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Mayor Ed Murray's first stumble: Police reform

Commentary: Defense of his police chief's meddling rings false. Try again, dear Mayor.
Go-slow Murray is fast-tracking a progressive agenda.

Go-slow Murray is fast-tracking a progressive agenda. Credit: Allyce Andrew

Mayor Ed Murray has stepped into his first political horse pucky pile defending the actions of his Police Chief in overturning disciplinary decisions made through the Office of Professional Accountability.

Chief Harry Bailey decided to overturn a tap on the wrist punishment to a police officer who had harassed a journalist for legally doing his job. The resulting outcry over the chief’s decision has caused the mayor to admit that it was a mistake, and even the officer involved asked that his punishment be reinstated in order to stop the storm of publicity.

Still, another half dozen cases of police misconduct have been fiddled with, and more were in the offing.

The issue was never about the case of a single journalist being threatened while legally doing his job, bad though that was. The issue is the integrity of the police accountability process.

In a press release this week, Murray defended Bailey's intention. The chief, he said, was actually trying to further reform by substituting training for docking pay in instances of discipline. And he was trying to address a backlog of cases. "The fact is, Chief Bailey was ahead of us. We do need new ways to think about accountability and culture change. We do need education- and value-based forms of discipline that change unacceptable behavior and sustain the values of an organization. And we do need to look at our OPA process, which has remained the same for the past 15 years under six different chiefs and four different mayors."

In other words, his chief Bailey is leading the reform process, not subverting it.

That does not pass the smell test.

If reforming the process was the goal of the mayor and his appointee, why not consult with the civilians closest to the process — OPA director Pierce Murphy and OPA auditor Anne Levinson — prior to overturning decisions and lightening the punishments? Why not ask the folks who run the system for their input?

Levinson, the auditor, has already provided the city with a robust and thoughtful critique for fixing OPA’s shortcomings. A retired judge, she is paid by the city to make sure the system works and, in January of this year, she issued an extensive list of recommendations for making the system better.

If Mayor Murray needs a roadmap, it's right here. Hit the link, Mr. Mayor.

The document calls for speeding up disciplinary proceedings, more transparency, points out ways in which union rules — such as appealing too many decisions as a union grievance — have gummed up the works and suggests that OPA investigators be given more power to gather evidence. It even calls for more and improved training.

The roadmap for reform the mayor seemed to be asking for in his press release this week has largely already been laid out. If Bailey and Murray want substantive reform that reflects all sides fairly, they’ve got an advocate a phone call away.

And Levinson’s recommendations regarding the OPA process are actually already underway, written into the Department of Justice consent decree. It’s the job of the new Community Police Commission to look at the issues of how the OPA process can work better. Those reforms will require more than jiggling the process. They're part and parcel of the bigger cultural reforms at the police department that the mayor says he will change, and that the DOJ says we must change.

The mayor says the OPA process has been unchanged the "past 15 years under six different chiefs and four different mayors" — suggesting that OPA is the problem. And it’s true it is not a perfect system. But it is a process that has been reviewed and improved. Two Blue Ribbon commissions, one under Mayor Paul Schell and another most recently under Greg Nickels in 2007, have dug into OPA. Both were sparked by questionable actions taken by the police department, including, in the Nickels case, charges that then-chief Gil Kerlikowski had improperly intervened in an internal investigation.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Feb 27, 7:58 a.m. Inappropriate

The Mayor has yet to make one true statement about any of these issues. He has, however, made a large number of false statements.

coolpapa

Posted Thu, Feb 27, 10:31 a.m. Inappropriate

I'm not so sure that the current process of oversight is a good model to follow, even if tweaked. It represents an awkward compromise between civilian review, which the cops fear and can be used for political purposes, and internal review, which the citizens suspect can be gamed. Rather that resolve this tension, city hall has put in place a three-part review that leads to delays, second-guessing, grandstanding, and "de-policing."
The new mayor is wading into all this, probably too early in his tenure to be sure-footed, but with an eye on resolving some of it to make it easier for a reform chief to take the job. He is also trying to signal to the police guild that their concerns will not be brushed aside, which could produce more stalemate and obstructionism. In another context, this would be praised as Murray's inclusiveness in negotiating ways forward. Here, I think too quickly, some people are concluding that the mayor has sided with the guild.

Posted Thu, Feb 27, 12:57 p.m. Inappropriate

Nice job of extending the horse pucky metaphor. Mere mortals might think of abandoning either/or and instead imposing both training and suspension. Or is slipping and sliding in the limelight a lot more fun? How's that for mixed metaphor, aka banana peel?

afreeman

Posted Thu, Feb 27, 5 p.m. Inappropriate

The OPA process is a joke. It is a way for the SPD to claim that they are under "civilian oversight," when in reality it rarely results in any meaningful discipline, let alone even a record of misconduct for an officer. There are several ways for the OPA process to find that a complaint against an Officer was not sustained, and even if it were, they can change it to a training issue, or the Chief can make it go away.

File a complaint with OPA if you want evidence to be gathered, but don't hope that it will result in any real discipline. The more effective thing to do is to write a letter to the Precinct Commander complaining about the Officer and ask that it be placed in his/her personnel file. Then send a copy of the letter to both the City Attorney and the King County Prosecutor so they can't act that they don't know they have a problem Officer. Also alert the media.

Linus

Posted Thu, Feb 27, 9:21 p.m. Inappropriate

I find it distressing that there is so much agonizing over the appropriate punishment for the police officer in question.

Surely we should be focusing on a recruitment process that allows the appointment of an officer who does not know that threatening anyone, at any time is unacceptible, especially when in a police uniform.

busterg

Posted Thu, Feb 27, 10:33 p.m. Inappropriate

SPD has a long history of being rotten to the core. I recommend reading "You owe yourself a drunk" and see if things have improved.

Djinn

Posted Fri, Feb 28, 1 p.m. Inappropriate

The public has a hard time seeing what is going on -- even in general terms -- due to the opaque statements of our city executive and police command officials. Furthermore, for anyone who might want to take a closer look, the constant spin tactics are truly dizzying!

If the spin is seen as necessary because the straight truth would be too unpleasant, then it's obvious reform is long past due. The spin cycle only will delay and push the public further from its right to know how the police department is operating.

What we need is straight talk about our police department, its norms of conduct, and its norms for handling misconduct. And when we are given this information, we need to expect that both the command staff and the police guild will adhere to the norms they communicate.

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