Mayor Ed Murray's first stumble: Police reform

Commentary: Defense of his police chief's meddling rings false. Try again, dear Mayor.
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Go-slow Murray is fast-tracking a progressive agenda.

Commentary: Defense of his police chief's meddling rings false. Try again, dear Mayor.

Mayor Ed Murray has stepped into his first political horse pucky pile defending the actions of his Police Chief in overturning disciplinary decisions made through the Office of Professional Accountability.

Chief Harry Bailey decided to overturn a tap on the wrist punishment to a police officer who had harassed a journalist for legally doing his job. The resulting outcry over the chief’s decision has caused the mayor to admit that it was a mistake, and even the officer involved asked that his punishment be reinstated in order to stop the storm of publicity.

Still, another half dozen cases of police misconduct have been fiddled with, and more were in the offing.

The issue was never about the case of a single journalist being threatened while legally doing his job, bad though that was. The issue is the integrity of the police accountability process.

In a press release this week, Murray defended Bailey's intention. The chief, he said, was actually trying to further reform by substituting training for docking pay in instances of discipline. And he was trying to address a backlog of cases. "The fact is, Chief Bailey was ahead of us. We do need new ways to think about accountability and culture change. We do need education- and value-based forms of discipline that change unacceptable behavior and sustain the values of an organization. And we do need to look at our OPA process, which has remained the same for the past 15 years under six different chiefs and four different mayors."

In other words, his chief Bailey is leading the reform process, not subverting it.

That does not pass the smell test.

If reforming the process was the goal of the mayor and his appointee, why not consult with the civilians closest to the process — OPA director Pierce Murphy and OPA auditor Anne Levinson — prior to overturning decisions and lightening the punishments? Why not ask the folks who run the system for their input?

Levinson, the auditor, has already provided the city with a robust and thoughtful critique for fixing OPA’s shortcomings. A retired judge, she is paid by the city to make sure the system works and, in January of this year, she issued an extensive list of recommendations for making the system better.

If Mayor Murray needs a roadmap, it's right here. Hit the link, Mr. Mayor.

The document calls for speeding up disciplinary proceedings, more transparency, points out ways in which union rules — such as appealing too many decisions as a union grievance — have gummed up the works and suggests that OPA investigators be given more power to gather evidence. It even calls for more and improved training.

The roadmap for reform the mayor seemed to be asking for in his press release this week has largely already been laid out. If Bailey and Murray want substantive reform that reflects all sides fairly, they’ve got an advocate a phone call away.

And Levinson’s recommendations regarding the OPA process are actually already underway, written into the Department of Justice consent decree. It’s the job of the new Community Police Commission to look at the issues of how the OPA process can work better. Those reforms will require more than jiggling the process. They're part and parcel of the bigger cultural reforms at the police department that the mayor says he will change, and that the DOJ says we must change.

The mayor says the OPA process has been unchanged the "past 15 years under six different chiefs and four different mayors" — suggesting that OPA is the problem. And it’s true it is not a perfect system. But it is a process that has been reviewed and improved. Two Blue Ribbon commissions, one under Mayor Paul Schell and another most recently under Greg Nickels in 2007, have dug into OPA. Both were sparked by questionable actions taken by the police department, including, in the Nickels case, charges that then-chief Gil Kerlikowski had improperly intervened in an internal investigation.

Levinson has been making the case for reforms since she was first appointed in 2010. Last fall, she was reappointed to the independent auditor position for another three-year term by a 9-0 vote of the city council, a majority of whose members endorsed the mayor’s election. She has also received approving comments from DOJ monitor Merrick Bob, who said at the time that she "will help improve the relations between Seattle's diverse communities and OPA."

Mayor Murray is trying to get in front of a parade that is already on the march. But he’s stumbled on the way.

His chief's actions have undermined the existing process. No one appears to be reopening OPA cases to make punishments tougher. That they are being softened, eliminated and erased from the record is no way to build public confidence. And they certainly raise the stakes for the new chief, who must now overcome suspicion generated by a transition period that was supposed to smooth the way to fundamental reform.

In the same press release this week, the mayor pulled down Bartlett's Quotations and went to Roosevelt, Franklin D., for advice. "In my inaugural address, and in my State of the City address, I quoted FDR, who talked about bold and persistent experimentation. He said, 'It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another.'"

Now is Murray's chance to follow this advice; to use the hard work and expertise already available to him to take another, more collaborative tack on reform; to strengthen the OPA rather than causing a rattled public to question his commitment to true reform.

At mid-week, his deputy mayor Hyeok Kim went before the city council's Public Safety Committee saying the mayor wants a more comprehensive and inclusive process for reviewing the OPA system and is putting a hold on reviewing more cases.

The success of police reform, Murray has said again and again, is his number one job as mayor.

His first move was flawed; try another indeed.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.