In separate letters sent to Seattle City Council members, Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole and City Attorney Pete Holmes warn that some elements of police-accountability legislation could undermine federally mandated reforms.

Share story

With the Seattle City Council poised to vote on long-awaited police-accountability legislation, Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole and City Attorney Pete Holmes have sent last-minute letters to key council members urging a major change to the reform package.

In separate letters sent Friday, O’Toole and Holmes both suggest the civilian inspector general, a position that would be created under the legislation and would hold broad oversight powers, be used as the clearinghouse for recommendations touching on police discipline and other matters.

That would replace the council’s plan to divide roles and responsibilities, in a set of checks and balances, among the inspector general, the Community Police Commission and the newly named Office of Police Accountability (OPA), the internal-investigation section now called the Office of Professional Accountability.

Explaining her concerns, O’Toole wrote in her letter that she was “struck by the abject complexity of the proposed model, which seems destined to mire what should be a simple, efficient process for ensuring timely and collaborative dialogue in a tangle of bureaucratic process.”

O’Toole, who would retain final disciplinary authority, said as she tried to graph the changes, she was “left with a series of arrows pointing every which way,” with the possibility of conflicting proposals.

Holmes, in his letter, wrote, “The Inspector General is the ideal conduit through which these inputs and recommendations can be channeled.”

Councilmember M. Lorena González, who chairs the council committee that oversees the Police Department, has said she wants three independent bodies without a “pyramid of power.”

O’Toole and Holmes addressed their letters to González, Councilmember Tim Burgess, vice chair of the committee and Council President Bruce Harrell.

With lengthy discussions nearly completed in the committee, the proposal from O’Toole and Holmes faces a steep, time-constrained hurdle. The committee is set to vote on the legislation Thursday, followed by the full council next Monday.

But the letters ultimately might be aimed at U.S. District Judge James Robart, who will review the legislation to make sure it doesn’t conflict with a 2012 consent decree requiring the Police Department to carry out federally mandated reforms to address excessive force and biased policing.

Under the consent decree, the department has already carried out sweeping changes, including new use-of-force and crisis-intervention policies, that have won praise from Robart’s federal monitor, Merrick Bobb.

The accountability legislation, which has gone through various hurdles since Mayor Ed Murray outlined a plan in November 2014, is a separate, city-driven endeavor.

In her letter, O’Toole said the legislation “seems to overly externalize influence over systems and processes set in place through the Consent Decree that by design must remain internally driven.”

“Thus to the extent that the legislation contemplates a level of authority … to change policy, training, or systems for continual reform that were established under the Consent Decree, I question whether the legislation is truly compatible with the intent of the court order,” the chief wrote.

Referring to the selection process and qualification criteria for inspector general and OPA’s civilian director, O’Toole added the legislation might unintentionally measure performance not by the law, public safety and reform principles, but by “political positions” of the three oversight bodies.

“Simply put, it is critical to the legitimacy of everything the department and city are working towards in reform efforts that those tasked to lead this department and city into the future be honest brokers and not beholden to a particular political agenda,” she wrote, underlining the sentence.

Holmes criticized the planned expansion of the Community Police Commission, a civilian panel created as part of the consent decree that would grow from 15 members to 21 as part of the council package.

“The legislation … proposes a larger, less-focused and much more expensive CPC, which could undercut the reform process made to date,” he wrote.

In a statement Monday, the commission said:

“Chief O’Toole may regret pushing for a single civilian ‘police oversight czar’ who has concentrated power. That’s convenient and efficient–unless the individual in the position works poorly with others, or has a weak sense of the issues that are troubling people in Seattle’s diverse communities.”

It added: “A broad-based community commission is an important check on abuses and failures of police oversight professionals, who tend to be drawn from a narrow pool that is stunning in its lack of racial diversity. We have to give up on the hope that we’re going to hire the right single technocrat who will unilaterally make things better.”