“There is a lot of subtle pressure on someone in this position to be less than independent,” Pierce Murphy, the departing civilian director of the Seattle Police Department’s internal-investigation unit, told a City Council committee Wednesday.
The departing director of the Seattle Police Department’s internal-investigation unit used his final appearance before the City Council on Wednesday to offer some words of caution and advice: Make sure his successor and the newly created inspector general operate with independence.
“Independence is paramount,” Pierce Murphy, who is leaving his civilian post July 11, told the council committee that oversees police matters.
“There is a lot of subtle pressure on someone in this position to be less than independent,” Murphy added, saying part of the pressure comes from the police unions and from some in the police department to “see things their way.”
Murphy, a deacon in the Roman Catholic Church who plans to work for the Archdiocese of Seattle, was appointed in 2013 after holding a similar position in Boise, Idaho. He took the job a year after the city had entered into federal consent decree, requiring the Police Department to address excessive force and biased policing.
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He said the council must assure that whoever replaces him as head of the newly named Office of Police Accountability (OPA) and whoever is hired as the civilian inspector general under recently adopted police-accountability legislation “truly are insulated from anything that would distract them from the data or the evidence.”
The inspector general will have broad oversight powers under the legislation, which is now under review by the federal judge overseeing the consent decree to determine if any elements conflict with the agreement.
Murphy faced having to reapply for his position as part of the restructuring.
In his time, he came under criticism from various quarters but was widely seen as boosting public trust in police internal investigations and providing more information to the public on the work of his office.
One “huge problem,” he told council members, was the constant turnover of captains, lieutenants and sergeants in the internal-investigation unit, in part because it is not a desired place to work.
New training is required with each replacement, making the quality of work difficult to maintain, Murphy said. He expressed hope that, subject to union bargaining, bringing in civilians to supervise and conduct investigations as part of the new legislation will make the job more of a career.
Murphy said his office also lacked the resources to fully and properly investigate large-scale events such as the police handling of May Day violence, and he reiterated his concerns about the use of blast balls to disperse crowds. The explosive devices are difficult to control and can harm people who have done nothing wrong, he said.
Councilmember M. Lorena González, chair of the committee, responded that the council should look at the need for budget solutions.
To alleviate the workload, he said, low-level issues need to be shifted to the department’s chain of command, including sergeants and lieutenants at the front lines, something Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole has emphasized since taking the job in 2014.
Murphy also flagged off-duty employment by officers, in private jobs such on as traffic and garage control and events, where, he said, they work in uniform but are unregulated and poorly managed.
The practice, steeped in union contracts, raises ethical and conflict-of-interest issues, liability concerns and questions about exhaustion, he said, calling the problem a “ticking time bomb.”
Some officers make more money working off-duty than on their regular jobs, Murphy said. O’Toole is concerned about the problem and needs the ability to regulate it, he said.
“This is all about money,” he said.
González said it was an area ripe for review by the inspector general.
At a time when the department has come under intense scrutiny over the fatal shooting of Charleena Lyles, an African-American mother of four, by two white officers, Murphy noted the consent decree has given his office unfettered access to department investigations that follow deadly police shootings.
He said he has the authority to open an investigation if there is a possible policy violation.
Murphy closed by thanking the city for the “opportunity of a lifetime” and praised the work of the men and women of the department and the community for its high expectations.