Can police police themselves? The debate never ends in Seattle

The city keeps tinkering with its police accountability system, and nobody is happy. Here are two ideas: Open the files and hire the best people.
Crosscut archive image.

Former Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske.

The city keeps tinkering with its police accountability system, and nobody is happy. Here are two ideas: Open the files and hire the best people.

In Seattle, we are back to a old question: can the police police themselves? That issue was never fully settled in 1999, when a blue-ribbon panel proposed significant reform of Seattle's police-accountability system. We returned to the question this week when a report was leaked criticizing Chief Gil Kerlikowske's involvement in an internal investigation of a drug bust. In that incident, a convicted drug dealer says cops planted drugs on him and roughed him up as he sat in his wheelchair. A video of the Jan. 2 arrest undercut the credibility of the officers, who ultimately received punishment for a minor policy violation. Mayor Greg Nickels called a press conference on Tuesday, June 19, to publicly support the chief, who blasted the report as "despicable" and politically motivated. The next day, however, the mayor released a letter calling for "an additional review" (25K PDF) of the case, including the chief's involvement. The Seattle Times has suggested that the chief is soft on misconduct: ... [I]n a string of cases over the last several years, the chief has reversed or watered down the conclusions of internal investigators and the civilian director who oversees their work. Those decisions represent a marked shift from his first years on the job. Kerlikowske has defended his decisions, noting he has fired several officers and been upheld in appeals. In my view, Kerlikowske is a very good chief who busted some bad cops. In 2002, for example, he held aloft the badge of a cop accused of drug dealing and said it would be destroyed and never issued again. But the issue goes deeper than this chief. Kerlikowske operates in a system we have given him, and we keep debating what that system should be. (Full disclosure: My dad was a Seattle cop.) Back in 1999, the blue-ribbon panel was formed after disclosure of an alleged theft by a member of the Homicide Unit, whose members kept the matter secret for years. The panel looked at how misconduct cases were handled in Seattle and elsewhere. It wrestled with the question of whether cops could investigate their brethren. Cops insisted they should keep that role, arguing they had the best motivation to keep a department clean and understood the circumstances of how cops work, such as interactions with dubious informants. Transferring responsibility for discipline outside the department would undercut the chief's authority to run the department, they said. Further complicating this question was an overlay of state law and a contract with the Guild that guided the process of disciplining a police officer. The scandal in the Homicide Unit, however, was a strong argument for having outsiders decide these cases. Cops are loyal to one another. Corruption takes root because of the code of silence. Remember Serpico? African Americans came forward to tell tales of harassment by cops and complaints that were ignored or minimized by commanders. The panel proposed a compromise: a new Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) run by a civilian appointed by the mayor, confirmed the City Council, and who would report to the chief of police. The city adopted that idea. They made a second recommendation: Make complaints public, which would help ensure that problems would be handled properly and that patterns of misconduct could be identified. Cops, however, complained that it was unfair to publicize unsupported allegations, sometimes made by criminals just to stop cops from doing their jobs. The city compromised with an approach that only "sustained" complaints were released in brief summary form. An additional measure of oversight was maintained by keeping the department's internal-investigations auditor, who mainly reviewed departmental paperwork and issued reports on patterns of cases. Debate continued. In 2002, the City Council added a third mechanism, the Office of Professional Accountability Review Board. The council appoints the board, which reviews cases handled by the OPA (with officer names and other details blacked out). The new report on Kerlikowske, written by board members Peter Holmes, a Seattle attorney, and Brad Moericke, an attorney and former police sergeant, caused council President Nick Licata to propose yet another reform: a City Charter amendment subjecting police and fire chiefs, who are appointed by the mayor, to re-confirmation votes by the council. That idea failed to gain traction, but the underlying inadequacies of our system remain. We should go back to that suggestion from 1999 and open the files. The more sunlight the better. But even more fundamental to police integrity are those whom we trust with a badge and a gun. The best defense against corruption is to start with the best and to train them well. Standards don't mean much unless employees want to meet them. So if the council wants to do some good here, open those files. And work like hell to encourage good people to join the department.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

default profile image

O. Casey Corr

O. Casey Corr is a Seattle native, author and marketing communications consultant.