Scathing report says chief interfered with police probe
Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske repeatedly interfered in an investigation into the actions of a pair of officers, damaging the credibility of the police force to the point that increased oversight is needed, according to a civilian-review-board report.
Seattle Times staff reporters
Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske repeatedly interfered in an investigation into the actions of a pair of officers, damaging the credibility of the police force to the point that increased oversight is needed, according to a civilian-review board report.
Kerlikowske said he had not received a copy of the report, which has not been released publicly. It was obtained by The Seattle Times, and when a reporter read him the key findings, he called them "absolutely false."
The chief had weighed in on the investigation of two bicycle cops who were involved in a controversial drug arrest in January, the report said. The honesty of the officers was called into question after details of the arrest in their reports didn't match up with a surveillance video that had captured the bust.
The report said Kerlikowske used "extraordinary measures" to direct investigators to an unreliable witness, and then used that witness to corroborate the officers' version of events.
He also took advantage of a vacancy in the leadership of the Office of Professional Accountability to pressure those investigating the two officers, the report said. The OPA oversees internal police investigations.
The investigation involved allegations by convicted drug dealer George "Troy" Patterson — who uses a wheelchair — that police officers Gregory Neubert and Michael Tietjen had roughed him up and planted drugs on him during a Jan. 2 arrest in downtown Seattle.
Ultimately, the officers were disciplined for a minor policy violation: They failed to document the arrest and release of another suspect at the scene. The officers have declined to comment on the case in the past.
The chief made his decision on the officers' discipline before the facts were in, the report said.
In response to the findings, Kerlikowske said, "If it's about intervening in a case, I've been involved in a number of them, all high-profile cases with serious allegations so it's not that uncommon."
"It's not at all uncommon for me to be briefed and get involved and provide direction on a case."
Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis said Mayor Greg Nickels "absolutely" has confidence in the chief.
The scathing report by the Office of Professional Accountability Review Board was provided to City Council President Nick Licata on Friday. At the time, the city attorney's office blocked the release of the report to the public, saying there were liability issues. At Licata's request, it was circulated to the rest of the council on Monday.
The report was written by review-board members Peter Holmes, a Seattle attorney, and Brad Moericke, an attorney and former police sergeant. It was blocked from public release last week because of legal concerns.
The report is a draft dated June 14, and the City Council and city attorney's office are working on an amended — and likely softer — version that could be released later this week, according to two sources.
The report found that internal police investigators had gone so far as to obtain the release of a witness from jail on an unrelated drug charge in exchange for her statement, which is contradicted by others at the scene. Even so, the chief cleared the officers of the most serious charges in a news conference that contained misleading statements, the report says.
"We can only speculate what OPA's final proposed disposition might have been had the chief not gotten so deeply involved, simultaneously diminishing his own objectivity and chilling the investigators' independent judgment," the report said.
The chief's meddling, the report says, "perhaps unwittingly sacrificed the integrity of OPA's fact-finding mission for the sake of a desired outcome."
A civilian auditor, former U.S. attorney Kate Pflaumer, has already reviewed the investigation and concluded that officers lied in their reports, hindered the internal probe and that one of them confiscated a small amount of marijuana from a suspect but failed to place it in evidence. However, Pflaumer agreed with Kerlikowske that the officers did not plant drugs or use excessive force.
A superior-court judge also has questioned the officers' version of the arrest after reviewing a forensic expert's analysis.
The review-board report details a timeline of the chief's actions and the behind-the-scenes workings of the detectives from the Internal Investigations Section, a squad of sergeants overseen by the civilian-run Office of Professional Accountability. OPA makes recommendations to the chief, who is the final arbiter of department discipline. The review board, which authored the report, is appointed by the council and monitors the OPA's findings. There are three members, but one recused herself from the report because of a potential conflict of interest.
At the time of Patterson's arrest and the subsequent internal investigation, the office of civilian director for the OPA was vacant — a fact the OPA review board says Kerlikowske used to his advantage as he attempted to steer the investigation. The report praises the work of internal detectives in the case of officers Neubert and Tietjen, but says the chief manipulated the investigative process.
"We cannot help but conclude ... that this Chief took advantage of the vacancy in the OPA Director's office," the report said.
The chief was particularly involved in efforts to locate a witness whose statements he later used to confirm the officers' version of events and bolster his conclusion that no serious violations had occurred, the report says.
In reviewing that witness' statements, however, as well as the special treatment she received from police -- her release from jail -- the report concluded that the witness had "unreliable perception and memory." For one thing, she was under the influence of drugs, the report said. Her faulty memory is perhaps best demonstrated, the report said, "... By the fact that she has no recollection of the First Witness — the 6'5", 340-pound African-American man who stood in handcuffs next to her throughout the entire incident. ...
"In the hundreds of cases reviewed by this Board, this much is clear: No complaint against any Seattle police officer has ever been sustained on the basis of such unreliable testimony," the report concludes.
Licata said the issues raised by the report have led him to question whether the chief's position should be subject to council oversight and reconfirmation. It's a suggestion he brought up with other council members Monday as the city attorney's office provided them with copies of the report.
"I've always thought he should be subject to council review," Licata said. "If they [council members] read the report, they could recognize there is the need for the police chief to check in with the council on an ongoing basis."
Currently, the chief reports to the mayor.
Councilmembers Richard McIver, Richard Conlin and Tom Rasmussen said they were open to the idea of council oversight of the chief. Members Jean Godden and Jan Drago said they opposed giving the council reconfirmation power.
"Hopefully this will change some of the other council members' minds," Licata said.
The council considered giving itself the power to reconfirm the police and fire chiefs, as well as other department heads, when it reviewed the city charter last year. While the council dropped the chiefs' confirmation issue, voters approved the council's review of other department directors. Licata says there's still time to put the idea before voters this November.
Nickels and Kerlikowske oppose council reconfirmation of the chiefs' jobs.
"It's a very bad idea," said Marty McOmber, a spokesman for the mayor. "It will politicize the police chief and the fire chief's positions."
Ceis, the deputy mayor, said the mayor's office had to pressure Licata to get a copy of the report, which he said was the basis for "unsubstantiated claims" made against the chief by the council president.
"We're not happy that Mr. Licata was trying to make public policy based on a report no one had access to," Ceis said.
Kerlikowske complained Monday about the way the report's release to the council was handled.
"It's very disingenuous for the report to be given out and the principals involved not to have an opportunity to review it," Kerlikowske said.
He likened his situation to a detainee held "in Guantánamo Bay and we're not allowing you to see or hear the evidence," the chief said.
Licata had another historical metaphor — and clearly another opinion — about the situation: "I remember how angry Nixon was when the Pentagon Papers were released," he said.
"We want the public to know the full truth."
The controversy surrounding the Neubert and Tietjen case has resulted in the dismissal of three felony cases — including the charges against Patterson — and resulted in city and county prosecutors sending at least 30 letters to defense attorneys alerting them to possible credibility problems with the officers.
The report questioned why the chief would rely on the same evidence to exonerate the officers that prosecutors used to determine that they had a legal obligation to notify the defense bar of the officers' potential integrity issues.
The report states the city needs to take a hard look at a more independent review board for police complaints.
"... In order to undo the damage done to police accountability and civilian oversight, the chief should publicly reassert his commitment to both, insisting upon strict compliance by all SPD personnel throughout the chain of command, and then lead by example," the report said.
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