A murky appeal procedure is creating flaws in the system used to take disciplinary action against cops accused of misconduct, Seattle City Council members and Mayor’s Office staff indicated on Wednesday.
The appeals are tacked onto the end of a process involving the department’s Office of Professional Accountability. That office handles investigations into misconduct complaints. At the end of each investigation, its civilian director recommends “findings” to the Chief of Police, who then decides whether to discipline the officer. The appeal gives cops an avenue to get their finding reversed after the OPA process is completed. As a result of getting the finding changed, the misconduct is not noted in their records.
Deputy Mayor Hyeok Kim told councilmembers that Bernard Melekian, a law enforcement consultant who advises Mayor Ed Murray, would oversee a broad review of the accountability system that guides complaints investigations and appeals.
Kim, Interim Chief of Police Harry Bailey and City Attorney Peter Holmes were among the high level city staff at a special meeting of the Public Safety, Civil Rights and Technology Committee on Wednesday. The meeting was the latest chapter in a simmering controversy that began last week over Bailey’s choice to change disciplinary action against a cop who threatened to harass a journalist last year.
Along with the case involving the journalist, Bailey reversed misconduct findings for six other officers. Those reversals will now be put on hold until Melekian and his team look into each case. The Mayor and Bailey have said the six reversals were worked out during former interim chief Jim Pugel’s tenure. Bailey, Murray has said, merely signed off on the reversals. But on Wednesday the Mayor’s staff said there was no paper trail to indicate when exactly the decision to reverse the disciplinary decisions took place.
The lack of documentation in the six cases “gave us pause and worry,” Kim said.
Councilmember Nick Licata pointed out that the council does not have information about the total number of misconduct cases that have been reversed. “We don’t know whether it’s a few, we don’t know if it’s half of them, we don’t know if it’s the majority of them,” he said.
Tina Podlodowski, Murray’s police adviser, noted that 85 percent of Seattle police officers have never received any complaints. A former councilmember, Podlodowski said during the meeting that she wrote the ordinance that created the current OPA process.
The fracas over the reversed cases has spotlighted the option for cops to appeal OPA findings. “It’s really corrupted the intent of OPA to be transparent,” Licata said. “We don’t know how many decisions have been, basically, negotiated away without the knowledge of either OPA or the council.”
The source of Licata's concerns are embedded in a series of steps that unfold after a complaint is filed. If an investigation determines that an officer engaged in wrongdoing, OPA’s civilian director can recommend either a “training referral” or “sustained” finding to the Chief of Police. A training referral typically denotes a lesser slip-up and unlike a sustained finding, does not show up as misconduct in an officer’s personnel record.
Between 2010 and 2012 the department received about 1,700 complaints. OPA chose to investigate around 600, of which 72 had sustained findings.
When the chief decides whether or not to go along with the director’s recommendation the OPA process is complete. But if the chief imposes any kind of discipline on the officer, they or their union can request a hearing with the Public Safety Civil Service Commission or the Disciplinary Review Board.
Prior to the appeal hearing, the department and the officer can reach a “settlement agreement.” These agreements are what Bailey signed-off on in the seven cases that surfaced last week. In addition to the appeal process, police unions can seek to change sustained findings through arbitration, by challenging, or "grieving," the disciplinary action as a collective bargaining agreement violation.
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