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By City Councilmember Nick Licata.
Urban Politics (UP) blends my insights and information on current public policy 00developments and personal experiences with the intent of helping citizens shape Seattle’s future.
A public hearing held on April 18 in my Public Safety, Governmental Relations, and Arts Committee was called by some a “historic moment.” It was the first time in Seattle that a public hearing was held in advance of its police union labor talks.
Those attending the hearing testified about how they thought police oversight could be improved. Recommendations included changing the City’s collective bargaining process with Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG), changing the operation of the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) office to be more accessible to complainants, changing the OPA Review Board (OPARB) role and composition, increasing the OPARB access to information and legal protection necessary to perform their duties, increasing the Seattle Police Department (SPD) training and testing, improving education of what conduct the public has a right to expect from officers, providing increased statistics on SPD and crime trends, and funding the SPD Citizen Advisory Councils.
Some of these recommendations, if the City wanted to pursue them, may not need to be bargained and included in the collective bargaining process. Consequently, I have introduced two bills.
The first bill is Resolution 30871, which affirms the City’s intent to consider public recommendations to strengthen the City’s police accountability system in three ways: 1) The Council may request the Chief of Police to provide responses to the City Council on a periodic bases for some recommendations. 2) For those recommendations that require enactment of legislation, the Council may consider legislation. 3) For those recommendations that must be negotiated in a collective bargaining agreement with the police unions, the Council may ask the City’s Labor Relations and Policy Committee to consider them.
Click here for the full text of the resolution 30871.
The second bill is Council Bill 115542, relating to records reviewed by OPARB. This bill allows the OPARB to have access to the complete investigatory files of closed misconduct investigations as well as insuring that the legal liability of OPARB members is no greater than that of other City employees.
OPARB is a 3 member civilian review body that has no investigatory powers and only reviews cases once they are closed. The purpose of this review is to provide a summary of issues, problems and trends noted by the OPARB review of individual cases as well as making recommendations that the city consider additional consider policy or procedural changes that would facilitate more effective police oversight.
These OPARB reports, by law, do not contain recommendations concerning the discipline of any particular officer, nor do they comment upon or make any recommendation about the potential liability of employees, officers, or citizens.
This is a policy role that is important to the City Council in helping it set general policy objectives for the Police Department. The OPARB role is also distinct from that of the independent civilian OPA Auditor, who provides review and assessment of complaints and investigations while they are ongoing.
I am putting forward this legislation to support OPARB’s efforts to provide relevant information to the Council and others reading their reports. Currently the closed cases that OPARB reviews eliminate the names of officers who may be the subject or initiator of a complaint, officers that are witnesses, as well as the names of citizens who make complaints or are witnesses. The time required for redaction and the difficulty of reading redacted files, with multiple subject names redacted, make it hard for OPARB to review these closed cases as well as prevents them from determining patterns of complaints.
This change, if supported by the Full Council, should restore the OPARB function as intended by the Council when it passed the original enacting legislation in 1999.
Additionally, this bill clarifies that OPARB members have no greater liability than other City employees and restates that OPARB members’ may not disclose identifying information including name, badge number, physical description, address, telephone number, email address, photographs or drawings, or any other unique identifying numbers such as driver’s license, employee, vehicle or social security numbers.
Click here for the full text of the Council Bill 115542.
An important step necessary to foster the full confidence of the public in its police department is to make these changes so OPARB can have full access to complete documents to effectively do its job and be free of fear of personal liability when they do their job in a way that is consistent with their legal obligations.
Public Response To Legislation
The following organizations have sent letters of support regarding these bills:
Office of Professional Accountability (OPARB)
League of Women Voters (LWV)
Minority Executive Directors’ Coalition (MEDC)
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
Puget Sound Alliance for Retired Americans
Latino Political Action Committee
Seattle Human Right Commission
The Seattle Times Editorial Board wrote: “Members serving on the panel need to carry out their responsibilities without fear of legal retribution. Credibility is at stake. Board members are surrogates for the broader public. Without the board, the public loses a chance to be informed about what is happening within its force*The City Council ought to pass legislation protecting the review board from personal liability. Without this protection, our police watchdog barks like a poodle.”
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer wrote: “Members of the review board have been denied access to detailed case information necessary to conduct a reasoned analysis of the discipline system. The board members’ task is further complicated by an unusual requirement that they each accept individual liability should the city be sued over the release of confidential or investigative information. That must change to gain the sort of public confidence that benefits officials and officers alike.”
The final Full Council vote is expected on May 30. Both bills passed out of committee in early May. Resolution 30871 passed with unanimous support. Council Bill 115542 passed with Councilmembers Steinbrueck, Conlin, and I voting yes and Councilmember Godden abstaining.
Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske has a Seattle Police Community E-Newsletter. It’s called “The Briefing.” This isssue’s items include articles on Elder Abuse, Honoring Fallen Officers, the Immigration Rallies, and other topics. If you’d like to subscribe, send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org