Urban Politics #152: OPA’S Citizen Review Board

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By City Councilmember Nick Licata.

Urban Politics (UP) blends my insights and information on current public policy developments and personal experiences with the intent of helping citizens shape Seattle’s future.


OPA’S Citizen Review Board First Annual Report

As the City approaches the first anniversary of Seattle’s first civilian police oversight board, the OPA Citizen Review Board briefed the full City Council on Monday morning. At a later date, they will be giving a more in depth briefing before the Council’s Police, Fire, and Courts & Technology Committee, chaired by Councilmember Jim Compton.

In November of 2001, the city and Police Guild reached an agreement on what powers the civilian board would have and requiring its members to sign confidentiality agreements. That cleared the way for the City Council’s appointment of the three review-board members in May 2002 and having it become the third leg of the Office of Professional Accountability.

The Office of Professional Accountability was set up in 1999 with Sam Pailca, an attorney appointed by the mayor for a three-year term as the director. Close to a decade before the OPA was created there was a part-time Civilian Police Auditor and that position was rolled into the OPA. The Auditor has access to unredacted police files, whereas the Review board only sees redacted files.

The appointed OPA Review Board does not investigate individual complaints and cannot punish officers. However, the three-member civilian panel does review redacted copies of all complaints, look for trends, and make recommendations on whether departmental policies need to be changed. They do not intervene while an investigation is under way, they only look at them after they’ve been closed.

The three board members are Peter Holmes, a business bankruptcy lawyer devoting his sabbatical to community service, who once considered becoming a police officer; John Ross, a former agent with 24 years of law enforcement experience with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; and Lynne Iglitzin, a mediator with the King County Dispute Resolution Center and former head of the Seattle Human Rights Commission.

The Board submitted a letter to the Council and gave brief testimony summarizing their impressions on how well the Board has operated during its first year.

Their main concerns consisted of:

1) Concern that the civilian director of the OPA has an office steps away from the police chief, giving the impression that she has been “absorbed into the command structure” of the Police Department. They recommended that the Director and the SPD begin to plan for a restructuring that will allow the OPA Director to perform her duties with greater autonomy.

In response Councilmembers did point out that the close proximity of the Director to the Police Chief did allow her quick and easy access which could be valuable in resolving complaints or issues in a timely fashion. She technically holds a rank equivalent to assistant police chief, however with the exception of her immediate assistant; her investigative staff are police officers and members of the Police Guild.

Although the Council specifically made the civilian director answer to the chief, not the council, Police Chief Kerlikowske’s statement that “If (the council) wanted an independent, civilian review board, they would have passed an independent, civilian review board,” does not take into account the limitations placed on the Council by the City’s contractual obligations to the Police Guild and the Guild’s prior challenge to creating a Review Board.

2) Being in the dark about the position of the Mayor’s Office with respect to the OPA generally and the Review Board specifically. It has yet to meet the mayor although the board has met twice with Edsonya Charles, the mayor’s public-safety adviser. She said she did so as a courtesy, not an obligation.

Charles has told the Seattle Times that “They are appointed by the council, the mayor has no role.” As reported in the Times, the Mayor has no plans to meet with the board.

I agree with Board Member Ross, who said that the Mayor’s Office should take an interest. “The issue is police accountability, and that involves all the citizens of Seattle. It isn’t who we are appointed by, it is what we are doing.”

If the Mayor is saying that the OPA Review Board is not his concern because he did not appoint them, he should note that they were created by ordinance which he signed into law. The Board is now part of the City’s Municipal Code. The Board is part of the governance of this city and as executive of this city the Mayor is obligated to recognize his responsibilities in communicating to our volunteer citizens who contribute to that governance.

3) Questioning the wisdom of making a new appointment to the Auditor position prior to completion of a comprehensive review of the respective roles and functions of the OPA Director, the Auditor, and the Review Board. They are anxious to assist in this comprehensive review, which they believe could be accomplished in a matter of weeks, not months.

Council Member Jim Compton has already identified Kate Pflaumer, the former Federal Attorney, as the likely new OPA Auditor. All of the Board members were very supportive of her and the need to retain an OPA auditor position. I suggested that the Board, the Council, the Executive, and the new Auditor review the respective roles and functions of the Auditor with regards to the Board and OPA Director to create a more efficient and understandable relationship between the three entities. The nature of any changed functions or duties will determine if they are subject to contract negotiations with the Police Guild.

Excerpts of their letter follow:

“First, Seattle honors its police force with the privilege-not a right–to investigate allegations of wrongdoing against its own. Council sought to balance this privilege by creating a unique model: the OPA Director, a civilian, reports to the Chief of Police in the course of her day-to-day administration of the OPA’s internal investigations section. We believe, however (a belief echoed by many of our fellow citizens), that the OPA Director is perceived as too close to the police command structure to be truly representative of citizen concerns and perspectives. The Director’s office is physically located in the new police headquarters building, practically next door to the police chief’s office. While there are probably operational efficiencies achieved in this arrangement, such close proximity creates the appearance that there is no real civilian oversight because the “civilian” director has been effectively absorbed into the command structure.

We have come to realize, moreover, that this arrangement may well serve to alienate not only civilians, but rank-and-file police officers as well. We recommend that the Director and the SPD begin to plan for a restructuring that will allow the OPA Director to perform her duties with greater autonomy. The Review Board volunteers to assist in that planning.”

“Second, we have previously reported on the obvious overlap in functions of the Review Board and the OPA Auditor. While the job of police oversight is complex and may be accomplished by many varying means, it is vital that the process be fair, efficient, and clearly understood by everyone concerned. We recognize that an appointment to replace the current OPA Auditor is pending, but we must question the wisdom of making any such appointment hastily, prior to completion of a comprehensive review of the respective roles and functions of the OPA Director, the Auditor, and the Review Board. We are anxious to assist in this comprehensive review, which could be accomplished in a matter of weeks, not months.

“Finally, we are frankly in the dark about the position of the Mayor’s Office with respect to the OPA generally and the Review Board specifically. While we have initiated two brief and cordial meetings with the Mayor’s senior policy advisor for police matters, we have been unable to establish any regular communications link to coordinate the Mayor’s initiatives on police-community relations and the Review Board’s work on police accountability. It is conceivable, for instance, that assimilation of the civilian OPA Director into the command staff and appointment of a replacement OPA Auditor as discussed above result from a carefully crafted executive plan. However, no such plan has ever been communicated to the OPA Review Board.

Moreover, our strategic plan requires us to evaluate the Board’s own effectiveness; while we meet regularly with and receive input from the police, citizens and City Council, the present communication disconnect with the Mayor’s Office makes it difficult to determine the efficacy of our work in the context of City-wide initiatives. It almost goes without saying that the Review Board, like the OPA itself, cannot succeed in the important goal of furthering police accountability without a carefully conceived and effective communications flow that threads its way through all of the relevant functions of this City.”

The OPA Board also shared with us their Strategic Plan Goals for 2003 and they are provided below.

OPA Review Board’S Strategic Plan Goals For 2003

1. To establish and implement criteria for an ongoing evaluation process to monitor and report on the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) system, including by not limited to:

Comprehensive closed case review
Clear complaint classification system
Effective IIS standards and procedures
Efficient and accountable operational procedures among the OPA Director,
OPA Auditor and OPA Review Board.

2. To increase public awareness and confidence in the use of the existing Office of Professional Accountability complaint/commendation system.

3. To foster better communications between citizens and police on emerging issues including but not limited to:

Use of Force
Racial profiling
911 call response time
Minority community issues

4. To make informed recommendations which enhance the public accountability of the Seattle Police Department. Given existing economic and staffing resources the Board will prioritize and address such topics as:

Use of Force
Early intervention system(s)

5. To evaluate annually the Office of Professional Accountability Review Board’s performance in light of the above measurable goals and objectives.

Keep in touch…

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