The City Council is on the verge of passing new legislation that will greatly increase the number of civilians ostensibly watching the Seattle Police Department's cops. Some have cheered the impending law, expected to pass on May 22, as a historic leap forward for police accountability in a city with a troubled history with law enforcement.
But the very commission the city created to provide feedback on the reforms—the Community Police Commission (CPC)—is raising red flags, claiming that the law does not give enough oversight power to citizens outside of the city government. The CPC was created in 2013 as a temporary body to provide input on court-mandated reforms to SPD under a 2012 legal agreement with the federal government. The new law will make the CPC, a board composed of lawyers, cops, religious leaders and other citizens, the city’s permanent body for hearing the public’s voice on policing issues.
Over the past month, city lawmakers have rejected tweaks to the legislation that would have granted the CPC more authority—two powers that advocates say were necessary to give the commission a meaningful voice on police reform.
First, council members voted down a provision granting the CPC the responsibility of conducting yearly performance reviews of the Office of the Inspector General, another body formed by the legislation, and the director of the Office of Professional Accountability (renamed the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) in the proposed law), the internal board that investigates police misconduct cases. Lawmakers also rejected an amendment that would’ve granted the CPC authority to place items on the inspector general’s annual agenda.
For some members of the CPC, the failure to pass those two amendments amount to a dismissal of the community interest in improving the Seattle Police Department. Unlike other cities undergoing police reform, Seattle won’t give citizens any control on how police are disciplined or how the department operates to these new watchdogs, leaving that power in the hands of the mayor, police chief, City Council, and police unions.
The CPC agreed with this general framework—keeping the hard power to discipline cops and change policy where it has always been, but then elevating the community’s voice to an equally prominent role. But for this system to work, the CPC says, the community’s voice must be so prominent that future mayors and police chiefs can’t ignore it.
“A decision has been made by this council, as well as by the CPC, that the [community] oversight role will not be oversight of investigations, so that begs the question, where is the oversight? Where is the actual oversight?” said Councilmember Lisa Herbold before her amendment failed in May 10 public safety committee.
Herbold and the CPC say that this legislation needs to be fireproof in the hypothetical, worst-case scenario: a city council, mayor and police chief that are resistant to police accountability.
“If we are not doing their performance evaluation they can just ignore us,” said Lisa Daugaard, a CPC commissioner and director of the Public Defender Association. “It can’t just be voluntary for people to engage with us.”
Councilmember Lorena González and Councilmember Tim Burgess, the chair and co-chair of the public safety committee, both opposed the amendments, saying that putting the CPC in that role would jeopardize the ability for the three separate accountability offices to work independently.
“The CPC is correct in that they have extensive and intimate relationships in the community and are a strong voice to represent the community, but that doesn’t mean the OPA and the OIG shouldn’t as well,” Burgess told The Stranger.
Daugaard said this idea of independence misses the point—the accountability system works by keeping the three bodies independent from outside political forces, like the council and mayor. But they shouldn’t be exempt from checks-and-balances on each other, she added. In the proposed system, the inspector general can audit the CPC or the Office of Professional Accountability. The inspector general can also force the OPA to reinvestigate individual misconduct complaints when deemed necessary.
Burgess thinks that the CPC is digging in too hard on this small detail of the legislation.
“It’s just bizarre for me that they would single out this particular issue and keep pressing for it, and damage the credibility of this whole ordinance which is sweeping and more citizen-led and empowered than we have ever had,” Burgess said.
Burgess has a point—buried in the lengthy legislation is a list of policy changes made in response to requests from local reform advocates:
• All OPA investigators will be civilians. The OPA currently uses sworn SPD police officers to investigate misconduct complaints – this bill would replace those sworn officers with civilians. Even though civilians will staff the new OPA, final decisions on punishment are still up to the chief of police
If the council veers too radical on police reform, it may torpedo the legislation at the collective bargaining table. The court monitor appointed by the Obama administration to oversee Seattle’s police reforms has told the unions that they can’t stonewall reform, but he has also upheld the union’s right to collective bargaining and shot down a request by the city to bypass union negotiations entirely with these reforms.
For many in Seattle’s police reform community, how this accountability legislation as evolved over the last two years encapsulates one of the biggest fears for how the future accountability system will work. The CPC only has power to recommend changes to the law – the real legal authority, like in the proposed legislation, lies with the council and mayor – and many of their recommendations have been changed or ignored.
Chris Stearns, an attorney that has been involved in police reform in Seattle for over a decade and is a chairman of the Washington State Gambling Commission, said the current proposal is not perfect—he would like to see officer discipline handled completely outside of the police chief’s control.
“There’s some institutional problems when an outside person, a citizen, is pursuing a complaint against an employee who’s boss has the final say. That’s a closed loop, that’s a closed box,” Stearns said. “Ideally you’d like a citizen to grieve and file complaints with an independent body separate from the police that can make their own independent decision.”
Honolulu in 2016 gave its civilian police oversight commission the power to fire their police chief. A new citizen-led board in Oakland not only reserves the right to can the chief, but also investigates civilian complaints.
Stearns said this legislation is still a meaningful step in the right direction.
“Ideally, and maybe down the road, it would be totally independent from the police department but that will require some bigger structural changes and it will require the city to really rethink this sort of three-part approach,” Stearns said.
Have an idea of where the city should end up on police reform? You can provide input at a public comment meeting for this bill today, May 16. The council is required by law to hear the public’s comments before they take a vote—the last public safety committee is planned for May 18 and the council expects to vote on the bill at their full council meeting on May 22.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article erroneously stated that all OPA investigators under the new legislation would be civilians. Only the supervisors would be civilians. That version also stated that the time limit on investigating alleged misconduct by cops would be extended from 180 days to three years. In fact, while the statute of limitations would be three years under the legislation, there would still exist a 180-day time limit from when investigations start to when findings must be made. The Stranger regrets the errors.