When internal investigators accused Seattle Police Officer Ernest Hall of working off duty at a prohibited music event last summer, Hall...

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When internal investigators accused Seattle Police Officer Ernest Hall of working off duty at a prohibited music event last summer, Hall denied it. He said he went to visit a friend working as a security guard.

Investigators found otherwise, concluding that Hall worked at the all-night event and made false statements when asked about it. Department policy generally bans working at “raves” — dance parties where drugs are prevalent.

Hall could have been fired. But Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske decided there wasn’t enough proof to discipline him, despite statements from three Seattle firefighters who said they saw Hall working at the event.

It wasn’t the first time Kerlikowske has disagreed with the decisions of his own internal investigators. Since January 2002, the chief has reversed 27 out of 100 findings of misconduct by officers working on and off duty.

In some of those cases, officers accused of multiple violations were still disciplined for at least one offense. But in others, no discipline was imposed.

The reversals by Kerlikowske, who has the final say on internal investigations, have caught the attention of a civilian board that reviews cases and advises the City Council on police accountability.

The board in 2004 asked to review a sampling of internal investigative reports, in part because Kerlikowske isn’t required to explain his decisions in writing, said Peter Holmes, the board’s chairman. The board has called for written explanations for future cases.

Holmes said the board only recently received the reports it requested, so it has not reached any conclusions about them.

“I can say the process of getting those cases was like pulling hens’ teeth,” he said.

Turned in by firefighters

In Hall’s case, the allegation that he answered questions about the music event dishonestly posed the most serious problem for him and the department. In some cases, officers found to have lied can be fired because, with their credibility damaged, they can no longer testify in court.

Hall, 47, initially told The Seattle Times he didn’t attend the all-ages rave party, held Aug. 28 at the old Rainier brewery. He then acknowledged he did, but only to visit a friend.

Hall’s disciplinary record lists nine violations in his 21-year career, including one in which he posed for a photograph with a naked stripper. Three of those violations were related to off-duty work, the most recent resulting in a reprimand in 2002.

Investigators in the department’s Office of Professional Accountability (OPA), which oversees internal investigations, looked into the most recent allegations against Hall. The case hinged on the independent statements of three Seattle firefighters, including two captains, who attended the event to monitor safety.

The department wouldn’t give The Times detailed records of Hall’s case because no discipline was imposed. But Kerlikowske and top aides confirmed the accounts of two SPD officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect their jobs.

According to those accounts, all three firefighters — including one who tipped police to Hall’s presence — told investigators that Hall appeared in uniform and worked from 1 to 5 a.m. around a table used to collect money.

The event promoter, Ryan Murray, refused to cooperate with investigators. When contacted by The Times, Murray declined to say whether he had hired Hall.

Hall’s version was backed by security guard Fred Kilmer, the friend Hall said he went to see.

Kilmer, a retired Seattle police officer, told The Times the firefighters must have incorrectly assumed Hall was working. Hall was wearing an oversized jersey over his uniform, Kilmer said.

Hall had worked off duty at another location earlier that night.

After reviewing all the evidence, investigators concluded that Hall had worked at the event and had been dishonest.

Hall’s captain, Dan Oliver, disagreed, as did Assistant Chief Nick Metz, who worked closely with Hall early in their careers. They argued there wasn’t enough proof, triggering a meeting to discuss the case.

At that meeting, Kerlikowske concluded there wasn’t enough evidence that Hall had been dishonest, eliminating the chance he would be fired. But he decided to suspend Hall for one day without pay for working at a prohibited event.

Then, after meeting with Hall, Kerlikowske changed his mind, finding there wasn’t even enough proof to conclude Hall had worked at the event.

There was no evidence the officer took any “police action” during the event or that he was in uniform, Kerlikowske said in an interview. There also was no proof he had been paid.

And Kerlikowske said Hall was initially given an incorrect date for the event when questioned, which meant he was technically correct when he denied working it.

Kerlikowske said Metz and Oliver helped convince him there wasn’t “clear and convincing” evidence for either allegation — the legal standard to find misconduct.

OPA Director Sam Pailca, however, said she believed there was strong enough evidence.

She pointed out that Murray, the event promoter, was sent a letter by city officials warning he wouldn’t be granted more event permits unless he cooperated with the investigation. His failure to respond indicated he had something to hide, Pailca said.

But Kerlikowske said Murray’s silence “was not enough to push it over the top.”

Chief has final say

Kerlikowske, who became chief in August 2000, said he handled Hall’s case like any other disciplinary matter.

The chief can uphold, stiffen, reverse or reduce recommended discipline. He can exonerate an officer or decide there isn’t enough evidence to draw a conclusion.

One of his most important considerations, he said, is whether a decision will withstand an appeal.

Of six decisions appealed during his five years as chief, three were upheld, one was settled with a demotion and two are pending, he said.

Those numbers validate his disciplinary decisions, Kerlikowske said, noting that the city has avoided paying settlements for lost appeals.

Additionally, his credibility with officers would be damaged if he lost appeals, he said.

Kerlikowske pointed out that many of his reversals involved allegations of unnecessary force, which are the most difficult to prove because of conflicting information. And in one case, Kerlikowske disciplined an officer who had been exonerated during an OPA review.

The OPA and review board were created in 1999 to make sure internal investigations were handled properly. The move followed revelations that some in the department had remained silent about the alleged theft of $10,000 from a crime scene by a homicide detective.

Pailca, the head of the OPA, said she understood Kerlikowske’s reasons for many of the 27 reversals, but she strongly disagreed with a few. She said there was always room for “slightly different analysis of complex issues.”

Many of Kerlikowske’s reversals came after the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild called the chief too harsh, though he insists that had no bearing on his decisions.

In 2002, shortly after Kerlikowske publicly reprimanded an officer for being rude to a group of young jaywalkers, the guild voted that it had no confidence in his ability to lead the department.

Guild members remained resentful over fallout from Mardi Gras rioting the year before. A rioter beat a young man to death while police commanders initially kept officers from intervening, fearing for their safety. The commanders were not disciplined, and after the jaywalking incident union members accused Kerlikowske of a “double standard of accountability.”

Kevin Haistings, president of the guild, said that since the no-confidence vote, the union has disagreed with some of Kerlikowske’s decisions while supporting others.

Some penalties softened

In addition to reversing OPA findings, Kerlikowske has reduced recommended penalties.

In one instance, an officer working off duty for Metro transit police in September 2002 allegedly used binoculars to look into the windows of a University District sorority house.

The officer initially misled investigators, saying he had taken a break while working in the area. Then he admitted he was supposed to be working 10 miles away in Rainier Valley. He said he decided to relax in a parking lot near the sorority because he was tired, and he used the binoculars to make sure no one from a nearby disruptive party walked up to him.

Investigators didn’t buy that story. They found the officer had engaged in conduct unbecoming an officer, and they recommended a five-day suspension and a one-year ban on off-duty work. They also were concerned enough to recommend a mental-health evaluation.

Kerlikowske reduced the discipline to a reprimand for sleeping while working off duty, even though the officer never told investigators he had done that. Kerlikowske said he couldn’t disclose whether the mental-health evaluation took place because of privacy laws, but he suggested it would be normal in such cases.

That case, too, was hard to prove, Kerlikowske said.

He said he is confident of his findings and has fired several Seattle officers, including two who cheated on a promotion exam.

Kerlikowske opposes writing his rationale for reversals, saying it would force him to disclose highly personal information officers reveal to him in their own defense.

Seattle City Councilman Nick Licata, chairman of the council’s public-safety committee, said perhaps the chief could reveal that personal information influenced his decision, without providing details.

What’s more important, Licata said, is identifying disciplinary trends, such as vague rules that make it difficult to enforce discipline.

Licata said the City Council might have to require the chief to provide written explanations to protect civil rights and assure accountability.

“We may need to make our voice heard,” he said.

Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or smiletich@seattletimes.com

Christine Willmsen: 206-464-3261 or cwillmsen@seattletimes.com