The Office of Professional Accountability (OPA), an arm of the Seattle police department that investigates officer misconduct, uses an investigation process that is "exceptionally strong and very well structured," according to an assessment by Merrick Bobb, the court-appointed federal monitor of SPD's reform process, filed in federal court on Friday.
Last week, the police union that represents rank-and-file officers lashed out on social media at Pierce Murphy, the director of the OPA, calling him a "wolf in sheep's clothing"—before quickly deleting the Facebook post. Some took that as a sign that Murphy is doing something right.
"We're catching the things that need to be investigated and not swept under the rug," Murphy said today, calling the report "quite positive."
The monitor said Murphy, along with OPA Auditor Anne Levinson, are doing a "good job." Bobb's consulting team looked at a random sample of 36 OPA investigations last summer. Forty-four percent of those were deemed to be "superior," and 42 percent were deemed to be "adequate." Sub-par investigations, Bobb said, seemed largely due to a lack of resources.
The Department of Justice, in its initial 2011 investigation of the SPD, found that there were serious problems with the OPA. From Bobb's report:
The DOJ found "that OPA fails to provide adequate oversight to prevent a pattern or practice of excessive force." In particular, OPA "do[es] not provide the intended back stop for the failures of the direct supervisory review process"—with OPA sending too many citizens’ complaints to precincts for a chain of command investigation in which the quality was “appalling,” using “classification and findings systems [that] are so complex that they damage OPA’s credibility and undermine public confidence in OPA,” and overusing a “supervisory intervention” finding to dispose of serious allegations “that does not subject an officer to formal discipline.”
Murphy took over the job from a highly-criticized predecessor in 2013, coming from Boise, where he helped reform a troubled police force. In Seattle, he relies on a staff of police officers—who rotate in and out of OPA—to investigate misconduct by other officers. But he's sensitive to concerns that people with complaints about officer conduct may not want to talk to police, and to the appearance of police officers investigating themselves, calling the all-police staffing a "serious challenge to OPA's actual and perceived independence."
Introducing a hybrid system of civilian and police investigators, as Murphy did in Boise, would help address that problem. OPA investigators still show too much deference to police and too much skepticism toward civilian witnesses, Bobb said in the report, and a hybrid staff would be a good move.
But Murphy's ability to hire civilian investigators—a change he's been requesting for the past two and a half years—hinges on the outcome of ongoing labor negotiations with the Seattle Police Officers Guild, the union that attacked him last week. "It's nice to know the monitor agrees," Murphy said.
OPA is also hamstrung by the city's contract with the Seattle Police Management Association, the smaller union that represents command staff. That contract requires investigators to let senior members of the department send written answers to questions, instead of sitting down for face-to-face interviews like everyone else. "The OPA Auditor and OPA Director have previously identified this practice as problematic, and the Monitoring Team agrees," Bobb said.
"I'm not sure why the city agreed to that," Murphy said today.
Finally, there are still concerns that OPA is not aggressive enough. From the report:
Some investigations involved or raised potential criminal allegations of sworn and civilian personnel. In those instances, OPA addressed less than it could and should have on issues that came to light during the context of the criminal investigation. For instance, it did very little with an officer who admittedly provided false and misleading statements, which is a terminable offense. The issue was either never addressed or framed with insufficient flexibility to sweep it into the investigation. Similarly, in another case, OPA opted not to address an employee’s involvement in a domestic violence incident because the prosecutor chose not to file charges... Thus, it appears that OPA should be more comfortable to reach its own, independent conclusions about officer performance – regardless of whether a criminal investigation related to the same underlying facts is also conducted.
"I think they point out some systemic and contractural problems that we knew of," Murphy said. "I think it's good feedback. I take it to heart."
The 36-page report is available here.