Guest: Hold officers accountable for misconduct
A new police chief presents a unique opportunity for the Seattle Police Department to turn things around and make the department accountable to the community it serves, writes guest columnist David A. Perez.
Special to The Times
DURING his election campaign, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray said that choosing a new police chief would be the single most important decision he would make as mayor.
Fortunately, the mayor’s office has announced that all three finalists for the job come from out of state. This means that the next police chief won’t be hobbled by pre-existing loyalties, or vendettas, within a bureaucracy that has stymied much needed reform.
This appointment presents a unique opportunity for the Seattle Police Department to turn things around and make the department accountable to the community it serves.
Because a quick start will be critical, here’s what I suggest the next chief aim for during his or her first 100 days:
First, negotiate a new labor contract with the police union, the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, that reforms how officers accused of misconduct are held accountable. Because the existing contract expires at the end of this year, negotiations with the union will start immediately after the new chief is appointed. These negotiations are critical because accountability procedures are baked into the union contract.
The existing contract has to change because it provides officers who are accused of misconduct more protections than the criminal defendants that they arrest — ironic because those arrestees have several constitutional amendments written exclusively to protect their rights.
In effect, the police union has negotiated for itself a “Super Bill of Rights” that all but ensures bad apples within the department can evade substantive discipline.
That dynamic has to change if the Seattle Police Department is serious about reform. The new chief needs to negotiate a clear, streamlined and less obstructive process by which complaints against officers — particularly those involving excessive force — are adjudicated.
Second, the chief should give up the authority to veto or dilute discipline that has been imposed on officers found to have committed misconduct. Discipline is determined by the civilian director of the Office of Professional Accountability.
Recently, the public has witnessed a steady drip-drip-drip of stories related to officers who evaded substantive discipline even after complaints were sustained against them, simply because the police chief disagreed.
The chief’s power to veto the civilian overseer’s determination is the hallmark of arbitrariness. It is also an incredibly effective strategy for a new police chief to destroy any semblance of credibility in the public’s eyes. What good is civilian oversight if the civilian’s ruling is overturned?
The chief should also have the ability to impose discipline — but he or she should not dilute or veto discipline that’s already been imposed.
Some may argue that if the chief loses the ability to veto or dilute punishments, then the chief also loses leadership credibility within the department. This is a straw man. The chief’s credibility should be based on his or her ability to implement and enforce policies that prevent misconduct, not on the ability to let officers evade discipline.
A chief who supports the civilian overseer’s disciplinary determinations will signal to the community that he or she considers civilian oversight an opportunity to highlight accountability, rather than an inconvenience to be swept under the rug.
Third, the new chief should embrace a procedural-justice model early on. Procedural justice acknowledges that police officers must be seen as “legitimate actors” by the communities they police in order to be effective.
To earn that legitimacy, the new chief should not measure success by crime rates alone. Success should also be measured by how Seattle police officers are treating the individuals they are sworn to protect. Ultimately, the community’s cooperation and trust will be the difference between success and failure.
But trust can’t be fostered so long as the department continues to protect the slim minority of bad apples. That’s why, for any of these recommendations to take root, the next chief must hold officers who engage in serious misconduct accountable, rather than insulate them from discipline.
A chief that commits to these three items in his or her first 100 days will be a breath of fresh air from day one.
David A. Perez is a constitutional law attorney in Seattle. He served the mayor’s Citizen Advisory Committee to select a new police chief. On Twitter @davidaperez1