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Originally published September 23, 2010 at 8:50 PM | Page modified September 24, 2010 at 9:39 AM

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Some urge expanded civilian role on Seattle police-shooting-review board

Seattle City Council committee members and police officials want to broaden the role of civilians in police-shooting reviews. The push for more...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Seattle City Council committee members and police officials want to broaden the role of civilians in police-shooting reviews.

The push for more civilian oversight comes days before the Firearms Review Board convenes Oct. 4 to study the fatal shooting of First Nations carver John T. Williams Aug. 30 by a police officer.

The Seattle Police Officer's Guild says it sees no need for additional civilian oversight of shootings.

Currently, one "citizen observer" attends meetings of the Firearms Review Board, a four-member board made up of high-level police officers that meets every time a police officer fires his or her gun. The observer must leave before the board's final deliberations into whether a shooting followed police-department policy.

The board decides whether the weapon discharge was within policy for the use of deadly force and its conclusion is considered by prosecutors who also review department shootings and by an inquest jury, empaneled by the county executive to review deaths resulting from police force.

Supporters say a more active role for citizen observers would give the public confidence in the reviews.

"This is the ultimate expression of state power, and the police department should be willing — and I think you are — to be wide open about the process that gets followed," Council public-safety Chairman Tim Burgess told police officials Thursday.

Burgess' committee met to discuss a report by Rebecca Roe, a local attorney and former prosecutor who serves as the review board's citizen observer. In her July report — covering shootings in 2008 and 2009 — Roe said the Seattle Police Department's review-board process was too lenient.

Roe wrote that the board didn't scrutinize officers' actions closely enough and didn't always ask officers outright if they understood department policies. Sometimes, she wrote, the board determined shootings were justified even though significant questions were unanswered.

"The camaraderie surrounding an officer involved in a shooting is understandable," she wrote. "However, it may erode the oversight function of the" board.

Roe wrote that she had observed a board member apologize to an officer involved in a shooting for "Monday morning quarterbacking."

She recommended adding a second citizen observer and letting the observer stay for board deliberations, but not vote. Roe says the observer should get to read and comment on the report before it goes to the chief.

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Police Chief John Diaz and Mayor Mike McGinn support Roe's recommendations.

The Seattle Police Officers' Guild would have to agree to a change in the civilian role.

Guild President Sgt. Rich O'Neill, who also sits in on everything but the final deliberations of the board, said in an interview that he doesn't see the reason for Roe's recommendations.

He and the citizen observer say what they think after seeing the investigator's report and hearing from witnesses, O'Neill said.

By the time they leave the room, he said, "there's no question in my mind how they're going to rule, because they are open in their discussions before we leave the room."

Still, he said, he would be open to negotiating changes.

Staff reporter Mike Carter contributed to this report.

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com

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