The contents of a damning report on police accountability do contain a bit of good news. Despite charges of evidence planting, excessive force, and interference from the police chief, a seemingly depressing 15-page report on the Seattle Police Department's ability to flout the rules, regulations, and oversight process actually proves that accountability has not broken down, but, in fact, is alive and well.
Thanks to Peter Holmes and Brad Moericke of the Office of Professional Accountability Review Board (OPARB)—appointed by the Seattle City Council to review the SPD's own internal investigations—the public, the media, and, most importantly, the city council are now turning their attention to Chief Gil Kerlikowske. And this is precisely where the attention should be.
Seattle has a three-tiered process for reviewing complaints against the police department. The Office of Professional Accountability (OPA), the first line of review, handles initial complaints against the department. Next, an auditor, tasked with ensuring OPA's investigations are fair and thorough, oversees OPA and reports his or her findings to the police chief on a semiannual basis. OPARB provides a final level of oversight, completely independent from the police department. OPA's executive director and auditor are both civilians—a significant and rare feature that has been hailed by oversight advocates. For example, Samuel Walker, author of 11 books on criminal justice and policing and civil liberties, has linked increased civilian oversight to improvements in police accountability, name-checking Seattle in his list of seven well-managed cities. While both OPA and its auditor answer to the police chief, OPARB—a final check—does not. Holmes and Moericke did exactly what they were supposed to do when they picked apart the chief for his intrusive role in OPA's investigations.
In response to the OPARB report, Kerlikowske has been identified by council president Nick Licata as a potential roadblock to full accountability. (OPARB is working on a report about 12 other cases in which Kerlikowske overturned an OPA investigation.) With the council potentially bringing pressure at Licata's behest, Mayor Greg Nickels—who told the Seattle Times that he still has confidence in the embattled police chief—may have to change his blind support. Reeling the mayor in to the reality of the situation is important because Nickels is the only one who has the ability to fire Kerlikowske. A watchful eye from Nickels may squeeze some attention to accountability out of the reluctant Kerlikowske, who, in turn, is the only one who can discipline police officers.
Specifically, the report, first detailed by the Seattle Times, says Kerlikowske interfered in OPA's police oversight process. OPA had been investigating George Patterson's allegations that SPD officers Gregory Neubert and Michael Tietjen used excessive force and planted drugs on him during a January 2 arrest in downtown Seattle ["Raw Deal," Jonah Spangenthal-Lee, June 7]. According to OPARB's report, "OPA appeared to be on a path to sustaining [a] more serious allegation" against the officers when Kerlikowske directed an OPA investigator to obtain testimony from a woman who admitted to being intoxicated at the scene of Patterson's arrest and was released from jail on the condition that she would give a statement to OPA. The woman's testimony was used to discredit Patterson, and the chief publicly exonerated the officers in April, a month before Neil Low, OPA's acting director, signed off on the investigation.
During OPARB's investigation, Holmes and Moericke found clear evidence that the chief had interfered in the OPA process. OPARB's startling finding proves the three-tiered system of checks and balances seems to be working.
City council president Nick Licata wants to take advantage of the report's conclusion. Last week he suggested that the chief's position be subject to council oversight and reconfirmation.
Says Licata: "This is a pretty clear instance where there are issues raised about [the oversight] process and it gives us an opportunity to have a discussion.
"There are still some council members that don't want to go there. I think this is something that's relevant right now."
The OPARB report concludes: "As long as the chief continues to resist our calls to explain his reasons in writing when reversing a final OPA determination, it may be too tempting for him to attempt to sway future OPA determinations. Unless meaningful screening procedures are insisted upon from the 'top down,' misconduct such as that uncovered by OPA in this case will likely reoccur."
If the council doesn't act on Licata's plan—specifically, Licata wants to pass a binding charter amendment that would make the chief accountable to the council—OPARB's fears may prove true.