Mayor Ed Murray endorsed longstanding recommendations on Wednesday for overhauling systems that guide officer accountability and misconduct investigations at the Seattle Police Department.
The set of 55 recommendations was presented in April by the city's Community Police Commission. The commission began its work in March of 2013. It was originally formed to provide citizen input on Seattle's ongoing police reform process, which is being carried out under a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice.
In addition to endorsing the recommendations, Murray also said that he wants the Community Police Commission to remain in place permanently to provide the department with civilian oversight.
“The CPC was created as part of the consent decree but it has become much more than that,” Murray said, referring to the document codifying the city's police reform agreement with the Justice Department. “I expect the CPC to be a loud and independent voice.”
The commission, set up while Mike McGinn was mayor, includes members from the city's racial, ethnic and LGBTQ communities, as well as individuals who work with homeless and mentally ill people in Seattle. Also among the group members are representatives from the Seattle Police Officer's Guild, and the Seattle Police Management Association, which represents captains and lieutenants.
Central to the recommendations is the process used to carry out misconduct investigations and, in cases where wrongdoing occurred, assign discipline. Misconduct can range from internal matters, such as failing to properly report a patrol car accident, to external complaints filed by citizens, including accusations that an officer inappropriately used force or harassed someone verbally.
Murray was stung by a controversy early in his term when the interim police chief he appointed, Harry C. Bailey, came under fire for reversing disciplinary findings in seven officer misconduct cases. The mayor initially defended Bailey, but then later directed him to reinstate the original finding in one of the cases. The incident shed light on an opaque appeals system that police officers have used to get disciplinary findings downgraded.
"These improvements represent a significant shift toward transparency and greater clarity for the discipline and appeals system," the mayor said on Wednesday. "A system that until now, as I have said before, has been mired in fog of byzantine procedures."
The department's Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) investigates misconduct complaints. The office is staffed by sworn police officers, but run by Pierce Murphy, a civilian director. Murphy and a civilian auditor, retired judge Anne Levinson, review each complaint OPA receives. At the end of each investigation, the OPA director recommends a “finding” to the chief of police. It’s then up to the police chief to decide whether or not to go along with the OPA director’s recommendation, and what type of discipline to hand down.
Disciplinary action commonly includes unpaid days off, but is also significant because it is noted in an officer's personnel file and has the potential to affect his or her career.
Under the current disciplinary system an officer, or their union, can appeal the chief's disciplinary finding, or "grieve" the decision and argue that it violated their bargaining rights. The disciplinary reversals that Bailey signed off on took place at this point in the process.
Some of the Community Police Commission's recommendations are designed to make this part of the system simpler and more transparent.
For instance, officers can currently appeal to either the Public Safety Civil Service Commission, or a Disciplinary Review Board. Unlike the Civil Service Commission meetings, the Review Board's are not public. The recommendations suggest designating the Civil Service Commission as the only venue for appeals, and not allowing active members of the police department to serve on it.
Both of these recommendations, along with others, would require changes to the collective bargaining agreements with Seattle's police unions. Nobody at the Seattle Police Officer's Guild was available on Wednesday afternoon to comment on the mayor's plan. And Murray would not comment on the city's approach for moving forward with recommendations that would require union contract changes, citing the confidential nature of collective bargaining negotiations.
Other recommendations covered a variety of police matters outside the appeals process. For example, current labor contract rules require OPA to refer investigations that involve possible criminal misconduct to other police department units, or outside agencies such as the Washington State Patrol. This starts the clock ticking on a 180-day time limit for OPA to take action in the case. This means that if the other unit or outside agency took 170 days to investigate, but then found no evidence of criminal misconduct, OPA would be left with only 10 days to determine if an officer committed a non-criminal violation of department policy.
Another recommendation suggests awarding preference points during the hiring process to potential recruits who are multi-lingual, or who have experience working in diverse communities, or in social services. The police department is currently conducting a review of its hiring processes. Additional recommendations call for online systems to track the status of complaints, and to post updates about the outcome of misconduct cases and appeals.
Many of the proposals have appeared in past reports issued by Levinson, OPA's auditor. Bernard K. Melekian, a consultant who has advised the mayor on police issues, also provided input on the recommendations.
Murray said that reforming the police department's accountability system has proven to be one of the most difficult tasks he has faced during his time as mayor. The process remains far from over. "Today we're taking another step forward," he said. "But it's not the end."