Get Rid of Kathryn Olson

If You Want Public Trust in the Police Department (and Meaningful Discipline for the Cops), Don't Reappoint the Same Person You've Had Doing the Job for the Last Five Years

Get Rid of Kathryn Olson

Kathryn Olson isn't a cop herself. She's a civilian who works at Seattle Police Department headquarters, where she leads a team of sworn officers one floor below the chief—and often meets with the department brass—in her role as director of the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA).

Basically, Olson is in charge of disciplining the cops.

If a woman complains that an officer beat her, a man claims that police electrocuted him with a Taser when he was complying with orders, or a video camera catches an officer using a racially charged insult, for example, it's Olson's job to make sure those complaints get a fair shake—despite being surrounded daily by a police culture that habitually protects its own.

"An OPA Director must never become or be widely seen as an advocate of SPD, but must remain objective and welcoming of any criticism of SPD practices," said a report on the Seattle police by the US Department of Justice last December, describing Olson's job as the "lynchpin of the public's trust in the system."

"Unfortunately," the report explained, "concerns about the independence of the OPA Director have arisen in our investigation from a broad range of persons and communities."

Olson's office has investigated thousands of officer-misconduct complaints since she was appointed in 2007, including 584 last year, and the department has punished cops in about 12 percent of those cases (while assigning additional training to cops in another 20 percent of cases). In the rest of the complaints—that is, in roughly 68 percent of them—officers have been exonerated or the complaints have been otherwise dismissed. Those statistics in themselves are not inherently problematic, but sources with knowledge of OPA workings say several controversial cases raise questions about her leadership.

And yet city hall hasn't examined her leadership in years. An appointee of the mayor and Seattle City Council, Olson's term expired in May of 2010, more than two years ago, yet she's maintained her post and $164,000 annual salary without any formal reexamination of her job performance. In those years—and you probably don't need me to remind you of this—Seattle has exploded in acrimony over a litany of police misconduct cases involving an unjustified shooting of a Native American man, a cop threatening to "beat the fucking Mexican piss" out of a Latino man, a cop stomping on the head of a facedown, handcuffed suspect, and so many more alarming incidents that the US Department of Justice sued the city in federal court earlier this year. Infamously at this point, Seattle police were charged with an unconstitutional rate of excessive force and a troubling pattern of racially biased policing. Then, on August 28, the same day US District Court judge James Robart finalized a settlement agreement binding the city to a laundry list of reforms, Mayor Mike McGinn announced that he wanted to reappoint Olson to another term.

"I would say that her greatest success was that she won the confidence of the mayor," says Bruce Harrell, chair of the council's public safety committee, who expects his committee will take up the decision to approve or reject Olson's reappointment on October 3. Olson has had other successes, too. From Harrell and the mayor to Olson herself—all interviewed for this article—there is agreement that Olson's office meets rigorous standards for investigations and produces meticulous reports. The same federal report that faulted the city's policing last year largely said Olson's office produced "high quality" work.

However, Olson's office is also expected to gain the public's confidence.

"Where I think she has fallen short is that there is a strong public perception that the system is broken and she has been completely co-opted by the police department, and that she has become an advocate for the department and not an advocate for the public," Harrell says. He added that people believe "she has lost the meaning of the oath that she took as the director of the OPA, which is an advocate for police accountability to the public."

To understand why confidence in Olson has slipped, just look at a few of the numerous controversial cases that have passed across Olson's desk. It's not just a perception—there are examples of her standing idly by or lashing officers with the wettest of noodles when a firmer response was called for.

Allegedly Retaliating Against Someone Who Complained

In March of 2009, police tackled 52-year-old Donald Fuller and electrocuted him with a Taser after a jaywalking incident at Second and Pike. City prosecutors refused to press charges, citing a lack of evidence, so Fuller was released from jail. He then filed a complaint with the OPA.

The OPA officer handling the investigation, Caryn Lee, took the opportunity to pressure prosecutors to file charges against Fuller anyway, according to records filed by Fuller's attorney in Seattle Municipal Court this month. Eventually, Officer Lee went so far as to file criminal charges with the prosecutor's office herself.

That may have crossed a legal line.

The SPD's policy manual states that "no employee shall retaliate against any person who initiates or provides information pursuant to any citizen or internal complaint," and OPA policy says that "filing a complaint does not affect other civil or criminal proceedings."

In the end, Fuller was found guilty of obstructing an officer. But last week, Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes—who oversees the prosecutor's office—asked the court to vacate Fuller's conviction, citing the dubious circumstances. He noted in a statement, "It is vitally important for the community to know that neither OPA nor any other arm of law enforcement will retaliate when individuals exercise their rights to complain about police misconduct." The Seattle Human Rights Commission also asked the city council to seek a criminal investigation against Lee, citing the city's rules that prohibit retaliation.

Her critics say that Olson deserves the blame because she signed off on Lee's investigation while knowing, according to the report Olson signed, that there was "concern" about Lee's conduct.

"Olson essentially admits that she has violated the constitutional rights of complainants despite city policy not to do so," says Fuller's attorney, James Egan, in an interview, describing the document Olson signed.

As for Fuller himself, he says OPA is more interested in protecting cops than reprimanding officers. "The OPA and the police are watching each other's backs, maybe even allowing shady things to happen and maybe being dishonest," he says. His advice for anyone thinking of filing a complaint? "Absolutely do not give 100 percent faith and trust in the OPA."

Olson refused to comment on the matter.

Letting Cops Off the Hook

In 2008, a man named John Kita was seen struggling with a woman under the freeway downtown. Intervening, Officer Kevin Oshikawa-Clay told Kita to put his hands on the hood of the squad car. Viewing dash-cam video of the incident, it appears to me that when Kita's hands were up near his head with his palms out, Officer Oshikawa-Clay slammed Kita's head, face first, into the hood of the car. "There is no evidence that Kita resisted in any way at all," Kita's attorney wrote in a pleading to a federal judge.

The case has escalated to a jury before the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals—which indicates the gravity of the potential abuse—but when it was simply a complaint of excessive force before the OPA, Olson found the officer's conduct acceptable.

Olson concurred with a report that found the officer "was justified in using the minimal force he did." It added that Kita "appeared to be reaching into his waistband," despite the video that shows Kita's hands near his head. Records in that report also say there were no witnesses, but it appears to me the video shows a man watching part of the incident from roughly 10 feet away. Nonetheless, Olson approved a finding in 2009 of "exonerated," meaning the officer did nothing wrong.

In a range of other OPA cases, officers have received little discipline, typically ranging from sending officers in for more training to, in particularly severe cases, a brief suspension without pay. For example, in December of 2010, Officer Garth Haynes stepped on the head of a facedown, handcuffed suspect in Ballard. Although he was found by the OPA to have used excessive force, his recommended penalty was a mere 10 days off work without pay.

Even then, Chief John Diaz suspended Haynes's punishment last month, pointing out that a jury had found Haynes wasn't guilty of assault (under criminal law). Did Olson think it was acceptable to suspend the punishment for violating police policy? "I just don't recall," she told me repeatedly. Should Haynes have received a more severe penalty? "Again, it is a no comment."

The US Department of Justice

Has Found Problems

Under Olson, the OPA dealt with nearly two-thirds of complaints by sending them to precincts, where the quality of the investigations was "appalling," an OPA employee told federal investigators. Furthermore, the way verdicts are classified is "so complex that they damage OPA's credibility and undermine public confidence in OPA," the Feds found. Both of those problems have since been remedied. However, the report revealed that Olson appeared to avoid giving cops serious punishments. The DOJ also found it "was not unusual" for Olson to overturn the findings of investigations after talking with commanders, even though federal investigators say she shouldn't speak to command staff before issuing a final report. It sounds like she was, in essence, seeking advice from brass on whether to sustain a complaint against an officer.

Taken together, these cases and criticisms paint a portrait of what the OPA has become under Olson's leadership. When officers are punished (rarely), the penalties are laughably light. Often, cops are let off the hook completely (sometimes with good cause, but in some cases despite apparently galling behavior). And Olson is silent on the allegation of her investigator retaliating, all while police abuses literally become a federal case.

"I disagree that there is widespread abuse that is not being addressed," Olson said in a recent interview when I pressed her on her record. She points out that, according to many audits, her investigations "are well documented and thorough."

Technically, Olson is not breaking the rules. A Byzantine hierarchy of SPD policy, union police contracts, state labor law, and criminal codes, combined with a discipline process that involves commanders and the chief—it all ends up setting a very high bar for punishing a cop. But what Olson has failed to do, according to interviews with people at City Hall and those who have worked with the OPA in the past, is become a public leader for police accountability. During a rash of police beatings over the past several years, Olson was mostly silent. And those praiseworthy annual reports? They're largely inscrutable to the general public, while Olson's recommendations have generally advised training with little follow-through.

As for a perception that she has twiddled her thumbs while cops ran wild, she says, "I am really interested to find out from the community where the disconnect is." Does she have any sense, I ask, why people think she's too cozy with the chief and the cops? "I want to hear from the public." It is very telling that after five years—these particular five years—Olson hasn't taken the initiative to hear from the public and acts mystified by the situation.

So I called OPA auditor Anne Levinson, whose past reports stated concerns about the office's lack of transparency and slow process. She said she could only speak to the office as a whole (not just Olson). Fair enough. Beyond all those investigations and reports, which she acknowledges are thorough, what is the goal of the OPA? "The goal of the OPA is to ensure that public safety and civil rights coexist and that the public can have a sense of trust and confidence in their police," Levinson said.

Has the OPA given Seattleites "a sense of trust and confidence in their police"?

Levinson paused for a while.

"The answer to your question is no," she said. But that responsibility, Levinson adds, must be shared by the OPA, police brass, and city hall.

For his part, Mayor McGinn thinks Olson should be reappointed this fall. Her next term would expire nine months from now; in May, she would then be eligible for a third term. McGinn points out that the clock is ticking to meet obligations of the federal police settlement. "Kathryn Olson's knowledge is valuable" and the city "needs her to help meet those deadlines," says the mayor. But after failing to seek her reappointment for more than two years, his urgency seems surreal.

So what should the council do when it convenes next week, on October 3, to consider its next steps?

They could reject Olson's reappointment, but if they do that, police unions could contest her future findings, saying she's not appointed.

Or they could do something smarter: Demand that the city open up a national search for a new OPA director, a person who can write a report, aggressively weed out and punish bad-apple cops, and be a public advocate for accountability. For someone earning a six-figure salary, that's not too much to ask. As the search proceeds, Olson could maintain her duties, but she shouldn't be reappointed. Now is the time for new leadership at the OPA. recommended

UPDATE: The council has postponed committee meetings to consider Olson's reappointment. They are now tentatively scheduled for December.


Comments (20) RSS

Oldest First Unregistered On Registered On Add a comment
AndyBlue 1
The corruption never ends. This woman hired personally by McGinn has made over a Million in pay and benefits to basically give the citizens the FALSE impression that we had accountability which is PROVEN not to be. Sounds like defrauding the citizens to me.

Unfortunately part of her job is to report diorectly to the Seattle City Council and the Mayor. They all knew we had no accountability and allowed us be go through a federal investigation and now have a federal judge assigned to babysit our corrupt Seattle Police depatment.

The Seattle police emasculated themselves over and over. The citizens pay millions and millions in investigations, court costs and settlements for this corrupt police department while 95% of all Seattle police officers don't even live in Seattle.

When human filth gets a badge EVERYONE pays. and pays and pays and pays.
Posted by AndyBlue on September 26, 2012 at 11:45 AM · Report this
Matt the Engineer 2
What I find frustrating about this story is the repeated references to "the public". And not just references to them, but the entire argument hinging on the views of "the public". Do you honestly think the average voter has any idea who Kathryn Olson is?

If there's someone who actually thinks Olson isn't doing a good job, other than you and Fuller's attorney, you've failed to point them out.

I think this is a great idea for a story. We have a heavy-handed (ok, fisted) police force, and this is the office that should be advocating for the victims. And I think it's fine point that you don't think she's doing a good job at this. But I was looking for a bit more meat to the story, considering the hard line you've taken.
Posted by Matt the Engineer on September 26, 2012 at 12:41 PM · Report this
Eric Arrr 3
Ms. Olson:

You want to hear it from the public? Okay, then. Here are some lowlights from your files:

08-0456: unlawful arrest of yours truly, captured on video and investigated by Caryn Lee. The video contradicted the officer's version of events by showing that I was ruled out as a suspect before I was ever asked for ID. And what's more, the law, which Sgt. Lee was aware of, stated that I was under no duty to produce ID in any case. Yet Sgt. Lee ignored both the facts and the law to exonerate the officer, and you signed off.

08-0512: Investigation of Sgt. Seth Dietrich for threatening to put a handcuffed detainee in a holding cell contaminated with Hepatitis C. Sgt. Dietrich admitted to the investigator (-- Sgt. Lee again --) that he made the statement, yet Sgt. Lee recommended a finding of "Unfounded." You intervened and changed the finding to "Exonerated."

09-0152: unlawful arrest of a photographer who refused to identify himself after taking pictures at REI. Without a way to avoid a sustained finding, your office reclassified the complaint as a PIR, effectively dropping the matter.

08-0364: an officer was accused of an unlawful search of a woman's purse. The officer admitted that he seized her purse and refused to give it back to her unless she allowed him to search it. Your office dropped the allegation, considering the search consensual, by ignoring the fact that her "permission" was extracted under the duress of an unlawful seizure of her property.

08-0382: unlawful arrest of a dock worker and his mother, where the dock worker, being under no duty to identify himself, was forcibly pulled from a car, taken to the ground, and tased. It's all clearly captured on video, but your office exonerated both officers for the unlawful use of force.

I'm not cherry-picking here; every OPA file I've seen is troubling. They're characterized by investigators overlooking facts on video that contradict officer statements. By investigators asking the officers leading questions, obviously designed to develop evidence unfavorable to complainants. By investigators tending not to interview available civilian witnesses. By investigators going to great lengths to investigate the political attitudes of arrestees, and using those attitudes as a basis to justify officers' actions.

Taken together, the records of your office's investigations show that OPA's mindset is oriented more towards finding reasons to exonerate officers than towards performing fair and thorough investigations.

Posted by Eric Arrr on September 26, 2012 at 1:59 PM · Report this
Eric Arrr 4

I think it's mighty rich of Ms. Olson to appeal to the public, considering how OPA's investigative files have always been kept strictly confidential.* That goes to show how genuinely interested Ms. Olson is in keeping the public in the loop.

* OPA's records only became generally obtainable after an April 2011 supreme court decision, otherwise we would still be 100% in the dark about how OPA reaches its findings.
Posted by Eric Arrr on September 26, 2012 at 2:08 PM · Report this
Eric Arrr 5
Correction, an August 2011 supreme court decision:
Posted by Eric Arrr on September 26, 2012 at 2:21 PM · Report this
I would add another voice to the chorus that Ms. Olson apparently can't hear. What does she need? A letter on official "Public" letterhead stating that the "Public" really does not have faith in her or her police?

I'll toss my hat in the ring for her job, though. Hard to imagine an easier job with, apparently, no expectations.
Posted by Lavrans on September 26, 2012 at 10:03 PM · Report this
Great article. I'll be honest, I didn't know that this office existed before I read this article, because it seemed as if no one was responsible for police accountablility. That there's someone responsible and they're doing this bad of a job is infuriating.
Posted by Oscar M http://oscarmcnary.wordpress.com/ on September 27, 2012 at 9:43 AM · Report this
I was once pulled aside for jaywalking. The cop talks to me for a while and says, "You put me in a predicament." I said, "Oh, yeah?" "Yeah," the cop says, "the SPD has a reputation for ticketing black people more frequently than white people for jaywalking." I think he realized what he had said to me, and let me go for that reason alone.
Posted by Nutella on September 27, 2012 at 4:00 PM · Report this
JonnoN 9
I don't know if I'm an "average" voter, but I read the news, and I've known for a long time that Olson is a hack. Her and Diaz both have to go for any confidence to be restored in SPD. At least McGinn's job has an expiration date.
Posted by JonnoN http://www.backnine.org/ on September 27, 2012 at 6:49 PM · Report this
Couldn't but help notice the Injustice Defartment basically turned it's horny back on the people who asked them to investigate impoLICE brutality by members of the SPD in the first place . . . .(DIShonor amongst Satanists . . . .)
Posted by 5th Columnist on September 27, 2012 at 8:06 PM · Report this
Welcome to America. FreeDOOM and hypocrisy in full force for the world to laugh at. This is an overdue article, but i understand the fear of many journalists in this 'free' country. The police has unbelievable rights and powers that most people do not have and dealing with them requires a lot of money. You can pretty much lose everything you have just by suing police over some little dispute in this country. Police is just dangerous here, only the rich can deal with them. If I was this woman, i would've probably killed myself by now... I wouldn't be able to live with myself... but she is not even resigning! Wow, talking about ambitious money hungry selfish parasites! Put liens on her assets and properties and give it back to the taxpayers. Lets see her fight for it with a public defender so we can laugh at her when she will be kicked out of court like a dog. That's right, put people like this through the system that they are protecting... I am really trying to be nice here... had to choose nice words.
Posted by mikey on September 28, 2012 at 4:23 AM · Report this
It's really amazing how Americans are scared of police. We are so obedient and always tell our loved ones not to talk about it and to be carefull with police as if they are predators. But when it comes to events of national significance, there is never a word about police brutality and corruption. Not a word about it in our big media or at the presidential debates.. etc.. This is so pathetic how people are scared and censored to talk about police in this country... and how quickly those who do get silenced. You can only hear about these issues on foreign media like RT or in underground outlets as this one... All corporate big media will never touch these stories. We must be the greatest hypocrisy in the history of civilization.
Posted by mikey on September 28, 2012 at 4:40 AM · Report this
Annual salary of $164,000?? Fuck. That. Shit.

What would you expect to happen at that pay scale? A whole lot of rocking the boat or a whole lot of fitting in? Cut that salary by $100K and move her office to the Delridge Community Center.
Posted by MacGruber on September 28, 2012 at 12:42 PM · Report this
Great piece, but I agree with Mike the Engineer -- what does the public think and what is the plan to get her out? You can answer both questions:

Go here: www.at10us.com -- Register; Pick "public safety"; Pick the topic that fits best or write one in, Pick solver, write a viable solution to fix the problem -- you will not see a petition, poll or "like" -- save, tell your friends and have them tell their friends.

If enough people participate, a viable strategy with popular support will emerge to fix this. It's not a petition, it's a viable alternative to the situation you have today.
Posted by ejcarrig on September 28, 2012 at 7:04 PM · Report this
Great piece, but I agree with Mike the Engineer -- what does the public think and what is the plan to get her out? You can answer both questions:

Go here: www.at10us.com -- Register; Pick "public safety"; Pick the topic that fits best or write one in, Pick solver, write a viable solution to fix the problem -- you will not see a petition, poll or "like" -- save, tell your friends and have them tell their friends.

If enough people participate, a viable strategy with popular support will emerge to fix this. It's not a petition, it's a viable alternative to the situation you have today.
Posted by ejcarrig on September 28, 2012 at 7:07 PM · Report this

Posted by GeeJosh on September 29, 2012 at 11:04 AM · Report this
Wow, you would think a transwoman like her would be a little more sympathetic to the average person on the street.
Posted by jussmbdy on September 29, 2012 at 7:24 PM · Report this

Very good article, BUT! The writing Nazis want to point out that the word "electrocuted" means "to kill by means of electricity." KILL, get it?

Posted by Organfreak on October 1, 2012 at 9:31 AM · Report this
Appeals courts don't have juries.
Posted by Algernon on October 1, 2012 at 6:47 PM · Report this
Dear Mr. Holden:

Thank you for the good article. I'm glad somebody is able to at least get some of these people to say "no comment", rather than just completely ignore the questions of the public they are supposed to serve. When the news of that DOJ deal came out last July, I was a bit suspicious of the part about new civilian oversight, due to my prior knowledge of the OPA (I've attended their "Community Police Academy" events before). So I naively emailed the following open letter to the following folks (see if you recognize some names):

--- On Sat, 7/28/12, Rex Young wrote:

From: Rex Young
Subject: DOJ Agreement: Community Police Commission
To: Kathryn.Olson@seattle.gov, opareviewboard@seattle.gov, Mike.Mcginn@seattle.gov, Margaret.Olsen@seattle.gov, tim.burgess@seattle.gov, Peter.Holmes@seattle.gov, wendy.watson@seattle.gov, ethicsandelections@seattle.gov
Cc: lbyron@king5.com, cingalls@king5.com, sframe@king5.com
Date: Saturday, July 28, 2012, 8:26 PM

Good evening, fellow Seattleites:

This is an Open Letter. This Open Letter is in regards to the following statement by the Associated Press and KING 5 News regarding the DOJ Agreement:

"Police also would have to ... create a Community Police Commission, which would be a civilian oversight body."


This Open Letter is directed to whoever feels they can best answer the following questions:

How will the anticipated Community Police Commission differ from the existing 3-part Civilian Oversight of the Seattle Police Department (Office of Professional Accountability, OPA Auditor and OPA Review Board)?
How will the CPC work with and/or cross paths with the current Civilian Oversight?
How many people will be hired for the anticipated CPC?
What will be the hiring process for the CPC?
What qualifications will be looked for in candidates during the hiring process?
What "teeth" will the CPC have that the current Civilian Oversight does not?

Any feedback or thoughts are welcome from all.

Thank you for your time!


Rex Young

Unfortunately, I did not receive a response from anybody addressed in my email. Despite the large number of people (and lawyers) I addressed it to simultaneously (maybe that's why). Not even from the KING 5 folks I "cc'd", since I was quoting their report (or maybe that's why). I know that my email was at least received by Kathryn Olson, as the Mayor's attorney sent me the following email the following week (which included a comment-less forwarding of my email, from Ms. Olson to Mr. Marquardt, about an hour after my open letter went out):

--- On Fri, 8/3/12, Marquardt, Carl wrote:

From: Marquardt, Carl
Subject: FW: DOJ Agreement: Community Police Commission
To: "rex.young@yahoo.com"
Cc: "Olson, Kathryn"
Date: Friday, August 3, 2012, 4:49 PM

Mr. Young,

I can answer at least some of these questions, and would be happy to discuss the issues with you. Please feel free to give me a call, or propose some possible times to talk. Thanks.

Carl Marquardt
Legal Counsel
Office of Mayor Mike McGinn
Direct Line: 206.684.0962
POB 94749
Seattle 98124-4749

From: Olson, Kathryn
Sent: Saturday, July 28, 2012 9:38 PM
To: Marquardt, Carl
Subject: FW: DOJ Agreement: Community Police Commission

What does this single response tell me, other than attorneys do not necessarily like to have every conversation documented by email? It tells me I'm less likely to get a written response from my own local government authorities on one of society's most important issues than I am to get a written response to a letter to Santa Claus.

Sometimes it's not easy being in love with Seattle.
Posted by Rex Young on October 3, 2012 at 3:30 AM · Report this

Add a comment