Mayor Ed Murray calls the new police accountability legislation groundbreaking. A police reform advocate says, This is not a time for congratulation.
Mayor Ed Murray calls Wednesday's proposal "groundbreaking." A police reform advocate says, "This is not a time for congratulation." SPD

Surrounded by police accountability advocates, lawyers, and Seattle City Council members, Mayor Ed Murray just announced a police accountability proposal he called "perhaps the most important piece of legislation during my time in this office."

“At its core," Murray said, "this legislation seeks to restore trust between our police and members of Seattle's minority communities."

The legislation is a finalized version of a proposal reviewed in October by the federal judge who is overseeing police reform in Seattle. It will take several significant steps toward increasing oversight over the Seattle Police Department, but stops short of doing everything accountability advocates have called for. Additionally, some of the most significant reforms will likely be subject to contract negotiations with the two unions that represent Seattle Police—negotiations that have been ongoing for months.

Here are some highlights of what the legislation would and wouldn't do:

• Abolish the Discipline Review Board, a group that is currently stacked two-to-one with police and can overturn officer discipline. (Cynthia Whitlatch appealed to this board to try to get her job back after being fired for racial bias.)

• Give the Office of Police Accountability, which investigates alleged officer misconduct and is currently called the Office of Professional Accountability, subpoena power. The legislation would also make complying with the OPA a condition of employment for cops, meaning if they refuse to participate in an OPA investigation, they could be subject to discipline from the chief.

• Allow the OPA to hire civilian investigators instead of cops investigating each other. While last year the city proposed requiring these investigators to have previous law enforcement experience, Wednesday's legislation does not include that requirement.

• Create a civilian-led Office of Inspector General (OIG) to make systematic reform recommendations to the city. While the OPA will focus on individual complaints, the OIG will review policy questions like the department's use of surveillance technology or techniques like blast balls. (This body would also have subpoena power.) The Seattle Police Department would not be required to actually implement recommendations from the OIG, but the mayor said he would direct the department to enact those recommendations "unless there is a good legal reason" not to.

• Make the Community Police Commission (CPC) permanent. The 15-member all-volunteer CPC was created in 2012 as part of the reform process and has been an important force in pushing the mayor toward embracing reform.

• Create preference points in hiring for candidates who are multilingual, or have experience working in social services or in community service like the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps. Such preference points, which the King County Sheriff's Office already uses, can create a more diverse (and less male-dominated) police force.

Wednesday's proposal will not make police union negotiations open to the public.
Wednesday's proposal will not make police union negotiations open to the public. JAMES ANDERSON / ISTOCK

• The legislation does nothing to make negotiations between the city and police union more transparent. Police reformers and the Department of Justice—and even Seattle's city attorney, who joined the mayor at Wednesday's announcement—have said negotiations between the city and police union should be open to the public. Murray argued, as he has in the past, that opening negotiations is a right-wing idea that weakens labor unions. Murray said he met with "unions throughout this city" who were opposed to opening negotiations. “If we’re going to open that up," Murray said, "we need to do that with labor."

Again, many of the reforms in Wednesday's proposal will be subject to collective bargaining (exactly which ones is disputed). A representative for the Seattle Police Officers' Guild, which erased its entire web presence last summer, could not immediately be reached for comment.

• Funding questions remain unanswered. The legislation does not specify funding or staffing for the OPA, OIG, or CPC. The mayor's office says it expects the new offices to cost about $2 million more in total per year. While some cities dedicate a set percentage of city funding toward these types of accountability bodies, the mayor rejected that idea as "Republican". Instead, the offices will be at the whim of the city budgeting process, like other city departments. When I asked the mayor whether that might affect the independence of those offices—if they criticize the mayor, their budgets could be on the chopping block—he dismissed that idea. "You can’t use the budget as a punitive measure," he said. "There’s an independent [city] council there to whack the mayor if it’s being used as a punitive thing... It's not like we write these budgets in secret."

• The legislation does not give any civilian body the ability to discipline officers or determine department policy. (In San Francisco, a civilian body can discipline officers; Oakland voters recently approved something similar.)

Elected officials praised the legislation. Council Member Lorena González said it "emphasizes community influence and independence." Council Member Tim Burgess said it "has the potential to truly change the culture of our police department."

But Samuel Sinyangwe, cofounder of the national police reform advocacy group Campaign Zero, said in an interview "the national models [allowing civilian bodies to have a role in discipline] are clear and Seattle needs to implement measures consistent with those models." He pointed to a ranking of the country's 100 largest police departments on mappingpoliceviolence.org, in which Seattle ranks 33rd for police killings per capita.

"This is not a time for congratulation," Sinyangwe said. "They are moving in the right direction, but what they’ve done is very cautious and it held back on the types of measures that are really important in giving communities the power to hold police accountable."

Speaking to reporters after the mayor's announcement, Andre Taylor, whose brother Che Taylor was shot by police last February, said the legislation "looked like a collaboration of different people from different backgrounds joining in to try to fix the problem." Taylor had come to the press conference on a break during the inquest into his brother's death, which is happening this week down the street from City Hall.

"My issue is, what does that look like to my community that I have to go back to?" Taylor continued. "While the excitement is here, how do I translate that excitement to the streets where the real things are going on every day? How do I encourage them when they tell me, 'People have been promising us things for hundreds of years.'"

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In a statement issued Wednesday, the CPC said it "supports the basic structure of the accountability system outlined in the mayor’s proposal. But there are critical areas in which the legislation must be strengthened to ensure independence and guarantee that the community has a meaningful voice in accountability."

The legislation will now go to the Seattle City Council, where González's public safety committee will hold several public hearings on it. The first one will be next Wednesday at 9:30 am.

Eight of Seattle's nine city council members are cosponsoring the legislation. A representative for Council Member Kshama Sawant told The Stranger she was not asked to sign on.