Seattle Mayor Ed Murray announced a series of steps Wednesday to bolster internal investigations and discipline in the Police Department, including safeguards to assure that misconduct findings appealed by officers are not arbitrarily reversed by the police chief.
But one big-ticket item that would fundamentally alter how most disciplinary appeals are heard and ensure they are open to the public likely will require negotiations with the city’s police unions.
At a City Hall news conference, Murray unveiled his long-awaited plan to address revelations in February that his then-interim police chief, Harry Bailey, had overturned misconduct findings against seven officers who had appealed their discipline. The ensuing furor exposed a lack of oversight and an appeals process some say is fraught with potential manipulation.
“All told, these improvements represent a significant shift towards transparency and greater clarity for the discipline and appeals system, a system that until now, as I have said before, has been mired in fog of Byzantine procedures,” Murray said.
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The plan grew out of dozens of recommendations from the Community Police Commission, a citizen panel created as part of the federally mandated effort to curb excessive force in the Police Department. Also offering recommendations were the mayor’s special police adviser, Bernard Melekian, a former California police chief; and Anne Levinson, the city watchdog who monitors internal investigations conducted by the Police Department’s Office of Professional Accountability (OPA).
In a key move, Murray accepted a recommendation from the 15-member commission that it be made into a permanent body with broader powers to oversee and shape police accountability.
It presumably would not require the approval of the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, which represents rank-and-file officers and sergeants, or the Seattle Police Management Association, the union for lieutenants and captains.
However, other proposals under consideration likely will be subject to bargaining with the unions, most notably a recommendation to eliminate disciplinary appeals heard in private by a three-member Disciplinary Review Board consisting of a union representative, a police-management representative and an outside arbitrator.
How it works now
Officers appealing discipline can now choose between the review board or the Public Safety Civil Service Commission, a three-member panel whose hearings are public.
In recent years, officers have generally opted for the arbitration review board as the route giving them the best chance for success. Just last month, a board overturned the eight-day suspension of an officer found to have used excessive force.
OPA watchdog Levinson has noted that the outside arbitrators, who are chosen by mutual agreement of both sides and often break tie votes, have a financial incentive to alternate their decisions so both parties will choose them in the future.
Under the recommendations, officers would be allowed only one avenue of appeal to the civil-service panel.
Murray wouldn’t discuss what changes he might seek in confidential negotiations with the unions, set to begin next year.
Ron Smith, the police-guild president, said Wednesday he opposes the one-avenue approach but would consider tweaking arbitrations by using only an outside arbitrator without the two police representatives and making them public. He disagreed with Levinson, saying outside arbitrators have a “financial incentive for being fair.”
He also said he’s hopeful the guild won’t have to appeal as often because new Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole has demonstrated she can make fair decisions.
No more of what Bailey did
Settlements like those approved by Bailey would only be considered when the city attorney, in consultation with the police chief, concludes there is “legal and/or factual cause” and settlement is in the “best interests” of the city and Police Department.
Bailey, in lifting the seven misconduct findings, converted them to referrals for additional training, although he reinstated one finding under pressure.
Now, the Police Department, as urged in the recommendations, no longer allows training referrals to be used in lieu of a misconduct finding.
A panel goes away
Under Murray’s blueprint, the Community Police Commission would replace the current seven-member citizen group that monitors the internal-investigations work of the Office of Professional Accountability. Known as the OPA Review Board (OPARB), it has seen its influence wane in recent years.
As part of the change, the commission would expand to include up to three members of OPARB.
The commission would absorb OPARB’s responsibilities for conducting public outreach; providing advice on police conduct; and recommending topics to be reviewed by Levinson, a retired judge whose official title is OPA auditor.
The commission also would recommend candidates to the mayor and City Council to serve as OPA auditor, as well as for the OPA’s civilian director, a position now held by Pierce Murphy. It also would provide advice on their renomination or removal.
Murray didn’t adopt a recommendation that the OPA director and auditor, who are selected by the mayor and confirmed by the council, be removed only for cause after a public hearing and majority vote of the City Council — a buffer from political tinkering.
His office said he would seek new language allowing him to seek the removal of the OPA director for cause by filing a statement of reasons with the council, a provision that already exists for the OPA auditor.
Levinson, under Murray’s plan, would continue her role of providing independent, real-time review of all OPA investigations and directing that additional work be done if necessary. OPARB’s function of reviewing closed files would be eliminated.
“It is a good step for city leaders to be turning their attention to the systemic reform recommendations made earlier this year,” Levinson said Wednesday. “For that work to be consequential and to make a real difference in the lives of those served by the Seattle police, the city will need to move quickly from statements of general support to actual implementation.”
Echoing her comments, the Community Police Commission issued a statement Wednesday evening saying Murray’s plan “puts the city on the right road to reforming the police accountability system, but much remains to be done in the collective bargaining process, in making reforms permanent in law, and in ensuring practices are in place in SPD and in other city offices to support the intended reforms.”
A tougher OPA
Murray outlined efforts to strengthen the OPA’s independence, as well as affirm its ability to initiate misconduct investigations without a citizen complaint or Police Department referral.
Murray’s steps come on top of reforms arising from the city’s 2012 consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department to address excessive use of force. In July, a federal judge approved a new, 63-page OPA manual that sets clear standards.
Early next year, Murray, after further consultations, will submit legislation to the City Council on the parts of his plan that require approval.
Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this story. Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org On Twitter @\stevemiletich