Seattle Police Reforms Just Getting Started After Local Journalist’s Complaint

In the summer of 2013, Seattle journalist Dominic Holden, a reporter for The Stranger, filed a complaint with Seattle’s Office of Professional Accountability, saying a police officer tried to harass and intimidate him. The OPA sustained his complaint, saying the officer had broken rules on professional courtesy and deserved a one-day suspension without pay. The case was closed.

Then in February last year, Holden heard indirectly that the officer had appealed the finding. Interim SPD Chief Harry Bailey had reached a settlement with the officer in which the misconduct finding was, in fact, reversed.

At that point Mayor Murray called a press conference and Holden challenged Bailey’s actions from the audience. That day, Murray defended the police chief. “I believe we have a chief, after many years, who is restoring the public’s faith in this police department by who he is and by how he’s acted,” Murray said.

Holden has since moved to New York; he’s now a reporter at Buzzfeed News. “I was in an unusual position of being a reporter who was writing about my own complaint with the Seattle Police Department,” he said. What he and others learned as a result was that the appeals system for police officers “included many more escape hatches for police officers accused of misconduct than pretty much anyone involved had expected.”

Meanwhile, members of the City Council and police oversight groups weighed in, and a few days later Murray reversed the reversal: the misconduct finding stemming from Holden’s complaint would remain in place. But the mayor called the appeals system Byzantine and said further changes could only come through labor negotiations.

“Remember, there’s a whole series of issues that are a part of collective bargaining here that also tie our hands that we’ll also have to visit at some point to change some of the aspects of this,” Murray said at the press conference.

The time Murray pointed to has now arrived. His team is currently in contract negotiations with police unions. People involved with police oversight are anxious to see what emerges. The ensuing months have brought numerous recommendations from the Community Police Commission and OPA Auditor Anne Levinson to change this system. Many of these were brought together in a status report from the Mayor’s Office last November.

City officials say there’s no question that SPD has improved its communication around officer appeals. That’s a contrast to February 2014 when OPA Director Pierce Murphy said he learned of the settlement in Holden’s complaint after the fact. “I remember quite vividly, I was in my office and began to get emails from the chief’s legal advisor notifying me of the settlements,” he said.

Murphy said appeals are a normal process, but he was surprised not to be notified earlier since he’d been the one to investigate Holden’s original complaint.

Over the past year, Murphy said those communication gaps have been repaired. When officers file appeals, Murphy says he and the City Attorney’s Office are involved along the way. “There’s good communication to us, we’re being notified when appeals are done, we’re being notified when there’s settlements,” he said.

And Murphy notifies the public. As of this year, you can read the results of misconduct investigations on his website as soon as they’re completed, and his office updates that record to reflect any appeals. He also has a new policy to touch base regularly with each complainant and employee during an investigation.

Scott Lindsay, special assistant to Mayor Murray’s office on police reform issues, characterized the changes implemented so far as low-hanging fruit — things that could be implemented fairly quickly. He said more substantive changes will come through legislation and negotiations with the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild.

The union’s former president, Rich O’Neill, called last year’s controversy over appeals a power grab by police critics. His statement is still front and center on SPOG’s homepage.

But the current guild president, Ron Smith, has urged his officers to be more accepting of change. Smith recently told the Stranger newspaper his message to officers is, “If you don’t like the politics here, then leave.”

Lindsay called Smith’s comments “fairly stunning.” He’s hopeful they can find a way to streamline officers’ appeals from two possible routes into a single, predictable process.

“Those words from the police guild president himself, I think, really suggest a new tone that our police accept that reform and getting this right in light of the consent decree, in light of community concerns, in light of their own concerns and their own desire to be the best police force in the world — that they’re really on board,” he said.

Some of the questions still to be resolved include whether the appeals process will be open to the public (hearings of the Disciplinary Review Board are closed), and whether the complainant should have a say during an appeal.

Holden said there’s no question his case was treated differently because of its high profile. He said he hopes the reforms will change the process across the board, not just in the most visible cases.

“Going forward, what is most critical is both making this process transparent to the public and publishing the results of these findings, but also creating as much autonomy for police discipline as possible,” he said.

Mayor Murray is expected to introduce legislation by the end of March to further those goals.

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