Seattle Mayor Ed Murray said Tuesday he declined to extend the appointment of a police watchdog because the department’s accountability system is in “limbo land,” not as a giveaway to the police union.
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray on Tuesday defended his decision to not extend the appointment of the watchdog who heads the Police Department’s internal-investigation unit, saying the city is quickly moving toward a new police-accountability structure.
But Murray conceded he didn’t grasp how the move would be perceived by the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG), which has repeatedly battled with Pierce Murphy, the civilian director of the SPD’s Office of Professional Accountability (OPA), over Murphy’s disciplinary recommendations.
The union’s president openly cheered Friday when Murray announced Murphy would have to reapply for his job after serving one three-year term.
“Maybe I should have thought that a shoot-from-the-hip remark was coming out of SPOG. I didn’t think of that,” Murray said.
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“I’m in a limbo land here, and I felt it would help things move along if people understood I would use a process that involved the community.”
In an interview with The Seattle Times on Tuesday, the mayor repeatedly insisted he was employing “best practices” in the spirit of the city’s court-ordered, 2012 agreement with the U.S. Justice Department to curtail excessive force and biased policing.
Murray noted the federal judge presiding over the agreement will hold a hearing Aug. 15 in which the city could gain permission to move ahead with long-delayed legislation spelling out major changes in the police-oversight system.
Murray said the changes could alter the duties of the OPA director, whose work might be overseen by a newly-created inspector general.
The inspector general would replace the current position of OPA auditor. That position was held formally by Anne Levinson until Friday, when Murray also opted to not extend her appointment.
Murphy and Levinson, whose terms expired Friday, have both agreed to remain in their positions on an interim basis. Levinson had informed the mayor she didn’t want a third term.
“I’m not not reappointing them,” Murray said. “Their terms have expired, and the court and the council have yet to enact what the new positions will look like. I can’t appoint people to positions that don’t exist.”
With the likely prospect of an inspector general being created to oversee a stronger accountability system, Murray is focused on the eventual selection of people to fill the new roles, he said, promising that process will include community input.
Although the mayor said he expects the changes to begin in “a matter of weeks,” with approval from U.S. District Judge James Robart, the legislation would still need to make its way through the City Council, which could take some time.
And Kathleen Taylor, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, whose organization played a key role in the federally mandated reforms, questioned Murray’s timing.
“The mayor jumped the gun in deciding that a revised system of police oversight will not include the current positions,” she said in a statement. “That may be ultimately what is decided, but that is a decision that should have substantial community input, not just the input of elected officials and a federal judge.”
Taylor said her greatest concern was whether the mayor’s office believes in community engagement as the city works toward improved police and community relations.
“It is unsettling that he chose to end Murphy’s contract now, when there was no need to do so and when he has been a strong advocate for police accountability,” Taylor said.
In an interview with KUOW radio, Murphy said, “I’m not a quitter. I don’t walk away from a challenge. But I want to make sure that I’m going to have at least a fair chance to see the reforms through.”
He added, “For some reason the union seems to blame me for the fact that the chief is holding officers accountable,” he said, referring to Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole’s disciplinary actions. “I would say I’m not surprised by that, but I would say to the union perhaps they should look inward and stop justifying the misconduct of some of their members.”
Murray said he doesn’t know Murphy well, but praised his work and called him a “strong candidate” if he reapplies under the new system.
“He is in that position. No one is taking any authority away from him in that position, and we need to see what happens with the new position.”
“SPOG has not killed the OPA director,” the mayor added. “That’s not helpful, and it’s once again an example of, at times, their own leadership not helping us move accountability forward when they use language like that.”
Murray said his actions had nothing to do with a tentative, four-year contract reached with the union, which is subject to a ratification vote by its members. He also said he wasn’t trying to placate the guild over the recent leak of contract details to The Stranger newspaper, which infuriated the union president, Detective Ron Smith.
“They know I’m irritated,” he said. “It’s not the first time Ron Smith has known I’ve been irritated. I’ve been in office for 22 years as an elected official and I’ve always had a really good working relationship with unions,” Murray said. “SPOG has been my biggest challenge.”