Nickels's Police-Accountability Dog and Pony Show
After questions about the Seattle Police Department's oversight process arose earlier this year—following allegations that the SPD's investigation into George Patterson's drug arrest last January was tainted—Mayor Greg Nickels and Seattle City Council President Nick Licata both scrambled to assemble their own police-accountability panels. The NAACP has also announced that it's creating a committee to police the police.
Nickels's approach is the loudest, but probably useless when it comes to ushering in a new era of police accountability. The mayor rounded up a high-profile posse, the Blue Ribbon Task Force for the Office of Professional Accountability, made up of big names like former governor Gary Locke, former mayor Norm Rice, and Judge Terry Carroll.
It shouldn't be a surprise that Nickels's all-star team is stumbling over the same hurdles that have plagued previous accountability panels in Seattle. Nickels's new panel is at the mercy of the Seattle Police Officers' Guild (SPOG), which, due to ongoing contract negotiations, could block any of the panel's recommendations from taking effect until the next round of bargaining in 2009. What's more, Nickels's panel is still waiting to hear back from the city about whether the SPOG contract also prohibits them from getting open access to the SPD's files.
Some members of Nickels's panel are already getting frustrated. At their first meeting in July, Hubert Locke—a former UW public-affairs professor—voiced his frustration with the red tape. "We risk having the integrity of our entire process muted [because] anything we do won't happen until 2009. I don't know if I'd have agreed to sit on the panel [if I'd known that]."
While Nickels's panel bangs its head against the police-contract brick wall, Licata—along with Council Members Richard McIver and David Della—are sidestepping SPOG. It makes sense that the group, led by Licata, is savvier than Nickels's panel: Licata's been working on police accountability for more than a decade, and he was there for the birth of Seattle's current police-accountability system, when then–council member Jim Compton was working to devise an oversight system to deal with SPOG's barriers.
That system includes three levels of review—the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA), the OPA's civilian auditor, and the OPA Review Board. The system works to the extent that the Patterson investigations were able to keep accountability on the front burner (and the front pages), which forced the remaining flaw, Nickels, into the spotlight. So, Licata's panel is sidestepping the dog and pony show approach and—rather than engaging in another tiresome pissing contest with SPOG—Licata is doing what Nickels should have done in the first place. He's working to gather up the authority to hold the police chief accountable when the current three-tiered system makes it clear that wrongdoing has occurred.
Last week, Licata and company sent a letter to Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske, asking him to appear before the city council on a quarterly basis and explain why he overturned the OPA's recommendations for officer discipline. The chief says he'll need to check with SPOG before he commits to any sort of review, but he's agreed to meet with members of the city council in the meantime.
While Nickels's best-in-show panel runs in circles and Licata tiptoes toward progress, the NAACP has also entered the fray, forming a seven-member panel—working without the resources, constraints, or credibility of the panels out of City Hall—composed of sociologists, attorneys, and "victims of police brutality."