Seattle Mayor Ed Murray promised to send police-accountability reforms to the City Council early this year, but the effort has become bogged down in negotiations with a citizen-police commission.
In the wake of intense backlash after disciplinary findings against seven Seattle police officers were overturned last year, Mayor Ed Murray pledged to implement some police-accountablity reforms immediately and send others to the City Council early this year.
Seven months later, the council is still waiting on the mayor’s bill and — as police officials from other departments across the country turn to Seattle for guidance on reforms and with new Attorney General Loretta Lynch scheduled to visit in September to tout what Seattle is doing — Murray is under pressure to deliver.
But hammering out the specifics of the promised legislation has proved more difficult than Murray predicted, partly because the work has involved wrangling with the city’s Community Police Commission (CPC) — a citizen group created as part of federal mandate to curb excessive force in the police department.
In an interview with The Seattle Times, he said he would have legislation ready by the time Lynch arrives and called his November pledge a “rookie mistake.”
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“I wish I hadn’t given a timeline, because it’s far more complex than I realized,” Murray said.
Lisa Daugaard, co-chair of the CPC, says the mayor and his team aren’t to blame for the delay. They’ve been negotiating in good faith, Daugaard says.
But the two sides have been stuck debating how much power the CPC should wield and which of its functions should be enshrined in law.
To keep Seattle’s reforms moving forward, that logjam must be broken, Daugaard says.
“The need for them is all the more urgent, because not just in Seattle but everywhere in this country, people want to see improved progress on police accountability,” she said.
The CPC will meet Wednesday to discuss its next step. One option would be to give up on the negotiations and bypass Murray altogether by going straight to the council with its own version of the bill.
The 15-member group is seeking authority beyond the responsibilities it was given in a 2012 consent decree between the city and the U.S. Justice Department as part of federal mandate. Those were to review and issue recommendations on the reform process and to act as a liaison between the community and the police.
Created as a temporary body that would disband with the lifting of the consent decree, the CPC now wants to play a direct, permanent role in shaping police-department policy on accountability and more broadly on how officers interact with the public.
One issue in the talks is whether the CPC, not only the mayor and council, should participate in the hiring of the two civilian officials who oversee the department’s internal investigations, the director and auditor of the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA). But a sticking point is the mayor’s opposition to a council role in their firing.
CPC members, Daugaard says, believe civilian input is needed to shield the oversight positions from political tinkering. OPA Director Pierce Murphy and OPA Auditor Anne Levinson both support that position.
Murray doesn’t want to be required to accept the group’s list of finalists and has rejected a proposal that the officials be removed for cause only after a public hearing and majority vote of the council.
The mayor, Daugaard says, wants to protect his executive prerogative. “But from our perspective, policing is different, and it’s different enough — at this moment in history, is different enough — that it warrants departures from the standard way they select … executive appointees,” she said.
Another sticking point, according to Daugaard, has been whether the OPA should have the power to subpoena material or testimony from people outside the department while investigating allegations of misconduct.
Murphy has said he doesn’t need that authority to do his job and thinks subpoenas could have a chilling effect on people following through with complaints.
Subpoena power for the OPA was among a list of recommendations made last April by the CPC, but it was not among those that Murray promised to implement in November. Levinson and a special adviser to the mayor also contributed to the list of recommendations.
One change already implemented was to make it more difficult for the police chief to overturn misconduct findings, as then-interim Chief Harry Bailey did last year. Some other recommendations, such as streamlining how officers can appeal disciplinary decisions, remain subject to confidential collective bargaining between the city and police unions.
Though discussions between the mayor’s team and the CPC have been civil, according to both sides, friction does exist and was highlighted recently when the CPC sent a public letter to Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole raising concerns about the department’s handling of street demonstrations.
O’Toole responded by reminding the group that her department is continuing to work on demonstrations and other issues with the Justice Department and a court-appointed monitor overseeing the consent decree.
“We’re seeing the monitor and the federal court acknowledge that the police department is moving forward,” Murray said. “We haven’t seen that so much from the CPC … and so that creates a certain tension.”
Daugaard insists the CPC was merely doing its job relaying concerns from community members to the city.
In talking with The Times, Murray and O’Toole argued that the department has made great strides on reforms not requiring legislative approval, such as overhauling the department board that reviews use of force by officers. There have been no officer-involved shootings so far in 2015 and there were no use-of-force incidents reported during a recent crackdown on drug activity downtown that resulted in more than 100 arrests, O’Toole noted.
That’s why, according to O’Toole, Baltimore police officials faced with implementing their own reforms after mass protests over the April death of a man in custody are in the Emerald City this week to learn about Seattle’s new policies and training.
New York City police officials also are planning to visit to learn specifically about how Seattle’s department is training officers to recognize their biases and to de-escalate confrontations, according to the department.
Attorney general’s visit
Lynch will be in Seattle on a six-city tour drawing attention to what the Justice Department is describing as collaborative programs and innovative policing practices.
Lynch’s visit, which should bolster the city’s image, could also turn into an embarrassment if Murray’s team is still battling with the CPC.
Another reason for urgency, according to Daugaard: The council will have less capacity to move a bill once it begins budget discussions in late September.
Daugaard also believes that the legislation should be handled by the current council; several members with deep knowledge of police-reform issues are either not returning next year or are fighting for re-election.
“The CPC is seen nationally as a new model for ensuring a strong, effective community voice in police reform,” Daugaard said in an email. “That’s the job we all signed up for. We worked for many months to get to achieve consensus between civil rights leaders, public safety advocates and police employees about how to strengthen the accountability system and increase its independence. Our obligation to the communities we represent now is to ensure those changes are made.”
Despite the pressure he’s under, Murray indicated he’s not prepared to cave in to the CPC’s proposals. “It’s important that we don’t turn over … responsibility that belongs to the mayor, the council or the chief of police to the Community Police Commission,” he said, adding, “Because if something goes wrong, it’s me and the chief and the council who will be held accountable.”
The mayor says his team and the CPC are on the same page in their fundamental commitment to reform. But asked whether his support for the CPC becoming a permanent body is “locked in,” Murray hinted at the leverage he still holds over the group.
“Is it?” he said.