The Seattle Police Department and Mayor Ed Murray were quick to celebrate Thursday’s announcement that the department has made big strides reducing officers' use of force. But while that announcement from Merrick J. Bobb, the court ordered monitor of SPD, is a great sign of progress, Seattle is hardly free from the police reform consent decree it entered in 2012.
To satisfy Seattle’s agreement with the Department of Justice, the city still needs to rewrite how it holds the police accountable, and ongoing debate is brewing over how to ensure the independence of the people entrusted to investigate police complaints and strengthen department policies in Seattle.
That’s the big question city council members faced during Thursday’s Gender Equity, Safe Communities and New Americans committee meeting, as they picked through the latest version of a council ordinance that would rewrite how the city polices its own police.
The legislation, which is tentatively slated for a full council vote in May, will bring the city close to satisfying the 2012 consent decree with the Department of Justice.
The points of contention are boring and tedious, but it’s critical that the council gets this right the first time. It’s a rare chance for a city to write an entire accountability framework, and once passed, it’ll be much more difficult to make any changes. When the council votes, they’ll be deciding who gets the power to oversee department policies and intervene after future fatal encounters with police, like the shooting of John T. Williams in 2010 or Che Taylor in 2016.
As it stands now, the police accountability measure relies on three separate bodies to oversee the SPD:
1. The Office of Police Accountability (currently the Office of Professional Accountability) would continue to investigate individual complaints of police misconduct.
2. An entirely new Office of Inspector General (OIG) would evaluate the management, practices and policies of the SPD as well as evaluate the Office of Police Accountability (OPA)
3. The Community Police Commission (CPC) would be made a permanent body for citizen input and oversight of the police.
Naturally, it’s that last body, the CPC, that is raising red flags.
It appeared the CPC already won its first fight Thursday morning when an updated version of the legislation gave the CPC the right to appoint and fire its own executive director for six-year terms. Earlier versions of the legislation granted that appointing authority to the mayor’s office, and only gave the executive director a 4-year term. Giving the mayor that authority would have diminished the political independence of the CPC, according to the CPC.
The CPC also wants a guarantee its members will have a substantial voice in who is selected as the Inspector General and OPA director. The legislation currently requires one member of CPC to serve as co-chair of the search committees that finds candidates for the two positions. An amendment proposed by Councilmember Lisa Herbold – and supported by the CPC – would guarantee CPC members compose at least 25 percent of the search committees’ members as well as hold the co-chair position.
Herbold said her amendment would guarantee that the CPC’s voice wouldn’t be outnumbered on the search committees.
“I would like to avoid the possibility of a very large search committee with only one representative from the CPC,” Herbold said.
The CPC also wants to have a greater role evaluating the work of the other two accountability offices. An amendment proposed by Herbold would give the CPC the authority to issue annual performance reviews of the OIG and the OIG would conduct annual reviews of the OPA. Herbold said this would demonstrate that the civilian community has greater oversight on the entire accountability system.
An amendment proposed by Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez would give the CPC a voice on performance reviews of the OIG and the OPA but leave the review itself to the authority that appoints each office head. The mayor would write the OPA’s performance review and the City Council would evaluate the OIG’s performance – both reviews would not be required to be done annually, as Herbold’s amendment requires.
“I think that is much more than just a consultative role, I really do believe it is a meaningful role in the overarching oversight of those positions,” Gonzalez said.
Another open question — budgets for the three accountability offices — didn’t get much play during Thursday’s meeting, but Gonzales said it will come up in future hearings. The CPC has said that the current legislation does not do enough to guarantee adequate funding the three bodies.
Gonzalez, who chair’s the Gender Equity, Safe Communities & New Americans Committee, said Thursday’s meeting would serve as an introduction to the legislation and proposed amendments would be voted on at subsequent meetings.
“What we’re trying to accomplish today is getting reaction from folks on your first briefing here,” Gonzalez said. “My hope is by the next time we meet we will have at least a package of agreed upon amendments that we will then call to vote.”
The legislation is expected to be voted out of the Gender Equity, Safe Communities & New Americans Committee by early May and then head to the City Council, where more amendments could be added before a full council vote.
The accountability legislation is also subject to review by the court monitor that is overseeing the consent decree. The court has given tentative approval to the framework of the accountability legislation but there’s a chance the city could be sent back to the drawing board, which happened in August of last year after the court ruled that Mayor Ed Murray’s office was moving too quickly with the legislation.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has announced a change in how the Department of Justice conducts consent decrees with police departments but his plans are unlikely to affect Seattle’s consent decree.