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