The recommendation by Merrick Bobb was among a series of significant steps he is proposing to bolster police accountability. But a citizen police panel complained the measures don’t go far enough.
The federal monitor overseeing Seattle police reforms is recommending that allegations of officer misconduct be reviewed by civilians rather than sworn officers, a dramatic proposal that would fundamentally alter how internal investigations have been handled throughout the department’s history.
The recommendation, contained in a 16-page letter dated Monday from the monitor, Merrick Bobb, to U.S. District Judge James Robart, stands out among a series of significant steps Bobb is proposing to bolster police accountability.
But the letter drew a sharp reaction from the city’s citizen police commission, which said Bobb’s proposals don’t go far enough.
Robart is presiding over a 2012 consent decree between the city and U.S. Justice Department requiring the Police Department to adopt reforms to address federal allegations of excessive force and biased policing.
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He has scheduled a hearing Aug. 15 — dubbed the “Ides of August” by one official — to discuss whether to allow the city to move forward with long-delayed police-accountability legislation the judge has previously halted over concerns it conflicted with the consent decree.
In his letter, Bobb lists a number of measures Robart could require in the legislation, ranging from civilian-controlled internal investigations to the appointment of a civilian inspector general with broad oversight powers.
“We hope that it provides a useful framework in advance of the hearing on August 15,” Bobb wrote on behalf of his monitoring team. “It reflects what we hope the SPD will be like at the point the Court decides that the Consent Decree has fulfilled its mission.
“It is, however, squarely within the Court’s purview to accept or reject the understandings and assumptions set forth in this letter,” Bobb added.
Included would be subpoena power for the Police Department’s internal-investigation unit, the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA), allowing it to compel witnesses outside the department to produce evidence or testimony.
Bobb’s letter comes on the heels of a joint motion by the city and Justice Department asking Robart to allow Mayor Ed Murray to submit police-accountability legislation to the City Council.
While much of the potential legislation might not be mentioned in the consent decree, the motion states, some elements could touch on it. As a result, legislation wouldn’t take effect until Robart reviews it to determine if any elements conflict with the consent decree, certain aspects of which can’t be changed without the judge’s approval.
The motion, unlike Bobb’s letter, doesn’t identify specific proposals, deferring instead to the city’s legislative process.
On Tuesday, the city’s Community Police Commission (CPC), a temporary civilian advocacy panel created as part of the consent decree, asserted Bobb’s proposals usurp an agreement between the city and Justice Department that police accountability, for the most part, remains within the city’s legislative authority.
In a letter sent to Robart, the CPC said that while some recommendations it has made are the same as those in Bobb’s letter, many of the CPC’s proposed reforms go beyond what Bobb is proposing.
“We believe the City Council must be free to consider and legislate additional measures to ensure Seattle puts in place a highly effective police accountability system, with political independence and a robust community oversight structure,” said the CPC’s letter signed by co-chairs, the Rev. Harriett Walden and Lisa Daugaard.
The letter asks Robart to sign the joint motion, citing the CPC’s efforts to ensure broader political and budgetary independence to police oversight, establish itself as a permanent body with a broad policy role, and allow open collective bargaining with police unions.
The CPC and Robart have previously clashed over proposed legislation, with the judge labeling the CPC’s attempt to be made a permanent body as a premature power grab.
Bobb, in an interview Wednesday, said the CPC’s letter suggests he and Robart are foreclosing community-based oversight of the department.
“That’s far from the case,” said Bobb, calling such oversight a “bedrock” principle.
In his letter, Bobb noted when the consent decree ends “the continued existence of civilian oversight will be the responsibility of the City.”
City officials declined to comment on the CPC’s letter.
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle said in a statement his office and the Justice Department were reviewing Bobb’s letter.
“We were not involved in its preparation,” the statement said. “We have joined the City in asking the Court to allow the public legislative process to move forward so that the City can decide, via its elected officials and through participation from its diverse communities, what it believes the best structure is for ensuring ongoing oversight.”
Changes to the police-accountability system must be consistent with the consent decree and constitutional requirements, the statement said.
Bobb’s proposals for civilian internal investigators, along with a recommendation to tighten appeals of officer discipline, could put Robart and the city on a collision course with the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, which recently rejected a tentative, four-year contract that included key reforms.
Robart has previously suggested the consent decree takes precedence over collective bargaining.
Pierce Murphy, the OPA’s civilian director, recently said he would like to see civilian investigators replace or significantly augment sworn officers.
He said his stance wasn’t based on the officers’ integrity, but because they are put in the difficult position of being members of the same union as those they investigate.