Police departments around the country are responding to outcries over controversial police shootings.
Many, like Seattle, are also under scrutiny by the U.S. Justice Department. Those cities are creating new structures for civilian and community oversight. Seattle is one of several cities launching an Office of Inspector General.
That office is expected to gather police data and recommend solutions.
Pierce Murphy heads Seattle’s Office of Professional Accountability, which investigates complaints of police misconduct. One of his recent investigations looked at SPD’s response to a man who went on a crime spree last December, with carjackings, high-speed chases and shots fired from Belltown through northeast Seattle.
Murphy said it was a rapidly evolving scene spanning multiple neighborhoods and precincts.
“I noted that the commander, despite his best efforts, really was overwhelmed and not able to – perhaps as effectively as everyone would have liked – manage that rapidly evolving situation,” Murphy said.
Police officers rammed the fleeing man’s car and ultimately shot him outside a branch library in Wedgwood.
Murphy said the incident raised issues that deserve a broader examination, perhaps looking at how other cities handle these types of events. But his office can’t take that on.
“We have to move on to the next complaint investigation and really don’t have the staff and the bandwidth or the clear authority to do these broader, more systemic reviews,” he said.
It’s the type of review that an inspector general could perform in Seattle, perhaps someday soon.
Mayor Ed Murray’s latest budget includes $3 million dollars to strengthen police accountability. Some portion of that will go to launch the Inspector General's office.
In July, Murray made clear he supports the idea.
“It is my suggestion that we take the part-time auditor’s position, which is on a consulting contract, and make it into an inspector general’s position with a stronger ability to investigate complaints and practices,” Murray said.
He plans to introduce the legislation shortly.
The auditor’s role has been to independently review the complaints to the Office of Professional Accountability, and how they are investigated. The city’s outgoing OPA auditor, Anne Levinson, is a longtime supporter of the new office as well.
“The inspector general would have staff, independent authority to do the audits and evaluations, and report on a regular basis and present to the city council in a public fashion,” Levinson said.
Levinson’s audits have recommended broader changes like monitoring the use of force by police, and training officers in de-escalation, racial bias and how to handle people in crisis. But she said those findings often gathered dust, until the U.S. Justice Department reached a consent decree with the city in 2012.
“Because of the consent decree, a number of the recommendations I have made have now been implemented,” she said. “But it’s only because of the force of the court behind. This administration of its own volition hasn’t implemented very many of these recommendations.”
She said one of the things she’s watching for in the upcoming legislation is how the OPA and inspector general are protected from political interference.
“Independence. What you’ll want to look for is that the mayor can appoint the OPA director, for example, but the city council can appoint the inspector general, so you have a balance of powers,” she said.
She and others point to the inspector general for NYPD as the model Seattle should emulate. Philip Eure holds that job. His office is just two years old, but he has already taken on controversies. In the wake of Eric Garner’s death, Eure found some police officers faced little discipline for using chokeholds. His more recent report found no measurable link between broken-windows policing and reductions in violent crime.
But Eure said for those findings to have impact, the police department must be required to respond. “There should be language requiring the police department to address each specific recommendation,” he said, “and provide an explanation as to why the police department is or is not going to adopt those recommendations.”
Eure’s office is separate from NYPD and staffed by civilians. It has subpoena power to get records it needs for investigations, but he says so far they haven’t had to use it.
“It should be made crystal-clear,” he said, that the inspector general “has complete and full access to the police department’s records.”
Eure said cities across the country are creating more civilian oversight of police. He just returned from Chicago, which is also establishing an inspector general for public safety.
Seattle Police Department officials declined to comment for this story. The city council is expected to review the legislation later this fall.