Those itching for police accountability are mistakenly disappointed with the report Kathryn Olson issued this week. Olson is the director of the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA), the office that investigates allegations of police misconduct. Looking to deep-six the recent SPD scandal, Mayor Nickels asked Olson to review an original OPA report on the controversial George Patterson arrests (there were claims that the officers planted drugs on Patterson and used unnecessary force). Nickels also ordered Olson to review a critical follow-up report by the Office of Professional Accountability Review Board (OPARB). The mayor was trying to orchestrate a whitewash.
But he didn't get it. While Olson's new report, issued on July 9, certainly doesn't holler "Down with the Pigs!"—and while Nickels's accompanying press release pretended Olson had given a gold star to the city—Olson's report was in fact damning to the officers, the police chief, the OPA, and the mayor.
One of Olson's key findings—that the OPA was wrong to exonerate officers Greg Neubert and Mike Tietjen on charges they lied in their reporting about the arrest—brings legitimacy to earlier shouts for reform. Rather than letting Nickels and the press frame the debate around Olson's rosier findings (like her high praise for the chief), activists need to recognize this opportunity.
Mocking the OPA's original finding to exonerate the officers on allegations of dishonesty, Olson writes: "I disagree with the OPA finding of exoneration on the officers' honesty... about the Patterson arrest. I would have recommended at least a finding of 'not sustained.'"
In a system that contains five possible findings—like grades, let's call them A through F (A, "exonerated," being the most glowing, and F, "sustained," being the most damning), Olson's "not sustained" is a D at best.
For Olson to say she would have "at least" lowered Neubert and Tietjen's As to Ds calls our entire police-accountability system into question—mandating that Seattle devise a system where officers can never get Ds from the OPA director without serious discipline.
However, because Nickels has co-opted the spin on Olson's report—pretending it exonerates the OPA—police-accountability activists believe the recent scandal proves Seattle's system to deal with wayward cops is broken. But the opposite is true: Our system—namely OPARB's check—forced the mayor, the one person who can demand accountability from the SPD chief and SPD officers, to reopen the investigation. This led to Olson's report—a report that harshly yanks an "exonerated" finding. Olson has upended the official line that cops had been honest, giving activists the credible ammunition they need to demand that cops are appropriately disciplined when the OPA director hands out Ds.
If the OPA director can publicly hand out failing grades to officers, I'd say the OPA is working. What isn't working is the mayor. The public certainly has the power to flunk him.