On June 20, Mayor Greg Nickels sent a letter to the director of the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA, the office that investigates citizen reports of delinquent officers). Nickels asked the OPA to "conduct an additional review of this case."
Seems like a good move. A recent report by the OPA Review Board (OPARB, the board that oversees the OPA) alleged that SPD Chief Gil Kerlikowske tampered with an OPA investigation. Nickels was asking OPA director Kathryn Olson to report on "concerns regarding the investigative process, including [the] inquiries by the chief of police."
I was hoping Nickels ordered the review because he was swayed by the critical report and by the public's frustration that wayward officers aren't getting disciplined. One council staffer reports that e-mails are coming in "90 to 95 percent" in favor of disciplining the chief. But Nickels's spokesperson Marty McOmber disabused me of my idealism. Nickels isn't pushing for accountability. He's moving to prevent it. McOmber, accusing the review board of having "a political ax to grind," says, "there's a lot of information flying around that's not accurate. People have raised a lot of questions. Well, let's put this to rest."
If this sounds like a surge against reform, it is. Some other elements of Nickels's offensive came to our attention this week: first, a June 25 memo to city council from the mayor's city council liaison belittled "recent misrepresentations" about Kerlikowske's role in the OPA review. (If the mayor is calling for review of the chief's role in the OPA investigation, how does he already know the review contained "misrepresentations"?) Second, and similarly, if Nickels is in earnest about reviewing the chief, why is his public-safety liaison asking groups—groups that rely on city funding, I should add, like the Seattle Neighborhood Group ($100,000 worth)—to write the council letters supporting the chief in advance of the review?
Other groups that depend on city grants, including affiliates of the Minority Executive Directors Coalition (MEDC), have also been asked to send in letters, according to one MEDC member, but are balking at the mayor's heavy-handed strategy.
Why is Nickels trying to direct a Kerlikowske charm offensive at city council? Because the council is now the one entity that can bring Kerlikowske to heel and Nickels knows it. And Nickels would be politically damaged by a disgraced chief.
If Nickels is queasy about putting pressure on the chief to discipline officers (Nickels is the only one who can fire the chief), the council should step in and be the hammer.
Last year, council member and public-safety committee chair Nick Licata tried to change the city charter to require the police chief to come before the council for review. Licata didn't have the votes.
He floated the idea again last week as the Kerlikowske scandal heated up. Licata dropped the idea, though, because he wanted to give Nickels a chance to step up. Not only has Nickels failed this past week, he's openly trying to combat the idea of accountability. The council should take that fight.