First of a two-part series
On Friday Feb. 14, Valentine's Day, Interim Chief of Police Harry C. Bailey scrawled his name in blue ink on the signature line of seven “settlement agreements.” Each one-page document rescinded a misconduct finding against a Seattle police officer.
Bailey’s pen-stroke on one of the agreements ignited the first big controversy of Mayor Ed Murray’s administration. It would unfold the following week. That misconduct case involved officer John Marion, who had threatened to harass local newspaper journalist Dominic Holden. While the imbroglio began with the reversal of Marion’s one-day suspension, questions quickly arose about how the other six cases had moved through the department’s murky disciplinary appeals process — and whether that system needs to be reformed.
More than a month after the misconduct reversals first came to light, some of those questions have remained unanswered. It is also unclear when the mayor and his staff first knew about the seven settlement agreements. Murray, his staff and Bailey have all suggested that responsibility for six of the agreements rests with former interim chief Jim Pugel, who staunchly denies approving the settlements.
Crosscut has reviewed documents, hundreds of emails, memos and statements that preceded and followed Bailey’s decision to sign the agreements. The goal was to take a closer look at some of the events that surrounded the chief’s decision to reverse the findings in these cases of misconduct against the department's officers.
Six of the settlements applied to cases that dated back to 2010 and 2011. The misconduct involved both minor slip-ups and more serious infractions, according to a Jan. 13 memo from the City Attorney’s Office. Two patrol cars, for example, collided while escorting a truckload of streetcar rails. The officers who were driving received one-day suspensions for not reporting the accident immediately. Their sergeant was also reprimanded for failing to fully report the accident. Another case involved an officer who did not detain a trespass suspect, who claimed he was taking medication and thought he'd walked into his sister’s house. There was also a canine officer who lost 15.6 grams of cocaine used to train drug-sniffing dogs, and a sergeant who failed to arrest a domestic violence suspect after an incident “involving a gun and threats.”
The seventh case was the one involving Marion and Holden, a staff member at The Stranger. Last July, Holden photographed Marion and other officers as they were surrounded and talked loudly at a man outside the International District Chinatown transit station. Marion and another officer confronted Holden. "I'll tell you what,” Marion said. “I'm going to come to the Stranger, I'm going to bother you at work and see how you like it.”
Holden filed a complaint against Marion and then wrote about it in The Stranger.
It's worth pausing here to explain how the Seattle Police Department handles misconduct complaints. The Marion case is an example of a complaint that originated from outside the department — with a member of the public. Complaints can also originate internally, from employees or supervisors, or from the Use of Force Review Board, Force Investigations Team or Traffic Collision Investigation Squad. Misconduct includes violations of laws and of police department policies.
After a complaint is filed, the department’s Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) typically spends about two weeks gathering and reviewing evidence before deciding whether to launch a full investigation into the incident. The OPA is staffed by sworn police officers, but run by Pierce Murphy, a civilian director. Murphy and a civilian auditor, retired judge Anne Levinson, review each complaint the OPA receives. According to a recent memo interim-Chief Bailey sent to Levinson, the office investigated 605 complaints from 2011 to 2013.
At the end of each investigation, the OPA director recommends a “finding” to the Chief of Police. If an officer engaged in wrongdoing, the director can recommend either a “training referral” or a “sustained” finding. Training referrals tend to be meted out for lesser infractions. Unlike sustained findings, they are not noted as misconduct in an officer’s personnel record.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!