Smackdown over Seattle police: turning point or just a summer storm?

The uproar over police accountability has provided a peek behind the blue curtain and inside the Mayor Greg Nickels administration. But has it enough momentum to prompt serious reform?
The uproar over police accountability has provided a peek behind the blue curtain and inside the Mayor Greg Nickels administration. But has it enough momentum to prompt serious reform?

The ongoing story about Seattle Police accountability issues, now about 10 days old, might have "legs," as they say in the news biz, but then again we are approaching the Dog Days of August when smallish stories swell in the heat, due to the absence of real news, and then deflate like a summer inner tube on Labor Day. Reasons the story might grow into something major: Some bulldog reporters, particularly at The Seattle Times, are on it; Mayor Greg Nickels and Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske misplayed the opening serves and made things worse; City Council President Nick Licata seems determined to come up with ways to strengthen citizen reviews; and there really are some big issues underlying the name calling and spin. Reasons it might fizzle: Nickels is very adept at getting embarrassing stories off the front pages, and most of the public figures and politicians who would push for a fuller airing of the issues admire Chief Kerlikowske and fear the repercussions of angering the Police Guild. The issues have been simmering for years, producing the steam pressure that blew the lid off a few weeks ago. In the fall of 1999, then-Mayor Paul Schell and then-Chief Norm Stamper decided to take some modest steps toward civilian oversight of police behavior. Police still have the real say about such oversight in Seattle, but some civilian-led review was allowed, so long as the chief still had the last word. Strict rules about public disclosure were imposed, perhaps fatally weakening the system. This awkward compromise might have worked if the chief, the mayor, and the Police Officers Guild had allowed it to. The way it's supposed to work is the Office of Professional Accountability, headed by a civilian appointed by the mayor, looks into controversial disciplinary cases on its own, makes a report to the chief, who then does his own investigation and decides whether to accept the OPA recommendation or not, ideally giving his reasons in writing. The temptation has been to interfere with the process, letting the chief get involved in the investigation before it's completed by OPA (potentially gaming the system), letting a six-month clock run out on investigations (which exempts an officer from discipline), and not explaining the chief's reasons for differing from the OPA (thus evading public indignation). The City Council, not exactly trusting of the mayor, created a three-person OPA Review Board in 2002 to monitor the OPA, and that citizens committee prepared a critical draft report of the way the chief was apparently interfering early in the review process of a controversial arrest in January. The draft report leaked out, and the mayor's office and the chief escalated the war by attacking review board chair Peter Holmes for political ambition and berating anyone for daring to criticize the present rickety system of police oversight. The first politician with egg on his face was Mayor Nickels who, instead of saying that he wanted to get the facts on these fairly serious allegations, blew off the critics in a fairly convincing imitation of Dick Cheney. Next to look silly was City Council President Nick Licata, who miscalculated by calling for the council to review the chief's appointment every four years, only to discover how popular the chief is and how little stomach other council members have for taking on the cops. (Licata nonetheless deserves a lot of credit for being the one person with the courage to keep raising these important issues. Next week he'll start a council-led process to improve the review board, inviting the Mayor to join in.) As more stories accumulated of other questionable behavior by cops and the shakiness of the oversight process, Nickels, Kerlikowske, and Licata all managed to recover their strides. The mayor, as he usually does in the face of bad news, disappeared from the story and then calmed the waters some by asking the new civilian director of the OPA, Kathryn Olson, to review the recent investigation, reporting at some time safely in the future. Kerlikowske, a suave politician, gave The Times an exclusive interview in which he artfully said that he had done no wrong but was open to changing the system. By Wednesday, June 27, Nickels had also agreed to review the system, with the mild admonition that "no system is perfect." Licata withdrew his chief-review proposal (he had no backers) but kept up the pressure to make the current system work. The Police Guild, meanwhile, continued to attack any changes on all legal fronts, filing unfair labor practice complaints, discrediting the Review Board, and pouring cold water on the mayor's interest in possibly changing the system. According to the guild, since the city and the cops union are currently in talks over the next three-year contract and no major changes to the OPA process have been proposed, the next chance to make modifications (which must be negotiated as part of the labor agreement) is three years hence. If then. For the media, stories like this always produce a lot of false rabbits to chase, and the mayor's spinmeisters were busy breeding these bunnies. Who leaked the draft report? What political ambitions lurk in the heart of Peter Holmes, the leading member of the Review Board? Is this just another spat over turf between the mayor and the council? Given the local NAACP's jumping in and calling for the chief to resign, is it really just about race relations, rather than broader questions about the police department? Well, yes, it's those familiar story lines, oft-told enough to assure that the story peters out pretty quickly. What would really be interesting, and would finally shed some real light on the way Mayor Nickels runs his regime, would be to investigate the power of the Police Guild, their ability to protect bad officers, and the timidity of local politicians (and many unhappy cops) in the face of the guild's lawyers, the union's stalling of reform, and threats of political reprisal. What I suspect we'd find, if the story really developed legs, is that Nickels puts a very high premium on placating labor unions like the guild and that he tends to put his senior department heads in awkward positions as they are forced to squash legitimate inquiries into what's going on. We'd also see how little the council has been able to do to force more police accountability. And whatever happened to the city attorney's office in these matters? The case might well emerge that Seattle should move to an independent civilian review board, as the ACLU and other activists have long urged. Then the fat would really be in the fire. This being conflict-averse Seattle, I doubt we'll really get to a showdown. More likely are some token reforms and a heavy application of Dr. Kerlikowske's emolient lotions. Then again, there are four factors that might make this story into a kind of turning point for this issue and this mayor. One would be if Nickels' political opponents, gearing up for a mayor's race in 2009, sense that the mid-second-term blahs have settled in, ever since the setback on the Alaskan Way Viaduct (the mayor's favored tunnel replacement option is dead), and that some of the buried critics of Nickels could be lured out into the public, using this issue as a pretext. A second factor could be the race for King County prosecutor, where a challenger like Bill Sherman, the likely Democratic nominee and a veteran from the criminal side of the prosecutor's office, might decide to raise the similar issue of King County Sheriff's Office deputies (equally adamant in opposing review processes that cull out bad apples), and thus make the Seattle variant of the disease a focus of political debate. Don't count on it, since a prosecutor needs to have good working relations with the police and any Democrat thinks long and hard before taking on the cops' union. The third factor is the 2007 election for City Council. Ex-cop Tim Burgess, who has been critical of Chief Kerlikowske's leniency in discipline cases, would be a natural to raise these issues, but he was just endorsed by the Police Officers Guild and will probably mute his criticism. The race between Venus Velazquez and Bruce Harrell is probably too close for either one to risk stirring up the powerful guild, though both candidates will be very sensitive to the issues of bad cops treating minorities disrespectfully. Then there is a fourth factor, public pressure. Remember that? Back in the days when heroic and principled lawyers had a lot of sway in local politics, you might get some of them stepping to the public microphone and pressuring elected officials to put the public interest ahead of labor peace. The Municipal League would bestir itself. In a time of rising crime, this was easier to do; today, due to demographic factors and the decline of crack cocaine, most cities, including Seattle, have crime statistics that lull us into complacency. Police departments have learned to be much more sensitive about race relations, with Kerlikowske particularly good in this regard, thus defusing another powder keg for reform. Most likely, we'll be afforded a brief peek inside the blue curtain of police work in Seattle, a few more ugly pictures of victims on the front pages of the papers, a long and tedious examination of minor tweaks to the present system, and then a return to a not-very-comforting normalcy. Say it isn't so. Tell me how it could be otherwise.


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