Seattle police have new cars and uniforms, but meaningul reforms arent moving fast enough, says a department auditor.
Seattle police have new cars and uniforms, but 2014 was a missed opportunity to advance reforms, according to the department's accountability auditor. SPD

Anne Levinson is a former municipal judge who now audits the Seattle Police Department's accountability system. Her official title is "OPA Auditor"—meaning she's the person who keeps a critical eye on the Office of Professional Accountability (which itself is supposed to be keeping a critical eye on police behavior). Last year we wrote about a report from her that slammed the way SPD was handling misconduct cases. Now Levinson has another report out, this one assessing the department's progress on reforms over the latter half of 2014.

Once again, the news isn't positive: "As of the end of 2014," Levinson writes, "reform of the City’s police accountability system and related improvements largely remained an aspirational goal."

Her report (PDF) is written in a frustratingly dense and disorganized way, covering a wide gamut of bureaucratic barriers to reform as well as individual cases from the past year.

The bottom line, however, is that reform isn't moving fast enough. Levinson says "it was expected" that last year the city would create a new law codifying a range of reforms to SPD's accountability system.

Those changes that couldn't be implemented purely by a new law or by new administrative procedures, she said, should have been pushed through in contract negotiations with the two police unions—the Seattle Police Officer's Guild (SPOG) and the Seattle Police Management Association. There was a "uniquely positive negotiating opportunity" in 2014, she writes, citing several factors, including: the desire of the unions and the department to conclude the federal consent decree process; a national dialogue that exploded over police accountability; and "near unanimity" between three different independent reviews (from the Community Police Commission, OPA Auditor, and mayoral advisor Bernard Melekian)—on what needed to change at SPD.

That opportunity was missed by Mayor Ed Murray.

Anne Levinson
OPA Auditor Anne Levinson Courtesy of Anne Levinson
An additional mayoral delay occurred when it took the mayor six months to act on 55 accountability recommendations released by the Community Police Commission in April. (Most of those recommendations are supported by Levinson.) Instead, Murray waited to introduce a reform ordinance, postponing it until well after the commencement of contract negotiations with SPOG, which began in January. Now Murray plans to introduce his reform ordinance by next month.

The mayor's office hasn't responded to questions about why Murray has taken this slow approach. It's worth noting that SPOG endorsed him during the mayoral race.

The delays in taking action aren't Levinson's only concerns. Among the other problems highlighted in her new report:

  • There's trouble within the ranks of the SPD's newest recruits. Levinson says she's concerned by troubling behaviors "already evident" among recruits, citing misconduct investigations into new officers who are still at the police academy or in field training.

  • The department needs to stop letting retired officers act like active police personnel through so-called "Extended Authority Commissions." That means repealing the 70s-era ordinance that legalized the practice, Levinson says. It's difficult to deal with misconduct by retired officers, or to hold them accountable. Last year, a man acting under such auspices was charged with impersonating a police officer. Chief Kathleen O'Toole has reportedly ordered a review of the practice.

  • Civilians should greet and interview members of the public who complain about misconduct—instead of police officers—in order to build the public trust. That's something the OPA already has a budget for, but reportedly can't move forward with until SPOG negotiations wrap up.

  • The OPA needs greater subpoena powers if it's going to be a robust police oversight body. Levinson cites a case where OPA failed to obtain surveillance video from a downtown hotel for an investigation into whether officers had used excessive force.

  • Officers who are promoted into special roles—like Cynthia Whitlatch, for example, who for thirteen years was a field training officer—should not hold those roles permanently, absent ongoing scrutiny of their record. Levinson says that scrutiny isn't currently part of SPD's promotional system, but it should be.

  • The department must get better at referring misconduct allegations to OPA for investigation. Levinson cites "one recent high-profile case," likely a reference to Whitlatch's arrest of 70-year-old William Wingate as he carried a golf club, as evidence. In that case, no one who knew about what happened—from the police chief on down—did so.

  • SPD should go out of its way to hire officers who are bi-lingual, or who have experience in mental health or domestic violence. That sounds like a no-brainer if Seattle truly wants a top-quality police force. The department should assign hiring preference points for those qualities, Levinson says, just like it does currently with regard to military veterans.

In an interview, Levinson responded to an additional question I put to her: Did the mayor undermine the independence of the police chief by telling reporters, the day after The Stranger broke the news of the Wingate arrest, that he "instructed" Kathleen O'Toole to investigate Whitlatch and put her on leave?

"This morning I met with Chief O'Toole," Murray said on January 29, "and I instructed her to do two things: One is to conduct an investigation at her level of the incidents in question. Second is to put the individual on leave. That individual will not be on patrol."

Levinson had this to say:

Decision making on what gets investigated rests with the OPA director. Decision making on any discipline to be imposed rests with the chief. Neither of those rests with the mayor, and it's important for the integrity and fairness of the process that the firewall not be crossed.

Of course elected officials will offer their opinions about various incidents, but for the public and employees to have trust in the fairness of the process, it should be crystal clear that those are only personal opinions. I won't comment further about the specific wording used by the Mayor that you quoted but suffice it to say that Chief O'Toole is an experienced Chief who fully understands the importance of a fair and objective disciplinary system and would not need to be "instructed" to take principled actions that are consistent with her expectations that all officers act with professionalism and integrity.

Support The Stranger

In other words: Yeah, he crossed the line.

UPDATE: Viet Shelton, a spokesperson for Mayor Murray, responds: "I hear what the auditor is saying and I appreciate the question you're posing, but I don't think he crossed any line that he should not have crossed." He said the mayor talked to the chief and "worked with her to get something more done—to get a more comprehensive review of this officer... He acted within his authority and did not undermine her."

Shelton also said the mayor implemented 22 of the Community Police Commission's 55 recommendations administratively last year. An ordinance based on outstanding recommendations will be proposed in March. It should "demonstrate a level of seriousness and commitment on our part of moving foward with police reform," he said.