You know city hall has a PR crisis when the mayor holds an unexpected press conference at 5 p.m. on a Friday. But then you know the situation has turned into a clown car of bad PR when the mayor's office announces another press conference at 9 a.m. on the following Monday to reverse everything announced at the previous press conference with words including "apologize," "mistake," and "confusion."
That is what happened last week, less than two months into Mayor Ed Murray's term.
At issue: Seattle Police Department interim chief Harry Bailey is repealing verdicts in several cases where officers were found guilt of misconduct (while the city is under a federal court order to reform a department plagued with police misconduct).
The most prominent case stemmed from a complaint I made last summer against Officer John Marion, who threatened me while I was gathering information on a county officer's misconduct. The SPD's discipline bureau and previous chief, who was appointed by former mayor Mike McGinn, found Officer Marion committed an act of "unprofessional" conduct and punished him with a day's unpaid suspension.
On Thursday, Chief Bailey announced that he had reopened the case along with others (under pressure from the influential, conservative police union and with support from Mayor Murray). Instead of the one-day suspension, Bailey assigned the cop additional training. Bailey insisted he had upheld the misconduct verdict itself. Keeping that misconduct decision in place ensured Marion's record would include a demerit to be considered for any future misconduct cases.
But details emerged last Friday demonstrating that is not what Chief Bailey did—and interviews with the Seattle Times, SPD, and city hall suggest that Bailey knew he was misleading city officials. It turns out that Bailey sent the SPD discipline bureau a settlement agreement striking the misconduct verdict that Tuesday, thereby leaving Officer Marion's record unblemished.
A Seattle Times reporter told Chief Bailey that his actions had struck down the misconduct verdict. Still, Bailey went on to tell the mayor and city council in a letter that he "concurred" with the misconduct verdict (which he had actually removed), thereby raising questions about the chief's honesty in handling several other misconduct cases.
That's when Mayor Murray announced the first press conference.
Murray told reporters, "I agree with Chief Bailey's decision." He believed more training for Officer Marion would do more to improve police culture than a day's suspension. Asked about Chief Bailey making false statements on overturning the misconduct decision, Murray stood up for his chief, saying, "I believe we have a chief who is honest and a chief who is restoring the public's faith."
After a cavalcade of negative weekend press, Murray announced a hastily arranged press conference Monday morning.
"I have directed Chief Bailey to reinstate the original finding... I am mayor: the buck stops with me," Murray said in a statement. "So this mistake was mine."
Bailey then told reporters: "Overturning the finding of misconduct was a mistake and sent the wrong message to our officers and the public... It will remain part of the permanent record, which it should be."
That's not what happened for six other cops. As the Seattle Times reported on Monday night, Bailey has removed misconduct findings from the records of six officers.
While it is good that the mayor and chief are taking one officer to task, this whole flip-flop sends a broader message: The police union can get what it wants—persuading the mayor and police chief to scotch misconduct verdicts—when the cases are under wraps, out of the public eye. But cops only get punished when the city faces backlash over a case. That's unfair to cops who don't deserve double standards, unfair to the victims who want to keep their cases private, and a punch in the gut to confidence in the police complaint process. It suggests that political winds and subjective whims trump actual rules for misconduct. This is not what police reform looks like.