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Community role in police oversight will grow

Just over three years after the Community Police Commission released its suite of recommendations for strengthening accountability in the Seattle Police Department, the Seattle City Council finally gave the legislative package its first vote in a committee meeting Thursday.

The committee, with a 5-0 vote, sent the reforms toward an almost-certain final approval next Monday.

The legislation will shift the city’s mechanisms for oversight toward a more civilian driven process, while simultaneously eliminating disciplinary and appeals processes within the department, along with what some regard as cushy assignments for officers on accountability reviews.

The changes are part of the broad reform agreement between the City of Seattle and the Department of Justice, struck in the wake of the high profile 2010 shooting of Native American woodcarver John T. Williams by officer Ian Birk.

But the road does not end here. Where most council approved ordinances are quickly signed into law by the mayor, U.S. District Judge James Robart will need to give his approval as a part of the agreement with the Justice Department.

And once that is done, the reforms will then need to go to the bargaining table with both the rank-and-file and leadership police unions, proof of why changing police practices and structures can be so complicated. Until that happens, many of the most substantive changes will languish.

The splashiest accomplishment of the legislation is the establishment of an Office of Inspector General, a civilian staffed office that will be charged with ensuring the department does not backslide into pre-reform patterns. It will take on broad issues such as auditing misconduct investigations and examining internal practices (such as interrogation techniques or technology use). Currently, those duties fall to just one, largely toothless and under-resourced consultant.

The reforms also eliminate the controversial Disciplinary Review Board — an internal appeals process for disciplined officers that was staffed with sworn officers. Amid worries that the board went easy on accused peers, officers must now appeal their discipline to the city’s Public Safety Civil Service Commission, which will be staffed with three commissioners not currently employed by the City or by SPD within the last 10 years.

The city’s Office of Professional Accountability (OPA), housed in SPD and charged with investigating misconduct complaints, will be supervised by an all-civilian staff. And the all-sworn-officer slate of investigators will be reshaped to include civilians — either exclusively or some mix of civilian and sworn.

OPA will be granted subpoena powers to obtain necessary evidence for investigating officers. And the hazy 180-day statute of limitations often used as a workaround by disciplined officers will become more flexible to allow for circumstances that may delay investigations.

After investigating a misconduct complaint, the head of OPA makes a determination if the officer should be disciplined. Under the new legislation, if the chief disagrees and does not follow that recommendation, he or she must meet with the OPA head and write a letter to the City Council.

Of most interest to the public may be the Community Police Commission — established as part of the DOJ agreement as a voice for the community in the process. This legislation makes that body permanent. It also guarantees its commissioners have a say in the selection of the Inspector General and are kept apprised of secretive collective bargaining negotiations.

Its members have fought in last-minute efforts to establish the body as having a greater role than simply a “megaphone” for the community, as City Attorney Pete Holmes recently wrote. Its commissioners have always viewed the body as a panel of experts, not just community conduits.

Some of those lobbying efforts were successful, guaranteeing a channel to make recommendations about which issues oversight should focus on. The commissioners are also required to have some expertise in law enforcement.

But the legislation does not include some of the “hard-power” items the CPC had hoped to achieve. For example, the CPC will not be able to dictate — only recommend — what the inspector general audits. It will also not be given authority to conduct performance reviews of the other branches of police oversight.

The legislation, clocking in at over 100 pages, goes on to tackle myriad issues like record-keeping, reporting, specifics of who should be in charge of oversight and hiring practices, and requiring the police department give preference to multi-lingual applicants in its hiring.

On Monday, the council will still need to address several specific issues related to the disciplinary process, such as whether or not to eliminate the current three-year statute of limitations on officer misconduct.

Despite years of work, the various parties involved have continued to quibble over these specifics even in the final hours. The CPC has launched something of a PR campaign on social media and through letters from the community trying to sway the City Council toward its point view.

Meanwhile, City Attorney Pete Holmes and Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole both sent letters to the council warning that the current legislation was overly complex and bureaucratic.

But the final legislative word on the Holmes-O’Toole appeals to cut back the legislation came from Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez, chair for the Gender, Equity, Safe Communities and New Americans committee that has hosted the accountability legislation.  “While I respect your perspectives, it appears that the Council is indeed at an impasse with your views regarding the mission, purpose and scope of the Community Police Commission and who should oversee the accountability system and ongoing police reform efforts,” she wrote in a letter to O’Toole and Holmes late Wednesday night.

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