Welcome back to the still-virtual Seattle City Hall. After a two-week holiday recess, the council resumed several 2020 habits, such as forgetting to mute their mics during Zoom meetings and passing incremental police reform.
On Monday, the council unanimously approved legislation to cement subpoena power for the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) and the Office of Inspector General (OIG) into the Seattle Municipal Code.
The legislation, brought forward by Councilmember Lisa Herbold, slightly bolsters Seattle's police accountability processes by giving oversight agencies the tools to compel witnesses or others involved with police misconduct incidents to cooperate with an investigation. So our oversight boards were investigating police actions without any real legal recourse to require people critical to these investigations—civilians or cops—to supply evidence or testimony to a case lol.
According to a report last month from the South Seattle Emerald, the OPA and OIG have never actually needed to subpoena rank-and-file officers, but they couldn't have used them even if they needed to. SPOG blocked the council's attempt to expand the OPA and the OIG's powers under the 2017 police accountability ordinance, which, among other things, granted the oversight boards subpoena authority. The police union killed that subpoena authority during bargaining.
We won't know whether the OPA and OIG's subpoena powers will extend to the SPD's officers until after SPOG renegotiates its contract this year. That's going to be a zesty negotiation, considering the tenor of SPOG President Mike Solan's new podcast (it's called "Hold the Line," I will not be hyperlinking it) and the changes to the department the council put forward in the 2021 budget—namely the 35 out-of-order layoffs and the salary cuts to unfilled positions.
Regardless of what happens, it's important to note that this legislation is helping along a middling-at-best accountability process. Throughout the summer, the OPA received nearly 20,000 complaints about SPD's behavior and opened 128 investigations. (About 12,000 of those cases concerned the incident of the kid who got hit with pepper spray after a cop deployed the weapon on a nearby woman who had grabbed his baton. Investigators found no misconduct in the pepper spray case.) When the OPA did find misconduct—as when, for example, the OPA determined that an officer who punched a protester six to eight times was out of line but an officer who punched the same protester twice was doing his job—the OPA only recommended a slap on the wrist, such as an unpaid suspension for longer than a day.
In order to reduce police misconduct, the city's police oversight boards will need some actual teeth and some better enforcement.