As the clock ticks down on the final term of the three current members of the Office of Professional Accountability Review Board (OPARB)—the city council–appointed panel that
oversees the police department's internal investigations—the board is engaged in a quiet battle with the city that could keep its final report under wraps indefinitely.
The city has said it won't offer legal protection to board members Peter Holmes, Brad Moericke, and Sheley Secrest, who could be sued by the Seattle Police Officers' Guild if the panel releases its current report. "No one's going to release a report if you face losing your home," Secrest says.
On May 23, OPARB turned in its report to City Attorney Tom Carr's office. Two weeks later, the city's legal department advised board members that they could be held liable if the report was released—because, the city's attorneys said, the report reaches outside the scope of OPARB's investigative powers. OPARB's Holmes asked city council president Richard Conlin to indemnify board members from potential lawsuits; Conlin turned him down.
This isn't the first time OPARB has been at the center of controversy. In 2007, a report by the panel that had not received final approval from the city's legal department was leaked to the media. The report detailed how OPARB believed Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske had interfered in an internal investigation of two officers who were accused of beating and planting drugs on a wheelchair-bound man in January 2007.
OPARB's current report reportedly reopens those wounds, addressing the controversy surrounding the January 2007 arrest and the accusations lobbed at Chief Kerlikowske. And although neither OPARB nor the city would share details on the report, any further discussion of alleged misconduct by the police chief would undoubtedly reignite the controversy that plagued Kerlikowske and the department for months after OPARB's last report came out. So there's plenty of incentive for the city to keep the report buried.
As the current OPARB struggles to get its report released, council public safety chair Tim Burgess is assembling a new, seven-member OPARB, which will take over next September. Burgess would not comment on the current board's legal situation, but did say upcoming legislation should put any debate over OPARB's powers to rest. "The future board will be able to act knowing full well that the city will protect them individually and as a board as they carry out their responsibility as they do their work," Burgess says.
OPARB's Holmes does not believe the board did anything outside of its duties and is frustrated that the city is holding its report in limbo. "Not a single police officer is named [in the report], not a single disciplinary measure is suggested, and no officer could be disciplined after the release of this report," Holmes says. "Under those circumstances, why wouldn't you allow the report to be released? If we've got such a great department, what are we afraid of?"