Seattle Officials Probe 'Twilight Zone' Of Police Discipline Reversals

Mar 7, 2014

Seattle officials plan to seek changes to the obscure union appeals process that has allowed reversals of police misconduct findings.

The Seattle Police Department has been under scrutiny in recent years from the Department of Justice, the federal court and numerous civilian-led groups, all of which have analyzed SPD’s disciplinary process.

But it took a confrontation between Seattle journalist Dominic Holden and SPD Officer John Marion to put the spotlight on the ability of the Seattle Police Officers' Guild (SPOG) to appeal disciplinary findings after the cases are technically closed.

Appeals Puzzle

The appeals process came under new scrutiny when Interim Police Chief Harry Bailey notified city officials that he was reversing the findings in Marion’s case and several others, as a result of settlements with the union. Bailey ended up reinstating the misconduct finding for Marion, but the disclosure left city officials with many more questions.

City Councilmember Nick Licata has worked to improve the transparency of SPD’s process for investigating police misconduct. But he said this incident revealed what he called a “twilight zone” within that process.

“The thing that surprised me the most was how few people understood what was happening,” Licata said. “I had to sit down with some of the mayor’s staff and explain step by step what I was discovering and they were themselves discovering it for the first time. It really was in some ways like a puzzle.”

At a recent City Council meeting, outgoing SPOG President Rich O’Neill said the City Council and others outside SPD had no right to interfere with Chief Bailey’s determinations. O’Neill also said the original case between Holden and Officer Marion should have been sent to mediation “so the officer and the complainant could sit down like adults and explain their positions instead of grandstanding in the media.”

Looking For Other Cases

This appeals process can add several months to a misconduct case. The auditor for SPD’s Office of Professional Accountability, Anne Levinson, has urged SPD to resolve cases more quickly. The fact that these appeals drag on for months “undermines accountability,” she said in her most recent report

She also said these reversals based on union appeals could corrode public trust. She’s seeking the data on how many other cases were reversed in the last few years. SPD has requested an extension until March 17 to supply it. 

Licata said this data could form the basis for new legislation and upcoming contract negotiations. “We need to take a look at the current legislation and amend it – because it’s already part of the code – to make it much more transparent so we know when they are negotiating away the misconduct findings. And we preferably need to tighten up the appeal process,” he said.

Hamper The Search For Chief?

The search for Seattle’s next chief of police is officially underway. The job was posted Thursday and the deadline for applications is April 4.

O’Neill said the appeals system review could impede the hiring process. “I fear that the events of the last few days will hamper our search for a permanent chief of police. Who in their right mind will want to apply for the job if they have to check with eight different people and check the political winds before making a decision on an administrative issue?”