night that the review of the changed disciplinary cases includes analysis that the process is flawed, at least two cases that raised significant liability issues, two cases where discipline was already less than it should have been, and the City Attorney and the OPA’s director were not consulted.
Yet the review “concludes that the removal of the discipline should stand,” Levinson said. “First and foremost, the question should be whether the decisions made comport with public trust and resulted in appropriate accountability for any misconduct that occurred.”
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org On Twitter @stevemiletich