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Tracking Mayor Ed Murray’s compromises on police reform

Credit: Seattle Police Department

After many months of talks, negotiations and late night phone calls, Mayor Ed Murray has once again filed a suite of accountability reforms, to be reviewed by the judge before proceeding to the Seattle City Council for the legislative process.

It’s the culmination of nearly three years of difficult, complicated and often contentious work with numerous city officials and politicians, the U.S. Department of Justice and a host of community advocates since the mayor pledged swift action on these reforms.

More than a year ago, the city and the civilian community police commission agreed on a package of accountability reforms in the Seattle Police Department. For all the work to satisfy the federal consent decree to reform SPD up until that point, details around oversight, discipline and civilian involvement had sat in a corner somewhere, gathering dust.

But after a tense meeting with the federal judge overseeing the consent decree, the package imploded and the process stalled.

Now, it is perhaps finally moving forward.

While it certainly falls short in certain places for everyone involved in its creation, the meat of this package, if given the approval of the judge and the council, represents a significant step towards strengthened oversight of the department, its officers and its day-to-day functions. As activists have demanded across the country, it also carves out clearer and more significant space for civilians to watch their department.

There’s a great deal of context behind Friday’s release.

The package from a year ago — the one that fell apart after the meeting with the federal judge — took something of a tip-toe approach, careful not to tread too heavily on items that might conflict with collective bargaining. And in places it was vague, guaranteeing, for example, a “sufficient” budget for oversight entities without specifying what, exactly, is sufficient.

But when the product of the contract negotiations was leaked to the Stranger and the results were weaker than some had hoped, the calculus around what should be in the recommendations changed: Trust in the process and deference to the negotiations became secondary. As such, when the Community Police Commission, a city appointed group with strong links to activists, presented a second round of accountability recommendations earlier this summer, it took questions of misconduct investigation and civilianization — items the police unions want to see negotiated — head on.

As it turned out, that approach was validated when, in an August status conference, U.S. District Court Judge James said he would not let the union stand in the way of fulfilling the consent decree and even threatened to drag them into court.

However, early drafts of the city’s parallel proposal from last summer, obtained by Crosscut, suggest the mayor’s office initially picked up where it left off from a year before, sidestepping many of the specifics the unions would want to negotiate. With that in mind, the final results submitted to the court from the mayor’s office show that, in backroom talks since mid-August, the position of the mayor’s office has shifted toward compromise with the CPC in some significant places while holding out in others.

A lens through which to view the effectiveness of oversight is a series of three questions, posed by those most intimately connected to the negotiations. Who appoints the oversight? Who sets the work plan? And how is budget set?

The one item out of this package that has been getting the most public airtime is the establishment of an Office of Inspector General — someone who has free rein to oversee all aspects of SPD.

Mayor Ed Murray, for the first time last summer, came out in support of this office and included it in both his budget speech and his early recommendations. Reform advocates, including civilian watchdog retired Judge Anne Levinson, have favored it for years.

The first draft of the mayor’s legislation had the mayor appointing the inspector general, much as he would do for a department head. But department heads report to the mayor; the IG, to act as an independent watchdog, should not.

The CPC, on the other end, wanted to be the search committee for the IG. The newest submittal strikes a compromise: The IG will be appointed by a special committee in city council, which will include a member from the CPC.

On budget, the mayor announced $3 million for “accountability related costs,” which includes funding for the new inspector general’s office. But that money has not been appropriated yet and the ordinance does not specify staff levels for that office. It’s still unclear how broad the scope of “accountability related costs” is — if just for the OIG, it should be plenty, but if that will go toward paying the salaries of the court-appointed independent monitor for the larger reform effort and the collective bargaining unit, it would run thin quickly.

On the other side of the table from the mayor, in an area of disagreement, Levinson and representatives from the CPC have called for a fixed budget for the office, based on some percentage of the larger budget to prevent political tampering.

Another huge item to come out of this proposal is the makeup of the Office of Professional Accountability, which investigates misconduct complaints against officers. Previously, its makeup and processes were largely left to collective bargaining, but this ordinance throws caution to the wind and calls for specific changes.

For now, OPA is made up entirely of sworn police staff except for the director and auditor (who works as a contractor). Adding a stronger civilian presence to OPA has long been desired by reform advocates. But in the leaked bargaining negotiations, the city only managed to add a civilian intake officer with previous law enforcement experience.

The proposal submitted Friday goes much further, turning all supervisors in OPA into civilians along with some portion of the investigators (the IG will decide what the ratio should be).

Early drafts of the CPC recommendations also called for allowing OPA to investigate officers internally who are simultaneously under criminal investigation. Surprisingly, under current rules, if an officer is being investigated for something that could land him or her in jail (an investigation carried out by fellow officers) OPA can’t touch it until the criminal investigation was over. This is a rule the unions will want to negotiate. While the CPC drafts called for this, early drafts from mayor did not.

The final submittal, included it.

Like for the Office of Inspector General, the mayor did not apparently agree with recommendations to fix OPA’s budget.

An awkward part of the whole accountability process has been determining the future of the Community Police Commission, established as the voice of the community in the consent decree process. Unless something changes, the CPC will disappear at the end of the decree. But when the CPC broaches the subject of making itself permanent, it risks coming across as, in the words of federal Judge James Robart, making a “power grab.”

Both the mayor’s office and the CPC in their proposals make the CPC permanent. The difference, though, is the mayor wanted the terms of every current CPC member to expire upon the passage of this proposal. Then, he and the council would reappoint commissioners. The final proposal extends the terms of the current commissioners. It also splits future appointments evenly between the mayor, the council and the other CPC members: five each.

There remains disagreement over who appoints the CPC’s director. Despite Friday evening negotiations, the mayor wanted to retain the ability to appoint the head of the commission. Not surprisingly, the commission thinks it should have that power.

Barring council’s actions on this legislation, it should push forward quite a few significant changes that will both strengthen the investigation process into misconduct and restrict loopholes officers have been able to exploit to get out of punishment. The highly controversial Disciplinary Review Board, which has been historically staffed with the peers of those appealing their discipline, will be eliminated. The only avenue for appeal will run through the Public Safety Civil Service Commission, staffed with three non-city employees.

Further, current rules set hazy boundaries on a 180-day statute of limitations for misconduct investigations. The unions can take often advantage of these unclear ticking clocks to discard findings. By clarifying exactly when the 180-day period begins and ends and by granting extra time when necessary, that loophole should be closed.

But what you won’t find are some of the highest profile recommendations. There’s nothing in here about opening collective bargaining to the public. There’s nothing in here about outside investigators reviewing use-of-force incidents. And calls for a discipline matrix — to standardized punishment — is ostensibly eliminated.

As Crosscut reported last week, some of these were tabled with the intention of revisiting them through other avenues. The thinking is that Judge Robart will have to approve these recommendations, pursuant to the consent decree, before going to the council. The CPC is betting that it could more effectively pursue the tabled recommendations through other avenues, independent from the consent decree process.

Although a good portion of Friday’s submittal represents compromise, budgeting and appointing powers were not the only disagreements, each subsequent unsettled issue marked by two small bubbles. Questions about whether CPC members may live outside Seattle, performance reviews, and specific wording on who, exactly, the city turns to when they consult the “community,” were not agreed on.

Perhaps most dramatically, the CPC wanted to do away with the statute of limitations on complaints against officers. Currently, if someone complains about misconduct three years after the incident, the case is dead. The mayor’s office stuck to that rule.

On the areas of disagreement, the opposing options will go to the judge regardless, the idea being he could give his judicial approval to both and let the council decide which policy it prefers. Moving forward, the Department of Justice will have 21 days to respond to the filing. And then, the judge will take his pen, checking which proposals he will allow to move forward to the council.

At that point, hell could well be unleashed from the unions who may feel the process tramples their members’ bargaining rights. How the federal court views the consent decree’s interaction with collective bargaining could very well be a conversation that draws national interest.

At home, it will dictate the state of the Seattle Police Department moving forward.

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