New SPD oversight director outlines a way forward
Pierce Murphy, the new civilian director of the Seattle Police Department’s Office of Professional Accountability, is already making changes and promises more.
Seattle Times staff reporters
Office of Professional Accountability
To learn more about the Seattle Police Department’s OPA, go to: www.seattle.gov/police/OPA
Among the very first things Pierce Murphy did after being appointed the civilian director of the Seattle Police Department’s Office of Professional Accountability was remove the image of a badge from his business card and decide to move his office from police headquarters.
In light of what he calls a community crisis of confidence in the department, Murphy says it is imperative he put some distance between himself and the department.
“Civilian oversight is supposed to be independent by appearance, action and word,” said Murphy, explaining his ambitious plans to bring about a major change in the office that oversees internal investigations and to restore public confidence in its mission.
“I need to do everything I can to remind myself, the police and the public that it is my job to be an independent watchdog of the police department,” he said.
His own assessment of that task, after seven weeks on the job?
“I like complexity,” he smiles. “And I have not been disappointed.”
Murphy, 59, the former public ombudsman in Boise, is promising sweeping changes to the OPA, most aimed at restoring its credibility and making its process more user-friendly. That includes moving in with investigators and the rest of the OPA staff in the Seattle Municipal Tower, near police headquarters.
He plans a remodel to turn its current imposing office — complete with peephole in the door — into an inviting space with the sort of waiting room found at a doctor’s office.
In the meantime, Murphy has been out in the community at every opportunity, talking to police officers, their commanders, the union representing officers and sergeants, and community groups and leaders. Indeed, he promises a half-hour of his time, face-to-face, with anyone who makes an appointment.
“We should be encouraging people to complain,” Murphy explains. “It’s called ‘feedback.’ ”
Otherwise, he said, “Short of the Department of Justice coming in and dropping a report in your lap” — Murphy pauses and smiles again — “how would you know if there is a problem?”
That, of course, is what happened in Seattle in December 2011 when the Justice Department, after an 11-month investigation, concluded that Seattle police officers routinely used unconstitutional levels of force during arrests, and found disturbing, if inconclusive, evidence of biased policing.
At the same time, the Department of Justice found that OPA “has not provided the necessary accountability” and was part of the problem.
“Although we believe that the structure of OPA is sound ... We find that OPA fails to provide adequate oversight to prevent a pattern or practice of excessive force,” Justice Department investigators wrote. Too many cases were sent for “supervisory intervention,” and OPA did nothing to track their outcomes or the quality of the investigations conducted at the precincts, the Justice Department found.
The findings blindsided department and city officials and led to a hard-fought settlement agreement calling for sweeping reforms to be overseen by a court-appointed monitor, Merrick Bobb.
14 years later
When it was created by the City Council in 1999, OPA was considered an innovative hybrid between the traditional — and troubled — internal-affairs division run from within the department and a fully independent civilian-run operation.
Fourteen years later, its effectiveness has been undermined by community perceptions that police are not held accountable, Murphy said.
“That is the looming issue — public confidence,” he said. “With everything we do, that’s the question I ask: ‘How is this contributing to restoring confidence?’ ”
One thing you won’t see, Murphy said, is him making a lot of public appearances with police brass. His predecessor, Kathryn Olson, was a frequent public companion to former Chief John Diaz. Murphy worries about the appearance of being seen as too close to the department he’s assigned to investigate.
“You will never see me in that setting,” he said.
While he’s an SPD employee, Murphy said he answers to the mayor, not the chief.
Indeed, his move from police headquarters is partly because he doesn’t think that someone who wants to complain about police should have to face a uniformed officer in the lobby of SPD headquarters.
“I need to demonstrate to this community that I’m not hiding behind doors and officers,” he said.
Aaron Pickus, a spokesman for Mayor Mike McGinn, said the mayor discussed the independence of OPA with Murphy and it “is one of the reasons why the mayor appointed him as OPA director.”
Unlike his two predecessors — Olson and Sam Pailca, the first OPA director — the lanky and crew-cut Murphy is not a lawyer. When he applied for the newly created ombudsman position in Idaho in 1999, he was manager of human resources at Boise-Cascade, the wood-product giant. At the time, the city of Boise had experienced a string of officer-involved shootings that had left eight people dead in 23 months.
“I was successful, and work was boring,” he said. “And I was raised to believe I’m here on Earth to make a difference, to bring about a better world.” So Murphy applied for the ombudsman position and got the job.
Murphy earned a bachelor’s degree in commerce from Santa Clara University, while working as a sworn, reserve police officer first in Menlo Park, Calif., and later in neighboring Atherton.
During that time, he drew his weapon and used force to make arrests. “I have been in [what police call] an ‘ambiguous, rapidly-evolving situation,’ ” he said.
He also witnessed officers keeping quiet about misconduct in the ranks, or what some call the “blue wall.”
“There were strong cultural pressures to keep your mouth shut or look the other way. I didn’t want to be part of that,” Murphy said.
He entered the Catholic seminary and studied four years to be a Jesuit, only to decide that he wanted to marry. He has a master's degree in pastoral studies from Loyola University, and another master’s in counseling psychology from Gonzaga University in Spokane.
He is currently living in an apartment in Columbia City, while his family remains in Boise for now. He does not own a car and takes public transportation wherever he goes.
Murphy has seven children. An eighth, a profoundly developmentally disabled adopted son, Jacob, died at age 19 in 2005. Murphy and his wife have raised another severely brain-damaged son — a victim of child abuse — who is now in his 30s and living in a group home.
Murphy said he “never leaves Jacob out” when he talks about his family, in order to honor him. The boy’s tragic life — and his family’s efforts to give him something better — had a profound impact on Murphy and is a driving force in his life.
“He was about the least powerful person you could imagine,” Murphy said. “I see him in the face of so many people.”
Murphy carries that desire to give people a voice into his new job.
“People who have force used on them deserve to have it explained,” he said.
Murphy is a past president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE) and said he has been watching Seattle struggle with police reforms since 1999, when the city’s first blue-ribbon panel was formed to investigate the alleged theft of $10,000 from a dead man’s apartment by a homicide detective.
The money was returned when another detective complained. But the incident went unreported for several years, even though a number of people in the department knew of it.
Later, Murphy was directly drawn into another public uproar over police accountability in Seattle.
In 2007, he was hired as a consultant and expert witness by another panel looking at reforms in the wake of two disturbing officer-involved incidents. Murphy reviewed the OPA and found a number of impediments to its operation, including a lack of resources and its failure to monitor use-of-force reports.
In 2011, when the Justice Department’s findings were released, Murphy said he took the report to his chief in Boise and said, “Let’s not let this happen here.”
When the Seattle job opened up, Murphy said, he had the same reaction he did when he learned about the ombudsman position in Boise.
“It was déjà vu. I felt the same thing. I’ve got to do this,” said Murphy, who describes himself as an “adrenaline” person.
“That sounds like a kick in the pants — a lot of fun.”
Mike Carter: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-3706