Last week, the Seattle Police Department ruled that Officer John Marion was guilty of misconduct for repeatedly threatening a reporter with showing up at his newsroom to "bother" him while he was working. The penalty was one unpaid day off work. The reporter was me.
The incident occurred last July 30, when I biked past Fifth and Jackson in the International District, where several officers surrounded a man sitting on a planter box. So I did what I typically do when I see something unusual—I stopped, pulled out my notebook and camera, and started taking photos. After the man left the scene, a county police sergeant threatened to arrest me unless I left the block, even though I was standing on a public sidewalk.
When I asked Seattle police officer Marion who was in charge, he became furious. Marion pointed out that I'd been taking notes and photographs, and he exploded into a threatening tirade about visiting my office to harass me.
That seemed not only unnecessary, unprofessional, and directly in line with the kind of police overreaction criticized by a US Department of Justice report in 2011, but perhaps a real—if minor, compared to instances of police assault—attempt to intimidate a reporter over simply doing his job. Curious to see what would happen, I filed complaints against the county cop and the SPD officer.
On January 9, the SPD ruled that Officer Marion was guilty of "unprofessionalism." (They don't use the word "guilty." Their wording is: "The misconduct alleged did occur.")
"The officer took a normal contact with a member of the public and turned it into a confrontation and escalated it to a point where he was acting in a completely unprofessional and inappropriate manner," explains Pierce Murphy, who runs the SPD's discipline division.
Murphy recommended a punishment for Officer Marion's conduct: one unpaid day off of work. He says the penalty is "an appropriate measure" in the "middle of the range of possible disciplinary actions."
But lawyers who handle police misconduct cases say that, although a day off the streets for unprofessional behavior is better than nothing, the SPD ignored Officer Marion's more serious offense of trying to intimidate a citizen for documenting police activity and gave him too light a penalty.
"It is clear to me that this guy should have been fired the next day," says Cleve Stockmeyer, a civil rights attorney who has represented half a dozen clients over the last few years in Seattle police misconduct cases. James Egan, a lawyer who has handled recent high-profile cases against the city for police misconduct, adds, "A lot of these guys, they get the badge and they feel entitled to be bullies, and frankly, they get away with it more often than not. If you weren't a reporter, then your complaint would have gone nowhere."
That is part of the reason I filed the complaint. Data from the Department of Justice suggests some Seattle police officers routinely mistreat people, particularly racial minorities, and complaints against officers are all but tossed in the shredder.
Few allegations filed with SPD's discipline division, the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA), result in any penalty. The OPA handled 243 complaints against employees in 2012. Of those, only 12 percent resulted in discipline. (The rate in 2011 was identical.) Another 20 percent of cases resulted in more training for the officers. The rest—67 percent—were dismissed as unfounded, because the cops' behavior was deemed "lawful and proper," or inconclusive based on the evidence.
Former interim police chief Jim Pugel acknowledges that Officer Marion's behavior "went toward exactly one of the issues that drew the attention of the US Department of Justice: taking a low-level interaction with a person in the community and behaving in a way that could escalate it." The SPD, under the oversight of a federal court, is undertaking a reform plan to eradicate those patterns.
But is the SPD taking reform seriously?
The discipline process is tilted heavily in the cops' favor. Before any sanctions are issued, officers may appeal to the chief and respond directly to allegations. A representative of the SPD's powerful police union is present to advocate on the cops' behalf, and officers have a further chance to appeal any decision to an internal review board and the city's Public Safety Civil Service Commission. The complainant never hears what the officer says, never has a chance to rebut the officer, or receives an opportunity to appeal the decision. Isn't that unbalanced?
"This isn't about compensation or balance," the OPA's Murphy says. "The complaint process is about improvement or correction of behavior."
Officer Marion made $89,000 in 2011, according to the most recent available records of city employee salaries, so missing one day's work isn't a stinging financial penalty. Salary aside, who cringes at the idea of lounging around their home on a weekday while watching television and maybe drinking beer? That's not even a slap on the wrist. It's a hand massage.
But if victims of police misconduct want compensation or an even playing field, Murphy says, "This isn't the right process for them. The civil justice system is the process that our society has." If victims of bad policing want a fair hearing, Murphy essentially says, they have to sue the city.
"The OPA gives lip service to the complaints, and the purpose is to make citizens feel like something has been done so they won't pursue it any further," says Egan. "They aren't looking for the truth."
Former chief Pugel says his hands are tied, explaining that Officer Marion's day off was "consistent with similar incidents, and we have to look at comparisons in the past." A penalty beyond the standard range increases the likelihood that an officer or the union could appeal the ruling, SPD sources say.
King County sheriff John Urquhart has been willing to take that risk. In August, Urquhart demoted a sergeant for accosting a couple—which would normally be punished by a reprimand—in part due to the officer's long history of misconduct complaints. (That was the same county cop who threatened to arrest me for taking photos. I filed a complaint, and the case is pending.) Urquhart went even further in a separate December case, firing a sergeant who was facing a recommendation of suspension. If the county can impose such discipline, surely the SPD, which is under a federal court order for reform, can do the same.
Stockmeyer argues that Officer Marion's threats were an attempt to discourage me from reporting on police activity, a constitutional right of all citizens. "To threaten a reporter at work is a police-state move," he says. "This man is clearly a threat to everyone's civil rights and to citizens' well-being." OPA head Murphy holds a different opinion. He says the argument that Officer Marion was trying to discourage me from writing about the incident was "unfounded."
"I don't think it was in response to his awareness that you were a reporter and going to write about the incident," says Murphy.
This is a bizarre conclusion. In a police dash-cam video of the July 30 incident, Marion and two other officers see me taking notes, and one of the cops asks: "Where do you work?" After finding out I'm a reporter, he threatens five times to bother me at work, adding later: "You're going write about how terrible I am."
"He's threatening to retaliate in advance of your story so you won't write the story," says Stockmeyer. "It amounts to a deliberate and malicious retaliation." And by letting Marion off the hook on that charge, he argues, "the OPA director is saying that threatening a reporter is okay. This is why we have a problem with the cops. They will back up the bad apple when what we need to do is get the bad apples out of the barrel. The message to officers is 'Don't worry, we got your back.'"
So why should victims of police misconduct even bother filing a complaint? That involves hours of follow-up, months of waiting, a token gesture of punishment, and OPA director Murphy explaining that you shouldn't even expect a balanced process.
But maybe he's right. If the SPD, as Murphy says, isn't serious about giving citizens balanced hearings, perhaps all victims of police misconduct should take him up on his advice: So sue them.