Reform in Reverse
How Mayor Ed Murray Unraveled Two Years of Police Reform in Only Two Months
The Seattle Police Officers' Guild is a club of retrograde good old boys that embodies the most toxic aspects of cop culture. Officially a labor union representing about 1,250 sworn officers—negotiating police contracts, shaping department policy—the guild's past leadership admits that the union, commonly known as SPOG, spends most of its time defending officers involved in misconduct investigations.
After a spate of misconduct cases arose in 2010, eventually resulting in the US Department of Justice finding that Seattle police have a pattern of using excessive force, editorials began appearing in the SPOG newspaper, the Guardian, attacking political leaders who supported reform, opposing the reform plan, and calling to overturn programs intended stop racial profiling. The city's Race and Social Justice Initiative is "an assault on traditional and constitutional American values," one Guardian piece declared. Efforts to combat racial profiling were "socialist policies" perpetrated by "the enemy" (with "the enemy" being city officials who wanted to work on the racial profiling issue). Another piece, published the same year a cop threatened to "beat the fucking Mexican piss out of" an innocent man, argued cops should be allowed to call citizens "bitch" and "n***a" (asterisks appeared in the original). SPOG compared the Justice Department's investigation to the federal government's bloody standoffs at Waco and Ruby Ridge. They said the city attorney charging an officer with assault after the officer kicked a teenager lying on the ground was "a calculated and evil move." They sued to block the police reform plan after it was approved by a judge. And they said that several assistant chiefs partnering with elected officials to implement early reforms were a sign that "the enemy" had found "new allies... at the very top of SPD."
Late last summer, SPOG leaders met with one of those assistant chiefs—Jim Pugel, who'd since become interim police chief—to press Pugel to renegotiate at least 19 cases in which officers had been found guilty of misconduct. SPOG wanted its officers cleared of wrongdoing, and it wanted to accomplish this by using a little-known procedure in which the union president and police chief simply sign a piece of paper that removes the misconduct from an officer's permanent file. Otherwise, the union threatened, it would litigate these aggrieved cases to one of the city's appellate bodies. Appealing to these bodies is costly; it basically amounts to going to court. To hear them out first, Pugel said SPOG could present its case in a mediation meeting with representatives of the SPD and the city attorney's office. That meeting in mid-September ran seven hours.
The union was "unwilling to budge on any case," Pugel remembers. "I said, 'It's over—let's close the mediation. Ignore them for the time being and let the discipline stand.'"
Pugel was particularly unwilling to downgrade discipline—or exonerate officers—in cases where a cop had used excessive force, showed unprofessional rudeness, or escalated a situation. After all, the Justice Department had recently dinged the SPD for escalating minor situations into violent clashes.
But the union was relentless.
"They would continually ask in different meetings if they could revisit this case or that case," Pugel recalls. "It was brought up to me at least once every two or three weeks." He agreed to send six of the cases to the city attorney's office for a legal review last December, although that "was not an indication that I'm going to settle these." As City Attorney Pete Holmes puts it, "Pugel wanted to know which are our strongest cases and weakest cases, assuming we go to arbitration."
(Full disclosure: Pugel was briefly my babysitter when I was too young to remember. It's a small town.)
Before the city attorney's office replied with a legal analysis, Mayor Mike McGinn, Pugel's boss at the time, left office, having been voted out in part because of his feckless oversight of the police department. McGinn's opponent, Ed Murray, ran on a platform of public safety and police reform, but he was always a little bit vague about how he would change the department.
Pugel had not been vague about reforming the department. As interim police chief, he signaled his pro-reform bona fides on his first day in office when he changed SPD's motto from "Preventing crime, enforcing laws, supporting public safety" to the radically progressive "Excellence, justice, humility, harm reduction." Pugel led the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion project for Seattle, which is an internationally acclaimed program to direct nonviolent drug offenders into treatment instead of jail. A pilot project in Belltown was recently expanded to all of downtown. That put Pugel, with no exaggeration, at the vanguard of progressive policing to eradicate crime, reduce recidivism, and bring peace to neighborhoods without resorting to the heavy-handed tactics of yesteryear.
"You can't just use force," Pugel says, describing the need for public-health-based responses to crime. "Sometimes, unfortunately, you have to use force, but that cannot be your first response. That is why successful and innovative police departments will always try to bring different solutions, because if you just rely on force and stop-and-frisk, then you are going to alienate everyone."
After Mayor Murray assumed office, it became clear very early on what his vision for reform looked like. In one of his first acts as mayor, he demoted Pugel, who was forced to leave his office at SPD headquarters and move into a basement office on Airport Way South, a location sources in the department have dubbed "Siberia." This was particularly odd considering that a December report by the federal court monitor singled out Pugel for his reform work: "Chief Jim Pugel merits recognition for open-mindedness and responsiveness to our inquiries and requests." That report also praised another leader, Assistant Chief Michael Sanford, for displaying "an admirable willingness to act with a sense of urgency and an ability to adroitly manage bureaucratic issues that could otherwise routinely thwart progress." Shortly after his demotion, SPD announced Pugel was "retiring"—even though Pugel had signaled his desire to run the department permanently and, at 54 years old, wasn't of retirement age. Sources say Pugel was told to either take another demotion (to captain) or leave. Sanford also suddenly announced his "retirement" under similar circumstances.
"There's a core group of people in SPOG and SPMA"—the Seattle Police Management Association, the union that represents high-ranking officers—"who hate Sanford," said an SPD officer who spoke to The Stranger on the condition of anonymity. "And Sanford is the guy trying to change the department culture."
Who did Mayor Murray fill SPD's leadership vacuum with? Who did he put in charge? A retired officer named Harry Bailey, who immediately proved himself far more sympathetic to SPOG than his predecessor. Those six cases that Pugel sent to the city attorney's office? Bailey immediately agreed to overturn all of them, signing a short stack of contracts that said the cops' personnel files "will be updated to reflect the finding of a Training Referral with no discipline imposed." SPOG president Richard O'Neill signed in blue ink on February 11, and Chief Bailey signed in purple ink on Valentine's Day.
The city council was stunned that the police chief and union could reverse cases like this. And even Anne Levinson, independent auditor of the SPD's Office of Professional Accountability, which oversees internal misconduct investigations, said, "I was not aware of what appears to be a pattern of resolving cases without proceeding with the appellate process." It turns out this practice has existed for years. Levinson's research found that of the 605 officer discipline cases between 2011 and 2013, 128 resulted in a misconduct finding. The union appealed 37 of those cases. Only two of those cases were resolved by actually going before the city's discipline review board or labor commission. The rest were settled or are unresolved. By routinely expunging the misconduct from officers' records, the next case against the officer becomes the first—setting a precedent that officers can simply get misconduct findings removed.
Then the excuses began.
In a press conference on February 21, Mayor Murray told reporters that those six cases resulted from a "backlog of grievances" and the settlements "were already decided by the previous chief." SPOG president O'Neill regurgitated those talking points in an address to city council members the next week. O'Neill claimed, "The reason for the backlog of appeals and grievances, some dating back to 2011, was because, especially in an election year, no one wanted to make a decision."
That was not true. Pugel had not decided to settle the cases—he'd merely sent them to the city attorney for an opinion. The "backlog" itself was the result of Pugel deciding not to settle them. If the union had gone to arbitration, appealed to one of the appellate boards, or just dropped the cases, there wouldn't have been a backlog. Council Members Nick Licata and Bruce Harrell made this very point in a March 25 letter to the mayor's consultant on police reform. So, the union had created the "backlog," but Murray had gone along with the idea that it wasn't the union's fault, perhaps the unwitting dupe in someone else's attempt to obfuscate, perhaps a willing agent of that attempt—either way, a bad move for the new mayor.
Bailey, by the way, is the former vice president of SPOG. Sources tell The Stranger that SPOG had pressed Murray to appoint Bailey as chief. (Murray denies this.)
What does Mayor Murray see in Bailey? A lot, apparently. When Joni Balter, a former Seattle Times columnist, asked Murray in a television interview in January who his "best-case scenario kind of candidate" for police chief is after interim chief Bailey steps aside, Murray said, "Well, um, I am looking for Chief Bailey, actually. You know, if I were to describe somebody, I would describe him."
Those six cases Chief Bailey overturned at the union's behest were not the only instances of Bailey defending officers in questionable circumstances.
On the third Saturday night of January of this year, Seattle police officers were patrolling Belltown's crowded sidewalks when they saw two men fighting. One of them, a young African American man, had a gun. "As detectives moved in, the suspect took off running with the gun in his hand," the SPD Blotter reported the next day. As the suspect ran away from them, "the detectives gave chase and shot the suspect, striking him at least once in the buttocks."
Did the cops do the right thing? Was it appropriate to shoot that man in the butt?
That's a very serious question, because determining whether force is justified or unjustified is at the heart of the five-year federal court order to reform the SPD. Showing that police use force judiciously is also critical to restoring public trust after a spate of controversial incidents involving officers punching, kicking, and shooting civilians. A federal court settlement now mandates that SPD investigate every serious use-of-force incident to determine if the action was justified.
In this Belltown shooting, the officers may well have been justified. After all, a suspect brandishing a firearm in a crowd is dangerous. But then again, shooting a man when he's running away from you is practically shorthand for excessive force. So the SPD faced questions.
Interim chief Bailey stood alone on a podium on January 22 wearing a sharply pressed blue uniform, each collar decorated with four new brass stars. Fresh to the job, Bailey was now facing a skeptical press. "An overwhelming number of comments talk about him shot in the butt—in the back," said KIRO Radio's Brandi Kruse. "Can you address this again, for people who are concerned when they hear that officers shot at him while he was turned away from them?"
How Bailey replied would be an important test. At this point, officials still hadn't investigated the shooting to determine if it was justified.
"I think, for me, it is not a concern," Bailey told reporters. "From the briefing that I got, when this officer arrived at the scene, that suspect was facing him. So if there is a message at all, it is he is an extremely lucky man right now that he was shot in the lower extremities as opposed to being dead."
Regardless of the investigation's final results, that reply from Bailey—that the suspect is "extremely lucky" that he's not "dead"—alarmed lawyers and groups tracking police reform.
"To blame the person who was shot before there is any investigation seems ill-advised," says Jennifer Shaw, who is deputy director of the ACLU of Washington and sits on the police commission, which advises the city on reform. Others were concerned, too: The Public Defender Association sent a stern letter to Bailey warning that appearing to "prejudge" the shooting could undermine a fair investigation.
After all, it was excessive force that led to the settlement we're in, and Shaw's organization had spearheaded a formal request in 2010 asking the Justice Department to probe the SPD, a probe that ultimately led to the settlement. Earlier that year, now-infamous videos had emerged of Seattle police using heavy force against people of color. The most controversial case involved Officer Ian Birk, who chased down a Native American man named John T. Williams, who was shuffling across the street with a wood-carving knife—along with a piece of wood he was carving—and shot Williams at close range, killing him. The SPD's firearms board ruled the Williams shooting unjustified, and likewise, it may find that this January's shooting in Belltown was also unjustified—when it gets around to inquiring. As it turns out, the department still hasn't conducted a review to determine if the force was justified in this shooting, or in the three other officer-involved shootings since last November, SPD spokesman Andrew Garber confirms. He says the department is trying to reconcile its new policies for reviewing force with the longstanding review process for the firearms board.
"If any member of the SPD makes cavalier statements about force, particularly deadly force, that would suggest they do not have an appreciation for the problems we have had for years," says Bruce Harrell, chair of the city council's public safety committee. He's not condemning Bailey, he says, but still, the chief should not be "defaulting to one side or the other."
Bailey doubled down in a follow-up interview. He said officers "showed extraordinary restraint out there," and that the particular officer who fired on the suspect had been "looking down the barrel of a gun." Bailey did not explain how this could have been the case when the suspect was shot in the rear. Bailey also said he couldn't imagine how anyone would see the incident as anything other than an attempt on the officer's life. Was Bailey missing the point that critics were raising—that it was problematic for him, as chief, to prematurely declare the officer was justified? "I didn't miss the point of the question," he fired back. "Is it your opinion—whatever happens out there that the officer should disregard life and safety issues?"
Shaw counters that Bailey should have explained that "the matter is under investigation." Blaming victims and clearing officers has been a pattern "for years" at SPD, Shaw says, noting the Williams killing in particular.
What got the SPD into this federal settlement was not just a pattern of excessive force, but a pattern of downplaying that excessive force, circling the wagons to protect the cops involved, and thereby sending a message that officers could commit acts of misconduct with impunity. That wagon-circling behavior "stopped in the past few years," says Anita Khandelwal, an attorney and supervisor of the Racial Disparity Project at the Public Defender Association. But she and others are concerned that Bailey's handling of the shooting—along with several other recent incidents—indicate that SPD's progress is reversing.
"Commenting on incidents while an investigation is still pending, and seeming to prejudge that investigation, is something we often saw in the 'old days,'" says Khandelwal. "It's dismaying to see a step backward, given that investigation of use of force is a central issue in the consent decree."
And that is just one in a litany of unusual acts from this new leadership. In the time since Murray took office, the culture has shifted inside the Seattle Police Department, according to interviews with members of the police commission, officials at city hall, lawyers, and several cops. First, Murray handed the department's reins to the archconservative police union. Then, the SPD quickly reversed verdicts against multiple officers who were previously found guilty of misconduct, canceled a contract with a UW researcher who was to monitor racial bias in drug enforcement, shed department leaders who promoted reform and kept the union at bay, blamed current mistakes on the reformers they said good-bye to, and then consistently got caught making statements that are difficult to square with the facts.
Murray and his backers disagree.
"I think that police reform is finally happening, because it was not happening before January 1," says Murray, referring to the day he took office. He says that critics simply want to take credit for reform themselves instead of giving credit to his administration. "I see a department taking its first baby steps out of a multiyear dysfunctional history." Asked about Chief Bailey prejudging the shooting, Murray responded, "I don't believe he was doing that."
Murray credits Bailey's appointment, the subsequent demotion of certain command staff, and promotion of SPOG's cronies as proof of progress at the SPD.
US Attorney Jenny Durkan even noted in a recent interview that, with Murray as mayor, "I am seeing a greater commitment to reform than I have previously."
Former mayor McGinn had his share of slipups—including obstinately quibbling with some of the Justice Department's findings (for example, he doubted the Feds' argument that Seattle officers used excessive force in 20 percent of instances where force was used). Problems persisted with McGinn after the court order, such as failing to record in-car video, not collecting data on police stops, and inadequately staffing the sergeants who supervise street cops. McGinn squabbled with Durkan and City Attorney Holmes, who had been a police watchdog, and butted heads with council members (to be fair, Holmes and the council spoiled for these fights, too). But now, Durkan says, with Murray and other elected officials unified, "There is one message: Reform is here, it's going to happen."
Durkan says it is "exciting" that a federal judge approved new policies for stopping suspects, bias-free policing, and using force. Meanwhile, a reform compliance bureau with five captains has been elevated, now run by an assistant chief.
"How people view the police department is critical," says Durkan. "If we make changes but the people don't trust them, they are not the right changes or the changes are not complete enough."
And the opposite of reform, on a basic level, would involve demoting or firing the cops doing all the good work while promoting the cops who oppose it. The opposite of reform would be police getting off the hook for misconduct, the chief protecting bad cops, and the political establishment protecting the chief.
Lisa Daugaard, a public defender and deputy director of the Defender Association, flags many of the patterns that have emerged over the past several months as reasons to think that all may not be well in the quest for "reform."
Asked how we would know if reform were in trouble, Daugaard said: "Inaccurate or misleading public statements about what's occurring in the department." She added that other warning signs would be a sudden lack of critical commentary when the department misses deadlines, demoting or reassigning whistleblower cops identifying problems, reluctance to share information with civilian oversight bodies, and making statements that downplay the importance of discipline in transmitting values. "There are still many talented women and men of goodwill and good intentions in SPD doing their best to make things better," says Daugaard. But, she says, "many I speak with are demoralized by some of the recent changes, because leadership in this area to date has been penalized, not rewarded, while resistance has been rewarded, not penalized. They can read the writing on the wall."
Murray is clearly enamored with SPOG, and it's no secret that SPOG is enamored with Murray.
"All I can say is that it is a welcome change," SPOG president O'Neill wrote in a farewell address printed in the Guardian after Murray's election.
Ron Smith, who was sworn in as SPOG's new president on February 26, said in a recent interview that he believes Murray will be a better leader than McGinn was. Under Murray, "Chief Bailey has made more decisions in the first couple months he's been there than most who had been there in the past," Smith said. Those decisions include the demotions of Pugel and Sanford.
Meanwhile, Sergeant Sean Whitcomb, the forward-thinking head of the SPD's media division, has been effectively banished. You may recall SPD's infamously funny Twitter account—run by former Stranger writer Jonah Spangenthal-Lee, whom Whitcomb hired—or the SPD's effort to teach stoners the rules of the new pot-legalization law by posting them on bags of Doritos handed out at Hempfest. Some officers reportedly complained about Whitcomb's outreach efforts. Who was out to get Whitcomb? The head of SPOG, several sources told The Stranger. They say that SPOG president Smith posted a comment on Facebook that suggested Whitcomb would receive retribution. Smith says the Facebook posting was "taken grossly out of context" and that an internal investigation found no wrongdoing. Today, Whitcomb sits at a desk at the city's emergency operations center, essentially put on ice.
Pugel embodied reform. Sanford embodied reform. Whitcomb embodied reform. And look what's happened to them. The Murray administration claims to support progress, but proves it will actually punish the officers behind it.
"People have been keeping their heads down and doing the bare minimum," said one officer when asked about the mood at SPD. "There is an atmosphere of fear."
The officer continued: "The way I see it, these are people who have a deep institutional knowledge of the organization, have been there a long time and earned their way to the top, and have been chipping away at deficiencies for three years... After a long struggle to make this a better organization, boom, they are all gone. You bring in new people who are less experienced, and you give them the same task, but you have erased that last few years of work. It probably sets us back a couple of years."
Meanwhile, in the midst of those demotions and "retirements," several problematic figures in the department got promotions. Joe Kessler, a vice president of the Seattle Police Management Association, which sued to block the reform plan along with SPOG, was elevated to assistant chief and now runs the powerful operations bureau, overseeing all the precincts. Mike Washburn, who opposed the selection of the court monitor, is now Bailey's chief of staff. And Nick Metz, who Pugel demoted last year, was restored to assistant chief.
The SPD employees I interviewed were taken aback by these changes.
One particularly well-placed officer at SPD, who asked not to be named in this article for fear of retribution (a different officer than the one mentioned before), talked about it like this: "I don't think the mayor or his staff had any idea what they were doing when they canned the people they canned and promoted the people they promoted." Murray has insisted that cleaning house was necessary for reform, but when asked about the message the shakeup sent, the officer disagreed: "If the people who have been opposing the federal court monitor and reform are elevated, how hard should you work now? There is a risk in working hard to achieve reform. It sends a message that is, at best, confusing about whether they want reform to be successful. Why would you put the fox in charge of the henhouse? How do the hens feel when you put the fox in charge? Are the hens going to be open and willing to really go out there to take some risks? Any risk they take may piss off the folks who are in charge.
"I think a lot of us were quite stunned," the officer continued. "I don't know what they think they did. The mood was shock—complete shock—because everyone who was involved in reform was gone or buried. People just stopped talking. It was like, 'Whoa, what was that all about? What just happened here? What does this mean?'"
Washburn, Bailey's chief of staff, resisted the police monitor last year, according to the Seattle Times, which reported that Washburn believed picking Merrick Bobb as the hard-nosed SPD monitor would undermine morale among the rank-and-file officers (i.e., SPOG members).
Meanwhile, Kessler is, according to department sources, an old-guard cop. "In public, he'll talk about all sorts of things that sound generally positive," said that well-placed officer in the SPD. "In private, he's the kind of guy who will come up, put his hand on your shoulder, and say, 'I'd be concerned about pushing that issue very far' or 'Be careful what you say.'" The officer explained that Kessler, who had been recruited to advise McGinn, refused to write a brief code of ethics. And the Seattle Times reported in 1999 that Kessler was the subject of an investigation, in which he allegedly called KOMO to say that one of their reporters, Liz Rocca, was gay. That threat was reportedly in retaliation for her reporting on a lawsuit against Kessler by other SPD officers. KOMO received an apology; Kessler was never punished. Now he's one of the most powerful figures at SPD and the chief's right-hand man. (The SPD did not respond by press time to a request for comment about Kessler.)
Metz, according to a number of officers, is widely considered more interested in himself and his own relationships than the health of the SPD. After the monitor report noted there was "resistance" to reform in the SPD's upper command staff that compromised the settlement agreement, Metz was demoted to captain, only to be promoted again to assistant chief under the Murray administration. (The SPD didn't respond to a request for comment about Metz, either.)
Having seen progressive-minded cops subverted, officers who support reform say they are scared under this new SPOG-friendly regime.
"It isn't what happens today that everyone is paying attention to, it's what will happen eight months from now when the drama has died down," the well-placed officer said. "Folks are not worried about immediate retaliation. It's whether you're on the right side of the union. There is only one place in the city that all the discipline files of the department are kept, and it's the union office."
Will they use those files to smear officers who resist this regime?
"Oh, fuck yeah," the officer said. "There's a ton of internal maneuvering to settle old scores."
When I asked Bailey about his personnel changes, he repeatedly declined to comment. I pointed out that many people—including officers—were concerned because he appeared to demote reform agents while promoting a good old boys' club.
"When I hear things like that, it just makes me angrier than anything," Bailey exploded. "It questions my reputation. I have worked hard to get rid of bigotry. Here it is, the lifetime achievement award from the NAACP," said Bailey, who is African American. He pointed out that he sat down with gay and lesbian people on Capitol Hill when he worked in the East Precinct. "I get angry about people who question [my staff's] integrity. My life is personal," he said. "There is no way between here and hell that I would allow any injustice to happen."
As I left his office, Bailey apologized several times for losing his cool.
In office, Murray has shown he is willing to do SPOG plenty of favors. The seeds were probably planted as early as 2011, when SPOG was furious with then-mayor McGinn for cooperating with federal investigators and denouncing SPOG for being in "a state of denial about the nature and severity of this problem."
"We the rank and file of SPOG are under siege from City Hall, led by Mayor Mike McGinn's frequent trashing of YOUR guild in public," Officer Ron Smith wrote at the time in the Guardian. He warned cops that McGinn was "trying to fundamentally transform the deep-rooted culture of our beloved police department" and said the problems won't end until voters "oust this mayor from office." Smith then asked for donations so SPOG could "seek out a candidate we can get behind and support all the way to the finish line."
During last year's election cycle, SPOG endorsed Murray and donated $15,000 to a pro-Murray PAC called People for a New Mayor.
Upon Murray's election, the Guardian gushed that the "sweeping changes" at the department "garnered immediate support from police officers," and soon it was declaring: "Welcome back, Chief Bailey."
In the third week of Murray's term, SPOG saw results. Bailey sent a memo to officers announcing that he "authorized the purchase of the next generation of Seattle Police patrol vehicles: the Ford Police Interceptor Utility." SPOG had pressed the city to buy these SUVs last year, but the McGinn administration frustrated SPOG by putting the order on hold to explore more fuel-efficient alternatives, including hybrids.
In the January 16 memo, Bailey also decreed officers must begin wearing traditional eight-point police hats whenever possible. "I believe the combination of a sharp uniform—which includes the 8-point hat—with the new patrol vehicles will project a professional image to the public," he wrote.
The same week, Bailey also canceled a contract with a University of Washington researcher who was slated to study the racial impacts of marijuana enforcement. Many old-guard cops never liked UW sociologist Katherine Beckett, whose peer-reviewed research over the past decade revealed that Seattle had among the highest levels in the country of racial disproportionality for drug busts. Beckett's study was going to monitor how citations for smoking pot in public were issued—along with pot DUIs and other arrests—now that voters had legalized marijuana. The ordinance creating that citation specifically said that the practice of issuing those tickets needed to be "closely monitored for its race and social justice impacts" by a consultant. Pugel says he drafted a contract with Beckett, in particular, "because she was very candid in the years that she looked at our arrests in Belltown for our buy busts, she is trusted, and she has credibility as an outside university professor who has worked in this area before."
Picking an independent researcher to work for the city, Beckett says, "signaled a refreshing willingness to identify and address practices that have a disproportionate impact on Seattle's communities of color."
But Bailey pulled the plug, deciding the SPD would conduct the research in-house and let an outsider review it later.
Beckett worries that move "signals a shift away from this commitment to transparency and public accountability... Even if SPD were able to conceive and conduct this research in-house, community confidence in any findings is likely to be higher if the analysis is done by an independent researcher with a track record of publishing in this area."
The most controversial misconduct case in Murray's nascent term involved me, weirdly enough. It was based on a complaint I filed against Officer John Marion, who'd come to the aid of a King County deputy who threatened to arrest me last summer after I took his photo. Officer Marion threatened several times to come "bother" me at work. In January, the King County Sheriff's Office fired the deputy for lying about the incident and abusing his authority, and interim SPD chief Pugel issued a one-day suspension to Officer Marion for being rude. That seemed like a light penalty, but at least Marion was found guilty of misconduct, which would go into his permanent file.
Within days, Bailey was appointed chief, and SPOG was pressing to have Marion's misconduct case overturned. Bailey, without consulting the city attorney's office, as is standard practice, agreed to settle the case. That settlement reduced Marion's penalty from a one-day suspension to a training referral. In doing so, Bailey also removed any record of misconduct from Marion's personnel file.
Strangely enough, Bailey claimed to the Seattle Times and to me that he had not overturned the misconduct finding—that the misconduct verdict would stand. He even sent a letter on February 20 to the city council and mayor that said "I concur with the disposition" of misconduct. But as Council President Tim Burgess put it in a stern e-mail to Bailey, "By changing the disposition to a training referral you have, in effect, reversed the sustained misconduct from the officer's record." Given that Bailey had reopened numerous cases and reversed earlier findings, Burgess added that Bailey's action could "cause great harm to the credibility of the Police Department's ability to properly receive and investigate citizen complaints of police misconduct."
But Bailey stuck to his guns, and Murray stood by him. In a 5 p.m. press conference on a Friday, Murray claimed, "The information [from Bailey] is consistent and doesn't contradict itself." I pointed out that Bailey claimed he didn't overturn the misconduct finding when he actually did. Murray stood firm: "You know, so this is a great legal argument. We ought to be in a Jesuit seminary and splitting hairs."
What? "The discipline of [Officer Marion] will be rescinded," reads the settlement that Bailey signed on Valentine's Day. The Stranger obtained a copy of that settlement, which said explicitly that Marion's "personnel file and OPA records will be updated to reflect the finding of a Training Referral with no discipline imposed." Bailey signed that document on the same day, just as he signed the documents reversing those other six misconduct cases, which makes any claims that he didn't realize he was expunging the misconduct from Marion's record difficult to believe.
The following Monday morning—after a weekend of bad media on the incident—Murray announced yet another hasty press conference. Again, Bailey stood alone on the podium. "Overturning the finding of misconduct was a mistake and sent the wrong signal to our officers and the public," he said. Saying he had only meant to lighten the penalty, not remove the finding of misconduct, Bailey announced, "I am reinstating the misconduct finding." He said the entire mishap was an innocent mistake.
But still, misrepresentations continued. Bailey said his intent in giving Officer Marion training was to "pursue an education-based discipline." That discipline was sending Marion to address his precinct at roll calls to explain what he'd done wrong (threatening to harass me at work). Bailey insisted it was "my decision," and "that having the officer go out and talk to his fellow officers" about what he did wrong was better than giving Marion a day off work. Murray also said that Marion "will have an opportunity to be retrained." Murray said in a statement, "Chief Bailey felt that mandating a training and education day for the officer in question would be a more constructive use of time."
There are two problems here: Bailey didn't assign Officer Marion more training—nor did Murray. Marion had already addressed the roll calls of his own volition, well before this chief was appointed, even before this mayor took office. A March 7 letter from Lieutenant Steven Strand to the chief says, "Following the incident on July 30, 2013, Officer Marion immediately volunteered to do presentations for fellow officers... during the months of December, January, and February." Strand even added, "The training that was created and delivered had not been any part of the discipline process." Nor is there any evidence that Marion actually received corrective training, which was the implication of the mayor's and chief's statements. Instead, he taught others about his mistake.
Council Member Licata, who had extracted the letter from SPD, drilled down further. He said in a rejoinder on March 21: "The additional information you have provided raises additional concerns about the accuracy of information provided to the Council and public... Consistently, the tense used indicated the training was something that was going to happen in the future," but the trainings "had already occurred and were the result of Officer Marion volunteering to do them." Licata said that does "not at all align with statements made that the training was a form of discipline."
"I also have concerns about the impact of allowing an officer to effectively choose his or her own punishment," Licata said.
Murray ended up apologizing, but not for the misrepresentations. "Chief Bailey and I have had extensive discussions about this case. We both agree: This was a mistake," Murray said in a statement. "The decision to change the discipline was the call of the Chief. But I stood with the Chief and publicly supported that decision. And I am Mayor: The buck stops with me." He admitted, "To many, our actions look like the opposite of reform." But then he double-crossed himself to say, "But it cannot be overstated: Chief Bailey misled no one."
City Attorney Holmes says Bailey was simply gullible: "I think he trusted people who were not worthy of his trust." If true, however, this undermines the idea that Murray picked an interim police chief with strong bureaucratic chops and great judgment.
Regardless of the reason, the flip-flop by Murray and Bailey on Officer Marion's discipline—and what appears to be a persistent pattern of misrepresentation—sends a broader message. When Officer Marion and the police union first wanted this misconduct finding reversed, they got it. Yet when, in response, the public, politicians, and media kicked up a fuss, the officer got in trouble again. But those six other cases? All of those officers got their misconduct permanently expunged from their records.
A special consultant to the mayor on police issues, Bernard Melekian, issued a report approving the reversals of those misconduct findings. Melekian is the former police chief of Pasadena, a former employee of the Justice Department, and the current president of a high-end law-enforcement consulting firm called the Paratus Group. Between last fall and March 31, the city paid Melekian $100,000, according to the mayor's office. (Melekian pays his costs of commuting from California, he says, so "I am not getting rich off the City of Seattle.") In his report on those six cases, Melekian indicated that reversing those misconduct findings was what Pugel had intended, and that the "handling of these cases was delayed unnecessarily by previous department leadership." But Pugel never intended to reverse those cases, and, bizarrely, Melekian never talked to Pugel. "All we had to do was talk, and I could have explained it to him," Pugel said recently. When I asked Melekian if he ever contacted Pugel, he admitted, "I did not." Why on earth does a consultant getting paid a king's ransom to figure out what went wrong with misconduct cases never talk to the one person who had the authority to make decisions with regard to those misconduct cases?
And another question: Is the reason that reversing those cases was so easy simply that those cases didn't involve a reporter at a newspaper? Whatever the reason, it's a backward precedent. It suggests that political winds and subjective whims trump actual rules for misconduct. It sends a message that cops can abuse average citizens with impunity, while the chief—and the entire political establishment—will circle the wagons to protect the cops. That's unfair to the majority of cops who are good and perform brave, upstanding work. It's unfair to citizens. It leads victims to believe their complaints won't get a fair shake, and it leads the public to believe that, in the mayor's own words, we have "the opposite of reform." Yet this is how SPOG appears to want the SPD to run—and this is how Murray is running it.
If you were hoping the US Justice Department would come in to kick some ass—to whip Murray and Bailey into shape—don't count on it. US Attorney Durkan and Mayor Murray are said to be longtime allies, with rumors of political aspirations in the Beltway (hers in the next president's cabinet, and his in Congress). Durkan was the first US attorney to serve openly as a lesbian, and Murray is Seattle's first gay mayor, which is wonderful by all accounts, but many political watchers say they share an interest in boosting each other's careers. (Durkan, for her part, said that the conventional wisdom is wrong. "Whomever you are talking to falls in the 'ain't knowing' club," she said in an e-mail.)
Two weeks before the recent election, Durkan went beyond the federal attorney's typical scope by jumping into a campaign spat. McGinn had said he was responsible for creating the Community Police Commission, a key part of the settlement, and that the Feds had resisted it. Murray had cried foul. Then, out of left field, Durkan sent a letter to commissioners that said, in essence, McGinn shouldn't be taking credit. It said the Feds all along had wanted formal community engagement and a "Community Monitoring Board," but city officials essentially just put the tinsel on that tree.
Which flew in the face of what Durkan said at an August 2012 press conference, when she said McGinn "crafted this very important" commission. Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez went further at that press conference, saying, "A signature component of this agreement—which was your idea, mayor, and imitation is a form of flattery, I expect to see this elsewhere in the county—is the creation of the Community Police Commission, which is a critical innovation."
Durkan also took the odd step of issuing a formal statement on January 29, 2014, to applaud Bailey's appointment and the changes to department leadership. "We have met with Interim Chief Harry Bailey and believe he is strongly committed to constitutional and effective policing," she said. Durkan also praised Murray's "steady work and strong leadership"—less than a month into his term—as well as "structural changes to ensure compliance and reform efforts are unified and come from the top." I couldn't find any record of Durkan issuing a statement when Pugel was appointed or when Pugel cleared the decks on the command staff.
While Murray was dealing with the cop-misconduct fallout, Durkan was back again with another well-timed missive. In a letter sent on March 27, she criticized the SPD's progress prior to December 31 (the day before Murray took office). She blasted McGinn, and perhaps rightly so, for having exaggerated the costs of reform by including good but ancillary projects (such as the city's Race and Social Justice Initiative and the "20/20" plan to reform SPD culture). "They dug us in a deep hole, from which we have had to climb out over the last two months," wrote Durkan, who noted that Murray "inherited those problems."
It's hard not to take a cynical view of Durkan's actions: When Murray gets into a mess, the US attorney bails him out with conspicuously well-timed praise for his choices (even when the choices are awful appointments, like Bailey) and criticism of his predecessor (even if those criticisms are old budget estimates, which are no longer timely). Sometimes Durkan's politicking just doesn't make sense. Earlier in this article, I mentioned Durkan citing new SPD policies as evidence that reform is afoot—new rules for making stops, handling bias, and using force—but all of those were approved by the court in December 2013, when McGinn was still overseeing SPD. To be fair to McGinn here, in addition to resisting the encroachment of SPOG, his administration was quite effective at reducing drug activity without heavy-handed busts, ending a racially disparate trespass policy, and defending discipline for certain misconduct.
When Durkan's letter did criticize Murray's misconduct brouhaha, she bizarrely cast zero shade. She just said the "controversy... validates the wisdom" of the settlement agreement and called for a "holistic, systemic review of the accountability system."
In other words, when there is misconduct, the union protects bad cops, the chief protects the union, the mayor and his consultant protect the chief, and the US attorney protects the mayor. The rot goes all the way to the top.
There are two ways to get SPD back on track: hiring a new chief and writing a new contract with SPOG. The mayor's office says it will identify three nominees for police chief in May, which means they're at least a month behind schedule. But a new chief could have unprecedented latitude to clear out the cobwebs. A January law passed by the Seattle City Council allows a new chief to recruit a command staff from outside Seattle, potentially wiping the decks of SPOG's cronies.
"If they appoint a new police chief who is willing to drive a hard bargain alongside the council and mayor, things will be different," says David Perez, a constitutional law attorney who was on a citizens advisory committee for the chief search. But that is not what matters most for reform.
What matters most to Perez is a new contract with SPOG. The current employment contract expires at the end of 2014. Murray's HR department will negotiate it, and Perez says this is the chance to implement several key reforms. On the other hand, he says, "If we get a contract similar to the current contract, reform will remain elusive." (SPOG, for its part, says it "has not, nor will not push an agenda at odds with reform," though it does intend to bargain diligently in upcoming contract negotiations.)
Interviews with Perez, discipline auditor Anne Levinson, the consultant Melekian, and other SPD watchers suggest we should pursue the following changes:
1. Shrink the entire misconduct system so officers have only one avenue to appeal misconduct verdicts. Right now, cops have three ways to challenge cases, and they enjoy more process rights than the criminals they arrest.
2. Move final decisions on appeals out of the chief's hands, ideally to a civilian, and perhaps out of SPD entirely.
3. Eliminate training referral as a punishment, says auditor Levinson. "Despite statements to the contrary," she wrote in a report this month, "training has been and remains an option that the chief can require in addition to discipline."
4. Make the accountability process fair to the complainant by letting them appeal decisions, too. Right now, before the chief ever issues discipline, officers (joined by a SPOG representative) can make their case to the chief in a Loudermill hearing to rebut the complaint. But the person who complains never gets to rebut the officer.
5. Open all these hearings to the public and publish the final dispositions of the cases for public review.
6. Consult the city attorney's office on all misconduct settlements, and require the lawyers to issue a memo about their rationale for settling the case.
7. State explicitly that SPOG is not required to defend officers who engage in indefensible conduct.
8. Don't retroactively make up for raises following delays during contract negotiations. One of the problems with the contracts is that they often expire while negotiations with the city are at loggerheads. But when the parties do sign a contract, cops get back-pay. "Build in a provision that prohibits retroactive pay raises so that there is a real cost to SPOG if a contract isn't negotiated on time," Perez says. "Every day they're operating under an old contract represents an irreversible hit to their wallets rather than a deferred benefit." That gives the city leverage to push SPOG into a new contract sooner.
9. Act on recommendations from the Community Police Commission, which will issue a comprehensive proposal this spring for changes within the SPD. Much of it is expected to implicate the SPOG contract.
SPOG will likely fight these changes.
But city hall must be willing to go to war with SPOG in contract negotiations and be willing to appoint a chief who refuses to capitulate to SPOG's agenda. Right now, that's not happening. Right now, the city says things are better than ever. Right now, Mayor Murray insists he's not in SPOG's pocket, that reform stalled only under his predecessor, that he is an agent for change, and that misunderstandings were a result of "semantics." Right now, Mayor Murray insists the best-case scenario for a new chief is someone exactly like Bailey.
The Seattle City Council, which must confirm the mayor's nominee, refuses to be outwardly critical of Bailey, either. "I think he has been a good interim chief and made some bold decisions," says Council Member Harrell, who leads the city council's public safety committee. And despite Bailey having been caught making dubious statements, Harrell says, "I have confidence in Harry Bailey's leadership, and he has been 100 percent forthcoming with me."
Council President Burgess refused to speak on the record about the issue.
What do these folks have in common? They all enthusiastically endorsed Murray. In this city, political egos bruise like pears, and criticizing the SPD amounts to admitting they may have been wrong. The nice politics of Seattle have trumped honest criticism of city hall's handling of the police. And that doesn't bode well for Seattle.
As things stand, SPOG is getting everything it wants and the citizens are getting a snow job.
For updates, follow Dominic Holden on Twitter: @dominicholden