Seattle City Council urged to step up police scrutiny
A Seattle City Council panel on police accountability on Tuesday called for more transparency of the disciplinary process, with one member...
Seattle Times staff reporters
A Seattle City Council panel on police accountability on Tuesday called for more transparency of the disciplinary process, with one member saying there is a systemic effort to thwart public scrutiny of how the department polices itself.
Panel members urged the council to strengthen the civilian-review board that oversees the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) in several of its 23 total recommendations. The report was presented to the council Tuesday.
One of the panel members, University of Washington professor Eric Schnapper, writing in an addendum, found that police oversight in Seattle suffers from a systemic effort to thwart public scrutiny.
While pointing out that police misconduct is "happily infrequent," Schnapper wrote that, "The systematic effort to limit public scrutiny of this issue is both highly creative and too often effective."
Schnapper chastised those in the department who resist public scrutiny and oversight.
"Criticism of police actions is not an inexcusable affront to the dignity of its officers, an illegitimate form of interference ... or part of some left-wing conspiracy to assist the criminal elements in our society," he wrote. "Criticism of police actions is just like criticism of any other public officials, a routine and healthy part of the democratic process."
Schnapper warned that "a lack of transparency is fatal to this system of public accountability."
Even as the panel was presenting its findings, outgoing members of the civilian-review board accused the OPA and its director of obstruction in a report the city won't release but that was leaked to The Seattle Times.
The three-member civilian-review board's 2007 annual report has been held now for more than two months because of legal concerns. However, a copy obtained by The Seattle Times accuses the OPA and Director Kathryn Olson of improperly withholding information that the law requires her to turn over.
"As a consequence, the Board's yearlong campaign to review OPA investigations ... has been effectively stymied," wrote board Chairman Peter Holmes, a Seattle bankruptcy attorney, in the board's final report. Its members' terms expire this year. "Transparency, sadly, has been thwarted."
Olson, a former Equal Employment Opportunity Commission attorney, said she had not seen the report but bristled when she was read that section.
"I take offense of being accused of not providing this information," she said.
The report also revisits the last controversy between the department, the OPA and the review board — the department's response last year to reports that a pair of decorated officers had roughed-up and planted evidence on a downtown drug dealer. The board accused Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske of interfering in the investigation.
The Jan. 2, 2007, arrest of George Patterson was investigated by OPA and the officers involved, Greg Neubert and Michael Tietzen, were not disciplined for the arrest, but were found to have violated department policy.
A video of the arrest showed the officers' reports were inaccurate and an independent auditor, former U.S. Attorney Kate Pflaumer, concluded after her own review that they lied and failed to cooperate with the investigation.
Mayor Greg Nickels Kerlikowske asked Olson to conduct another review, and she exonerated the chief and determined she would not have disciplined the officers, either.
As a result, the review board's members — Holmes, Sumner Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Brad Moericke, himself a former police sergeant, and Sheley Secrest, the president of the Seattle-King County Branch of the NAACP — decided to focus on Neubert and Tietzen as it reviewed how the department and OPA handle cases when officers are the targets of multiple citizen complaints.
The department had said that its internal investigators had "found nothing" in the officers' pasts to warrant additional scrutiny. The board concluded that statement was misleading, and reviewed seven other internal affairs cases involving one or both of them. The officers were cleared in all of the incidents, although the board insisted that they raised questions about the department's willingness to identify or intervene with officers who people complain about.
The report was completed in May but has not been released because of legal concerns. City Council President Richard Conlin thinks the board may have acted outside the scope of its authority. The review board has asked the city to indemnify its members, but Conlin says he hasn't got the authority and to do so "would be inappropriate."
Without the council's approval, the City Attorney's Office has recommended the report not be released because of liability issues.
Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske said Tuesday that it was "unfortunate" that the latest report had been leaked and said he would not comment until he had seen it.
A similar impasse occurred last year when Holmes and the board wrote a sharply critical report about the OPA's investigation into allegations that two officers roughed up and planted evidence on a downtown drug dealer. Holmes traded barbs with Kerlikowske and Olson, who was new to the job as OPA director.
That report was leaked to The Times, as well.
What the review board was looking at this time, according to the report, were instances where officers who broke the rules may have escaped discipline because of contractual language that says an internal investigation must be completed within 180 days.
According to Olson, there's been just one. Kerlikowske has said publicly that the number was about 10. Holmes says he can't tell because so much information was withheld, even though the City Council passed an ordinance giving the panel access to unedited disciplinary reports.
Olson said the chief "apparently was misinformed" in his statements. And she insisted that she withheld data from the review board only after an adverse ruling by a state labor examiner that challenges the legality of the council's ordinance giving the board access to the full reports. The city has said it will appeal that decision.
The panel must have that information to do its job, wrote Schnapper, the UW law professor, in the council panel's report: "At this point, the viability of the Board is in jeopardy."
"The voters and the City Council should view with a jaundiced eye any claim that the conduct of some aspect of the city government needs to remain confidential and thus, inexorably, beyond the reach of informed public debate," Schnapper wrote.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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