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Originally published Tuesday, April 16, 2013 at 8:49 PM

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Police union accuses command staff of cover-up over May Day violence

The union representing police captains and lieutenants is accusing the Seattle Police Department of a cover-up over handling of last year’s May Day violence, questioning the validity of reviews they say unfairly blame a union member while downplaying the role of an assistant chief.

Seattle Times staff reporters

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The union representing police captains and lieutenants is accusing the Seattle Police Department (SPD) of a cover-up over the inept handling of last year’s May Day violence, questioning the validity of a pair of reviews it says unfairly blame a union member while downplaying the disruptive role of an assistant chief.

The Seattle Police Management Association (SPMA) is defending union member Capt. Joe Kessler, who is criticized in two police reports into the department’s May Day response for not being more engaged as the appointed incident commander and not adapting to changing circumstances.

At the same time, the 61-member union is questioning the credibility and thoroughness of the two reports, including an independent review commissioned by Police Chief John Diaz and conducted by Michael Hillmann, a former deputy chief of the Los Angeles Police Department.

SPMA members think Diaz and others in the command staff worked to steer those reports away from what really happened and to downplay the responsibility of Assistant Police Chief Mike Sanford.

A Seattle police spokesman did not respond to the union’s claim.

The dissent among the department’s managers comes as the Seattle City Council’s public-safety committee meets Wednesday to discuss Hillmann’s report and an internal “after-action” report written by Assistant Chief Paul McDonagh. The hearing was scheduled by committee Chairman Bruce Harrell after the department released the two reports two weeks ago.

The council is also likely to take up a third, highly critical internal report into the May Day response written last June by Kessler, the incident commander. That report was deliberately withheld from The Seattle Times by Diaz, despite a public-disclosure request in July that sought the Kessler report.

The Police Department did not turn over a copy of the report until earlier this month.

Diaz acknowledged to a Times reporter that he deliberately withheld the report from The Times because he didn’t want it to “come out in front of” and “distract” from the department’s official version and Hillmann’s review.

The state Public Records Act provides a strong presumption that government documents are public, and requires agencies to cite specific exemptions to the release of documents when they are withheld. The SPD did not cite any exemption for withholding the Kessler memo, or even acknowledge it existed until earlier this month.

The Times learned of the Kessler memorandum in July and filed a public-disclosure request seeking, among other items, “documents and memoranda involving May Day planning and response from all SPD lieutenants and captains.”

Since then, the department turned over hundreds of May Day documents — but never the Kessler report. The SPD closed The Times’ request, saying it had been filled on April 3, the day it released the Hillmann and McDonagh reports.

That afternoon, a Times reporter asked Diaz, McDonagh, Deputy Chief Clark Kimerer and other department officials about the Kessler memorandum.

Diaz said that the department had withheld the report but, now that its official version was out, that the newspaper would get a copy. One was sent that evening.

Series of documents

Since then, the SPD has provided two other series of documents to the newspaper since officially closing the request. One included the use-of-force reports filed by the officers who had to wade into the crowd to rescue Sanford.

The other was the email sent in June by Kessler to deputy chiefs Kimerer and Nick Metz that contained his report. Metz, in a response dated in July, said that an outside expert would be hired as a result of Kessler’s concerns and that confidentiality should be maintained “to ensure this process is credible.”

The reports written by Hillman and Assistant Chief McDonough acknowledge a long list of failures and mistakes in the department’s run-up to May Day and its response to violent protesters, but they particularly took Kessler to task for not being more engaged as the appointed incident commander and not adapting to changing circumstances.

Kessler’s own 33-page assessment of May Day, written a month after the event, was harshly critical of Sanford, who Kessler said was unprepared, countermanded his orders and endangered marchers and police when he bolted into the crowd, wearing a shirt and tie, to make an arrest.

A number of police officers had to rush into the crowd and use force, including pepper spray, against the marchers to rescue Sanford when he yelled for help over the radio.

Sanford had appointed Kessler the May Day incident commander a week before the march, and both reports acknowledge that he contradicted Kessler’s instructions on when officers could use force — particularly pepper spray — when engaging the crowd.

Diaz announced he was retiring from the department a week after the release of the May Day reports.

“A good captain”

Sanford was “de facto” incident commander, as Kessler’s boss, and is responsible for what happened, an SPMA news release concluded.

Lt. Eric Sano, the SPMA president, said his organization made its stance “because we are not going to let them throw a good captain under the bus.”

The union claims that Hillmann, a respected 43-year law-enforcement veteran, was given “selective input” and was not given access to all of the commanders involved and did not interview other key players.

“It prevented him from gaining a full understanding of the events that unfolded,” the SPMA release said.

Hillmann was paid $7,000 for his report, according to the department.

Reached Tuesday, Hillmann rejected any notion that he was steered by department officials.

He said that although he could have talked to hundreds of people, he was able to talk to those most directly involved and reach his conclusions within the time constraints.

“As they say in the baseball industry, I call them as I see them,” he said.

As to Kessler and Sanford, Hillmann said, “I like Joe. I think Joe was very open with me. I think Mike Sanford was as well.”

Hillmann said he read Kessler’s critique.

Capt. Steven Paulsen, an SPMA board member and commander of the department’s South Precinct, said he was “saddened as well as disappointed that certain members of our department, including our chief, spent considerable energy trying to minimize the actual truth of what happened on May Day 2012. “

Mike Carter: mcarter@seattletimes.com or 206-464-3706

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