Will Seattle cops cop to change?

A blue-ribbon panel on police accountability buries some significant proposals for reform in a bland-seeming report. But some new political conditions, and public pressure, could produce actual change.
Crosscut archive image.

Tim Burgess failed the progressive litmus test.

A blue-ribbon panel on police accountability buries some significant proposals for reform in a bland-seeming report. But some new political conditions, and public pressure, could produce actual change.

This week, a blue-ribbon panel released its final report [175K PDF] on police accountability in Seattle, grasping a nettle that most politicians would much rather lateral to such bodies. The key question is whether the carefully protected prerogatives of the Seattle cops (investigating wrong doing in-house, ridding itself of bad apples, responding to pressures to change police terms of employment) will remain pretty much unassailable.

We shall see. It probably won't happen unless the public applies significant pressure on some political spines.

Two things may have changed the calculus for reform. One is the new chair of the Public Safety Committee of the City Council, Tim Burgess, a former cop who knows very well the way the system works and the need for reforming it. (Nick Licata, who has chaired the committee in recent years, was miscast for that role.) Burgess says of the panel's report, "I like it a lot. If I could wave a magic wand, I'd implement all 29 proposals. Given the diversity and the quality of the members of the panel, it's quite impressive that they reached consensus."

Reaching that consensus was far from easy, as the Police Accountability Review Panel was divided between some very impatient reformers of the system (drawn from the ACLU, labor activists, and minority activists) and a prevailing majority that decided to avoid sweeping denunciations of the department and instead focus on some important procedural changes designed to root out bad apples, rather than overturning applecarts. Members Jenny Durkan, Mike McKay, Hubert Locke, and Norm Rice were said by sources to have been key in finding pragmatic common ground.

The other factor is Mayor Greg Nickels, who accepted all 29 recommendations of the report and made some encouraging noises about pushing the Police Officers Guild pretty aggressively to implement many of the changes. Next week, the mayor will say which recommendations he'll impose and which ones he will submit to collective bargaining, which probably means the latter issues will have to wait until 2010, when the next labor contract comes up. The Guild may stonewall, saying all 29 recommendations must be subject to collective bargaining, which would bog the whole reform effort down in molasses for years.

For his part, Burgess, who was backed by the Guild in the recent election, where he toppled David Della, says he'll tell the Guild that "we need a new playing field for resolving these issues. We shouldn't stay bound to the way of the past 40 years." He adds, "I'm not naive" about how tough this will be to accomplish.

The panel's report could have been much more critical of the department. One member says that he learned that virtually any tough decision made by the chief, whether disciplinary action or policy changes, simply cannot stick. If the rank and file do not like it, the decision is referred to numerous review bodies, on which the Guild is strongly represented. And if this maneuver doesn't overturn the decision or defang it, the matter is referred to bargaining or the courts. Some chiefs, like Pat Fitzsimons, would try anyway, even if they rarely would prevail. Others, apparently including present Chief Gil Kerlikowske, figure life's too short.

It would take a very stubborn mayor to wade into this, possibly triggering recall elections and all sorts of political opposition. To date, Nickels has been very pro-labor and pro-Guild. We'll soon learn whether he's changed, or just wants to seem to have changed.

The report is deceptively mild, couching its recommendations in diplomatic bureaucratese. But there are some significant changes, if aggressively implemented. One seemingly innocuous example is the criticism of a practice where an officer is disciplined by suspension from duty without pay, the most serious penalty short of termination. "The seriousness of this sanction should not be mitigated by allowing an officer to use vacation or other accrued time to satisfy it," says the report, highlighting a sly abuse few knew about.

The rubber really meets the road when the panel says the directorship of the Office of Professional Accountability needs to be strengthened in many ways: attending all disciplinary hearings (currently the final one is held with the chief alone, where often new evidence is introduced, leading to a changed verdict), having more say about officers assigned to investigations, having more budgetary authority, and getting in writing from the chief his reasons for overturning a recommendation through the OPA process. Reading between the lines, you can see how the system has been gamed in the past, mostly by hobbling the OPA.

The other big recommendation is beefing up the auditor, currently parttime, by having the manpower and budget and authority to make policy recommendations, perform in-depth audits of substantive policies and procedures, and issuing public reports. At present, about all the auditor, currently Kate Pflaumer, can do is get involved in real-time review of cases as they come along.

So there is a good recipe for reform. Is this a propitious time for it? Crime is down, Chief Kerlikowske is an effective political operator well liked in many neighborhoods, and the mayor seems breezing to reelection and therefore not running scared.

But there are also some positive factors for change. One is the potential cessation of hostilities between the mayor and the City Council, where police accountability issues have been battlegrounds. Another is pressure from downtown interests, angry at the way the mayor let the police steer clear of open crime scenes on downtown streets, which embarrassed the city into changing police policies. (The City Council also stole a march on the mayor last year by beefing up police personnel.) The final factor might be the way the report, given its political pedigree, could rally public support for at least these changes, putting the Guild on the defensive for once.


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