After several weeks of consultations with Seattle’s police oversight agencies, the Seattle City Council passed a bill from Public Safety Committee Chair Lisa Herbold to overhaul the process for investigating complaints against the police chief. The bill passed on a vote of 8 to 1, with Councilmember Kshama Sawant casting the lone dissenting vote. With this law on the books, the Council finally closed a Jenny Durkan-sized loophole in the police accountability system.

In her remarks prior to the Council’s vote, Herbold said public trust requires a transparent process to handle complaints against Seattle’s police chief. She also thanked the City's alphabet soup of oversight agencies for helping tighten up the technical fixes present in the latest version of her bill. 

Councilmember Sawant noted her objection to the police oversight regime generally, saying it hasn’t effectively held officers who kill Seattle residents accountable in the past, and she expressed doubts that the same process would be effective in holding the top cop accountable. 

As The Stranger reported when Herbold introduced the prior version of the bill last month, the drive to create a specific process for investigating the Chief of the Seattle Police Department stems from concerns about how former Mayor Durkan handled several complaints against then-Chief Carmen Best. Those complaints concerned tacky little breaches of SPD policy, such as using tear gas in violation of a Mayoral ban and lying to the public about criminal activity in CHOP. 

When the Director of the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) forwarded those complaints to Durkan for referral to an outside investigative agency, she simply stuck them in a drawer and apparently forgot about them.

The new law fixes that gap in the oversight system by reinforcing checks and balances on the city’s top cop. It gives the Director of the Office of Inspector General (OIG) a much more active role in consulting with and overseeing the OPA’s handling of complaints against the police chief. Since the OIG Director reports to the Council—unlike the OPA Director and SPD Chief, who both report directly to the Mayor—having the OIG in the driver’s seat on these investigations should prevent the kind of de facto cover-up that occurred under Mayor Durkan.

Since the bill was introduced at the June 14 Public Safety Committee meeting, Herbold’s staff worked with the OPA and the OIG to iron out a few technical changes. The most substantive of those changes concerns how the oversight agencies begins to handle complaints against an SPD Chief. 

For complaints against any other cop, OPA selects from a menu of four different classifications that determine the level of investigation the agency will conduct into the allegations. In the context of complaints against the police chief, however, the new process limits that discretion to a simple either/or choice. If the complaint presents allegations that could constitute improper conduct or a violation of SPD policy, then OPA will conduct a full investigation. If not, the complaint will be recorded as a “contact log,” which essentially resolves the complaint.

The amended version of the bill also tweaked the way the oversight agencies evaluate the potential for criminal charges resulting from a given complaint. The earlier version of the bill instructed the oversight agencies to consider whether the allegations could give rise to criminal charges, but only after those agencies decided the complaint merited an investigation in the first place. The revised version changed that requirement so that weighing whether the SPD Chief committed a crime, like, say, willfully destroying public records, is part of the initial classification decision as to whether a complaint will be investigated at all.

Under the amended bill’s procedures, OPA would also have longer than its typical 30-day time limit to decide how to classify complaints against the police chief, with the OIG looking over its shoulder and able to blow the whistle if the OPA takes an unreasonable amount of time at this stage in the process. The revisions to the bill also explicitly require the OPA to use civilian personnel to conduct this review, as well as offer the person who made the complaint an interview during this process.

Herbold’s staff do not appear to have addressed one criticism of the bill from the Community Police Commission (CPC), the civilian body charged with conveying community feedback about the cops to city policymakers. The CPC wanted clarity on which non-City entities would be contracted to conduct investigations in situations where the OIG determines conflicts of interest require an outside agency to handle a given complaint. 

Policy staff say they left that provision vague on purpose, since they can’t foresee the exact circumstances of a conflict of interest and likely don’t have the legal authority to compel a specific non-City entity to do any work. They say the vagueness provides flexibility for OIG to find the best investigator for each case, where one agency might have specific subject matter expertise or be further removed from potential conflicts of interest.

Now that all of the minor technical details have been ironed out, Seattleites can finally rest easy knowing that the police oversight bureaucracy has a process for holding its next SPD Chief accountable should they tear gas an entire neighborhood or lie to the public.