Improving oversight of officer suspensions, speeding up the time in which disciplinary appeals are adjudicated and improving technology for maintaining personnel records are among the recommendations and matters for consideration outlined in a first-of-its kind audit of the Seattle Police Department’s disciplinary system for officers accused of policy violations or misconduct.
Police managers concurred with all but one of the 11 recommendations included in the audit and signaled that the department plans to have more than half implemented within the first quarter of 2022.
The sole recommendation that police leaders neither agreed nor disagreed with — that disciplined officers should be prohibited from accruing overtime when they haven’t completed serving unpaid suspensions — is likely a matter that will need to be resolved through collective bargaining with the department’s two police unions.
“Due to ineffective controls, the service of suspensions has not been consistent, and in some cases, employees have been able to significantly lessen the financial impact of an unpaid suspension,” says the 47-page audit released this week by the Seattle Office of Inspector General.
The OIG was created following unanimous passage of the Accountability Ordinance by the City Council in May 2017. The historic legislation was designed to bolster civilian and community oversight of SPD’s internal disciplinary system.
“I think it speaks to the validity of the audit that the facts and data support our findings and recommendations,” Lisa Judge, the city’s first inspector general, said of the buy-in the audit received from the chief’s office, SPD’s legal department and the Office of Police Accountability, which is responsible for conducting internal investigations into allegations of misconduct. “It confirms for me that the purpose of an OIG audit is to help SPD improve their systems … [and] they want to improve, they want to be more efficient and they want to provide better service to community.”
Before the audit could even begin, Judge said she and others in her office spent about a year understanding and mapping SPD’s complex discipline system, created through a combination of collective bargaining agreements, city ordinance, department policy and requirements of the 2012 consent decree between SPD and the Department of Justice to curb excessive force and address biased policing.
“This was our first dive into a substantive analysis of the system,” she said of the audit. “It was definitely a really big undertaking.”
While the audit showed significant gaps in some areas and highlighted lengthy delays in resolving officers’ appeals of discipline imposed by the chief, what auditors didn’t find was evidence that misconduct is going unaddressed, or that discipline is routinely overturned, Judge said.
The audit examined 159 randomly selected disciplinary actions out of a pool of 268 cases between Jan. 1, 2018, and March 24, 2021, with discipline ranging from oral reprimands to terminations. An additional 15 cases involving terminations or resignations or retirements in lieu of termination were reviewed along with 29 cases involving progressive discipline when OIG auditors observed that misconduct may have been repeated.
Of the 268 disciplinary actions taken during the audit period, 263 involved members of the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG), which represents rank-and-file officers and sergeants. The other five cases involved members of the Seattle Police Management Association (SPMA), the union representing lieutenants and captains.
Though the 268 disciplinary actions aren’t broken down by rank, the audit found 71 sworn personnel received unpaid suspensions, 24 resigned or retired before they were disciplined, and 16 were terminated during the January 2018 to March 2021 time period. Thirty cases, including 14 suspensions and three terminations, are pending arbitration, according to the audit.
As of June, the audit found there were 75 discipline appeals pending arbitration, all involving SPOG members. Some of the appeals date back to 2016 and 2017. And while 21 cases involve officers not currently employed by SPD, the audit found appeals were pending arbitration an average of 2.8 years, which Judge considers problematic.
The audit notes several reasons for the backlog, including difficulty scheduling arbitration hearings during the COVID-19 pandemic. But the audit says SPOG’s collective bargaining agreement doesn’t specify a time limit when the city or union must schedule an arbitrator, which it identifies as “a gap in controls” that allows cases to remain pending indefinitely.
While SPD has made “incredible leaps” in using technology to track officers’ use of force and make crime data available to the public, other systems “seem antiquated,” said Judge, pointing to the continued use of paper personnel records kept in SPD’s human resources office.
Documenting training referrals and other disciplinary actions in personnel files and making them more easily accessible to supervisors are among the issues touched on in the audit’s list of recommendations.
The audit also recommends that criteria be developed to allow people who file complaints against Seattle police officers an opportunity to speak directly to the chief about the impact of an officer’s conduct on his or her life. Though the Accountability Ordinance allows the Office of Police Accountability director to recommend that a police chief meet with a complainant, in practice it’s happened only once, and the request was denied.