Frustrated Police Monitors Could Hold Lessons For New Commission

Oct 26, 2012

The city of Seattle is seeking citizens for its new Community Police Commission. The commission is being established as part of an agreement with the U.S. Justice Department to reform the Seattle Police Department. Federal and local officials have expressed hopes that the commission will play a strong role in police oversight. But it faces some limitations that could hamper its abilities, as the members of another police review board have already found.

The concept of a citizen’s commission to look at policing in Seattle came out of the city’s negotiations with the U.S. Justice Department this summer. In its settlement, the DOJ and the city agreed to appoint both an independent monitor and a new Community Police Commission to address police reform.

Unveiling the settlement last July, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn said he hoped this new commission could help the police department tackle issues like racial bias.

“It takes the commitment of the entire community, it takes hard conversations. And that’s why the creation of the Community Police Commission was so important to me,”  McGinn said.

The legislation to create this commission was passed by the Seattle City Council on October 22, and the mayor now has 90 days to appoint its members.

But many question what the commission can actually accomplish – its role is advisory. And it’s expected to stick to general topics. The city ordinance creating the group says it “will not review or report on specific cases of alleged misconduct,” or discuss officer discipline. 

That’s the same restriction imposed on Seattle’s existing police commission, called the Office of Professional Accountability Review Board. Its citizen members are also not allowed to express their views on specific cases of police misconduct. They complain that this undermines their ability to do their work.

“Civilian oversight begins and ends with the ability to review cases and to talk about cases with the public,” said Dale Tiffany, the chair of the OPA Review Board.

The board’s mission is to provide community oversight and awareness of SPD practices. But any reports they write must discuss police issues only in general terms. That requirement was spelled out in a labor contract with the Seattle Police Officers Guild in 2008. The guild worries that having citizen groups weigh in on open investigations could be prejudicial to the officers involved.

The review board also provides citizen oversight of the police department’s Office of Professional Accountability. The OPA is the police department’s “internal affairs” division. It has a civilian director and an auditor who, unlike the review board, CAN review complaints, issue reports and make recommendations on police misconduct.  

But Tiffany says the restrictions on the review board discussing specific incidents can seem bizarre when everyone else in Seattle is talking about them.  “The public knows what’s going on, everybody knows. So it’s silly to not be able to comment as a review board,” he said.

Board members say this prohibition cuts into their credibility with Seattle residents.  Part of their role is community outreach. But Patrick Sainsbury, another board member, says that outreach seems to backfire when people learn of the review board’s limited powers. “When they heard that from us, you could sort of see them visibly express both shock and dismay, and also turn off,” he said.

This past June, the review board issued a report asking for more teeth.

Board members want to discuss and issue reports on specific cases, to evaluate the OPA director, and to ask the police chief to explain his or her disciplinary findings. Board member Liz Holohan said they also want a new name that makes it clear they are separate from the OPA and the police department. “With the ambiguity about our name, people assume that we are associated with and subservient to the OPA. That’s why we need to have clarity.”

Their legislative proposal is currently before the Seattle City Council. But some city officials say the review board may no longer be necessary and that there are going to be too many advisors on police accountability in the wake of the DOJ settlement.

Members of the review board have been embattled virtually since its inception in 2002. Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes was one of the early members of the review board. During his tenure, he also had to battle for the ability to get police records and to speak candidly. Review board members were threatened with legal liability if they released any information that resulted in lawsuits.

Holmes said he understands the current review board’s frustrations.  “I just hope that going forward we’ll err on the side of greater transparency, not less,” he said

Holmes said the good news is that the DOJ settlement has created an opportunity to reexamine how complaints, investigations and discipline of police officers are handled at SPD.  “OPA and the board’s place in police accountability is, I think, all fair game,' said Holmes. "That’s why we have this monitor search going on. That’s why we have the oversight of a federal judge. That’s why the council and the mayor will be working to assemble a citizen’s police commission."

The new Community Police Commission will have 15 members, 13 from around Seattle and two from police unions. The application deadline is November 21. Among other qualifications, the city is seeking some members with criminal records.

It says, “Individuals who have been arrested or who have been convicted of a crime and have demonstrated successful rehabilitation would add meaningful perspective and insight to the Commission's work and should be strongly encouraged to apply.”