Body cameras, Seattle police academy surface as bigger issues
by Bill Lucia
Seattle police: not all fun and summer parades. Credit: smohundro, via Flickr
The Seattle Police Department should drop the idea of running its own police academy. That's just one of the recommendations in a report issued last week by the department’s Office of Professional Accountability auditor.
The report also recommends that the city move toward equipping officers with body cameras and stop using firearm-carrying retired cops in uniform to direct traffic.
The latest semi-annual report from retired judge Anne Levinson, OPA’s civilian auditor, appears likely to help set the stage for important political discussions about police reform and management in the coming year. It ticks through a list of recommendations that range from hiring procedures to in-car video reviews, touching on both hot-button policing issues and departmental minutia. The report also details several complaint investigations that took place between July and December of 2013. In terms of handling complaints and investigations, Levinson gives OPA high marks.
With a civilian director and a staff of sworn officers, OPA investigates complaints against the police department. The office makes recommendations to the Chief of Police about whether the cops involved in the complaints should be disciplined. The auditor provides OPA with independent oversight.
Councilmember Bruce Harrell, who chairs the Public Safety, Civil Rights and Technology Committee, said he agreed with most of the recommendations in the auditor's new report and that he'd like to introduce legislation to fund body cameras for police officers later this year. He also said he wants to dig into the rules that govern secondary assignments for active officers, such as working security at football games, and examine a decades-old city ordinance that gives retired cops policing authority. Both topics are highlighted in the report.
“The auditor gave me a basis to build work upon,” he said, adding, “We have new energy in the police department and my relationship with the executive is great.”
The department entered an era of significant turbulence when a 2011 Department of Justice investigation found patterns of excessive force violations. The city is now in the midst of a federally mandated police reform process that began in 2012. Meanwhile, Mayor Ed Murray has tasked a pair of committees with finding a permanent replacement for city’s interim Chief of Police, Harry C. Bailey.
“This is a particularly important time in Seattle when it comes to police accountability,” Levinson said on Monday.
Several of Levinson's recommendations emphasize officer learning. “Too often the overriding message for new officers and for communication about new policies, training, or practices is that 'you have to do this to stay out of trouble,’ " the report says, “rather than instilling in employees that the Department is teaching or sharing this information or implementing this approach because… ‘We try to acknowledge and learn from our mistakes or be the first to develop new ways of effective policing.’ ”
The report also says the city should change bargaining agreements with police unions so that supervisors can use in-car video as a teaching tool. The Seattle Police Officer’s Guild has opposed broadening the use of video reviews in the past. The union’s president Rich O’Neil did not respond to requests for comment.
“Think about sports and medicine, people are using video technology to diagnose how they can preform better,” Levinson said, adding that the videos don’t just provide an opportunity spot bad behavior. “When there are good interactions they should be able to put that up on the big screen at the precinct,” she said.
Video also came into play in the recommendation that says the city should move toward providing officers with body cameras. That issue has also ruffled the police union.
“They’ve come up with this ridiculous concept, that if a councilmember, such as myself, will not wear it, they should not have to wear it,” Harrell said. “I think they miss the point: What they do is a constant source of litigation and concern.”
Harrell said he’s arranging for representatives from a company called TASER International, which manufactures police body cameras, to make a presentation at a Feb. 6 council meeting. The discussion will include information about how much the cameras will cost. Harrell says that he’d like to “convince the mayor’s office this is a good investment,” and possibly include the cameras in next year's budget.
“Body cameras solve a lot of problems, both for accountability and officer safety,” he said. “People behave better, generally speaking, when they know they’re being recorded; a camera is often more intimidating than a baton.”
As for starting a police academy in Seattle, Harrell and Levinson agree that it's not a good idea. Currently Seattle’s rookie cops train at an academy in Burien with recruits from across the state.
“The department, in recent years, has spent too much time talking about whether Seattle should have its own academy,” Levinson said. “It’s not a good use of resources.”
The concept of a city academy drew attention last July, when then-Mayor Mike McGinn asked former interim Chief of Police Jim Pugel to analyze what it would cost and if it would help the department. New Mayor Ed Murray voiced support for training cops locally during his campaign.
Another, somewhat obscure, issue raised in the report was “extended authority commissions,” which allow retired police officers to act in a “law enforcement capacity.” A City Council ordinance passed in 1981 allows the Chief of Police to commission retired officers so that they have “the same authority as an active police officer.” The ordinance says that the retired officers are not city employees, but their authority may be used in the course of “private uniformed security employment.”
The OPA report says that the retired officers — who are allowed to carry firearms and wear police uniforms — sometimes direct traffic or supervise civilian units. A police department spokesman could not provide any immediate details on how many retired officers currently hold the commissions.
“The Department should discontinue the practice of authorizing ‘Extended Authority Commissions,’ ” the report says. “The commissions create a liability for the City, and provide little or no accountability to citizens when poor practice or misconduct occurs.”
The City Attorney's office torts director, who handles police department litigation, said there have not been any legal claims filed against the city because of actions taken by a retired officer acting under an extended authority commission, according to a spokesperson for the office. "There is legal risk, as there is with anyone acting for the City," the spokesperson, Kimberly Mills, said in an email.
Harrell said he plans to start working soon on legislation that would create new rules for the extended commissions and secondary employment for current cops.
Secondary employment refers to when an officer is hired to provide security at an event like a parade or a sports game. The report recommends that an internal civilian-led and -staffed office oversee secondary employment. Currently department employees manage these jobs through their own private businesses, the report says, adding, “The system continues to be fraught with actual and potential conflicts of interest."
The auditor's other recommendations include: Amending bargaining agreements to allow for civilian investigators to work alongside sworn officers at OPA; granting OPA subpoena authority for items that don’t belong to the city, such as privately owned surveillance footage and phone records; instituting a hiring point system for police officers that favors foreign language skills and experience in fields like social work or mental health care; and writing a policy that clearly prohibits police department employees from driving department vehicles after drinking alcohol.
Levinson would also like to see OPA involved in more department investigations that fall outside of the complaint process. Earlier this month OPA staff started responding to all officer-involved shootings. Their role is to help identify whether there are any underlying issues that could point to officer misconduct. The same system, Levinson says, should be used when officers are involved in possible reckless driving, car chases or traffic collisions.
“Incidents where the public has a right to expect accountability,” she said, “OPA needs to have a role.”
Since starting out as OPA’s auditor in 2010, Levinson said she’d seen review of force procedures strengthened and the quality incident reports increase. “In the last year in particular, since the consent decree process has been underway,” she said. “I’ve seen a marked improvement in a number of areas in which I’d previously expressed concern.”
Asked about specific items in the report, the Mayor’s office said it was too soon to comment. “But the recommendations of the Auditor, the OPA Director and the [Community Police Commission] will all factor into how the Mayor moves forward in these issues,” a spokesperson said in an emailed statement. Later this week, the spokesperson also said, chief Bailey will make “some announcements” related to the police reform process. Bailey wasn't immediately available for comment.
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