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Originally published December 15, 2011 at 9:01 PM | Page modified December 15, 2011 at 9:02 PM

SPD proposes auditor to review probes of police shootings

In a move aimed at bolstering public confidence, Seattle police proposed Thursday the creation of a civilian auditor — possibly a retired judge — to independently review department investigations into shootings by officers.

Seattle Times staff reporter

quotes This proposal does not go far enough. The investigation should be conducted by a civil... Read more
quotes Complete BS. We have a civilian review board that is supposed to be separate from th... Read more
quotes "At Thursday's council meeting, police officials described the steps detectives go... Read more

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In a move aimed at bolstering public confidence, Seattle police proposed Thursday the creation of a civilian auditor, possibly a retired judge, to independently review department investigations into shootings by officers.

Police officials presented the idea to the City Council's Public Safety and Education Committee, saying the appointment of an auditor would address concerns about the department's ability to impartially examine such shootings.

"I think it's a great idea — more eyes," said Committee Chairman Tim Burgess, who promised the committee would study the proposal.

The auditor would focus on the quality of the investigative work but not decide whether a shooting was justified or unjustified.

While no specific cases were mentioned, the fatal shooting last year of First Nations woodcarver John T. Williams by Officer Ian Birk brought intense scrutiny on the department.

Birk resigned under pressure in February after the department's Firearms Review Board found the shooting unjustified.

In March, after that shooting and other high-profile confrontations, the U.S. Department of Justice opened a civil-rights investigation into allegations that officers have used excessive force, particularly against minorities.

The Justice Department is to announce its findings Friday.

At Thursday's council meeting, police officials described the steps detectives go through to carry out their goal of a complete and impartial investigation, ranging from initial work at the scene of an officer-involved shooting through the department's final conclusions.

"It has to be absolutely airtight," Capt. Mike Washburn, head of the department's Professional Standards Section, said of the work done for official reviews by the department, prosecutors and an inquest jury.

The auditor would review all investigations whenever an officer intentionally or accidentally discharges a firearm at a person, resulting in injury or death.

Preferably, the auditor would be a retired or former judge with a background in overseeing court inquests that are routinely held after such shootings, or have experience in deadly-force litigation, according to the officials' presentation.

A former judge would have the capability of acting "impartially without ties to law enforcement," said Lt. Steve Wilske, who oversees the homicide division and the CSI unit that does crime-scene work.

The department already has a paid civilian auditor, appointed by the mayor, who reviews internal investigations — including some involving use of force — conducted by the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA).

The shooting auditor's role would be narrower.

It would include reviewing investigations after they are deemed completed by the Homicide Unit and the King County Prosecutor's Office, although the auditor could initially respond to shootings to monitor the work of investigators.

Ultimately, the auditor would determine if the investigations were thorough and complete using best practices, the officials said.

The auditor also would look for evidence of bias on the part of investigators.

Burgess said the auditor could be someone other than a judge, including a person with investigative experience.

Washburn said the proposal had not been broached with the Seattle Police Officers' Guild because the auditor's work would constitute a review and not disciplinary proceedings.

Still unclear is how the position would be funded, particularly at a time of tight city budgets.

Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or smiletich@seattletimes.com

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