In an interview with The Seattle Times, Pierce Murphy, the civilian official who oversees Seattle police internal investigations, said he remains undaunted by criticism from the Seattle police union as he awaits a decision on his future.
After working for three years to boost public trust in the Seattle Police Department’s internal investigations, Pierce Murphy assumed he would be reappointed to a second term to build on his accomplishments.
But Mayor Ed Murray threw a wrench in Murphy’s plans when he informed him he didn’t plan to reappoint him as the civilian director of the Police Department’s Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) while the city considers a new police-oversight structure.
Murray invited Murphy to remain on an interim basis — which Murphy accepted — and told him he could later reapply for the director’s job.
The mayor’s action, announced July 1, immediately raised eyebrows because Murphy had repeatedly drawn the ire of Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG) over his disciplinary recommendations.
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When the union openly cheered the mayor’s action, it only reinforced the impression Murray had caved to pressure from SPOG.
Further, the move came as Murray awaited the results of SPOG’s vote on a tentative, four-year contract containing key oversight reforms sought by the city.
Last week, SPOG’s membership overwhelmingly voted to reject the contract, handing Murray a major setback.
Before then, Murray dismissed any tie between Murphy’s status and his relationship with the guild, expressing full confidence in Murphy. Instead, he insisted, he had simply found himself caught in a “limbo land” in light of the pending changes.
Murphy, in a lengthy interview with The Seattle Times in which he reflected on his first term and elaborated on his future aspirations, said he took Murray at his word.
Murphy made clear he wants to play a role in the city’s continuing effort to comply with federally mandated police reforms. Under a 2012 consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department, the Police Department has adopted new policies and training to curtail excessive force and biased policing detailed in a 2011 Justice Department report.
Moreover, he said, he wants to be part of making the changes stick if and when the city is found in compliance — something that could occur next year if the reforms remain on track.
Dismissing any notion his position has been weakened, Murphy said, “I don’t think my authority’s changed one bit.”
He noted that when there was a recent serious, nonfatal use-of-force incident, he made a point of responding as an observer.
“I wanted to make it very clear I am still the OPA director. The mayor has made that clear. Nothing’s changed in my statutory authority. And I am anything but discouraged in my mission … to be part of the lasting reform in the Seattle Police Department,” he added.
“I came here to do a job,” said Murphy, 62, who was appointed OPA director in 2013 after holding a similar post in Boise, Idaho. “And I am not leaving until it’s finished or I am asked to leave.”
Murray, in a recent appearance before The Times editorial board, chided the police guild for its reaction to his decision not to formally extend Murphy’s term.
“Like every mayor in America, the most difficult union I deal with is the police union, and that’s true for everybody else,” the mayor said. “I actually think they (SPOG) hurt their case, and if they really hate Pierce Murphy, man, Pierce Murphy is a stronger candidate today for the reappointment of that position or the appointment to the new position than he was before. The lack of sensitivity on their part has just been very, very disappointing.”
Murphy said he plans to reapply for the OPA director’s position, or a similar post, if he’s convinced he can be successful.
Murray hopes to introduce legislation to the City Council this year that could place the OPA director under a newly created inspector general, a civilian who would have broad oversight powers.
The city is awaiting approval to move forward from the federal judge presiding over the consent decree, who has set an Aug. 15 hearing on the proposed legislation.
While recognizing the shifting scene, Murphy acknowledged the mayor’s decision not to reappoint him still stung on a personal level.
Asked his reaction when the mayor informed him, Murphy paused for some 30 seconds before responding: “I don’t think it would be human of me not to say that I wasn’t disappointed. Of course.”
But Murphy immediately stressed that Murray acted within his prerogative.
Murphy’s original belief that he would be reappointed was rooted in what he sees as his major accomplishments.
Most notable, he said, has been his work to establish the OPA’s independence, overcoming negative public perceptions of the office, ranging from it being a “rubber stamp” to being “co-opted” by police management.
To build public trust, Murphy set up a stand-alone, walk-in office in a downtown business building, away from police headquarters. OPA took control of its website, shifting it away from the department, and began posting real-time reports on case outcomes.
He also quickly redefined a key aspect of the job so that he makes direct recommendations to the police chief regarding his findings. Previously, OPA’s captain suggested a finding, with the director weighing in later, subject to influence from police management and sometimes after the fact.
Merrick Bobb, the federal monitor overseeing implementation of the consent decree, praised OPA’s work in a January report. He cited what he called a “remarkable number” — 39 percent of complaints filed with OPA were generated within SPD, standing in contrast to the Justice Department’s finding in its 2011 report that internal complaints were rare to nonexistent.
Going forward, Murphy wants to look for ways to make the OPA more accessible to the public. He and the deputy director, also a civilian, would go to places such as churches or community centers to educate people on what OPA does.
“They don’t look for it until they need it,” Murphy said, “but then it’s really hard to find.”
He also would like to see civilian investigators replace or significantly augment the sworn officers who now conduct internal investigations — not because the integrity of the officers is in question, he said, but because they are put in the difficult position of being a member of the same police union of the people they investigate.
“Why would you tie the OPA director’s hands behind his back and say, ‘You can only hire from this pool of people who have an inherent and systemic … conflict of interest’?” he said, calling radical change a necessary component of reform.
Such a shift almost certainly would have to be negotiated with the police guild, which has painted Murphy as overzealous.
Murphy views the guild’s antipathy as an endorsement of his efforts, and says good cops are telling him they are grateful that bad cops are finally being held responsible.
He noted that in 2015, 11 of 123 use-force complaints against Seattle officers were sustained, compared with two out of 125 in 2012, the last full year before he arrived, and in 2011, one of 121.
“You could say, ‘Oh my goodness, the police are more brutal,’ ” Murphy said. “Or you could say, ‘Finally someone’s asking tough questions and holding them accountable.’ ”