After Controversial Overturned Misconduct Findings, Council Briefed on "Convoluted" SPD Complaint Process
After a series of controversial overturned SPD misconduct findings, council gets briefed on "convoluted" complaint process.
The council's public safety committee held a special meeting today to talk about the Seattle Police Department's disciplinary process, the process the Office of Professional Accountability (which reviews civilian complaints against officers) uses to respond to complaints, and the procedure for officers or the police union to file a grievance after OPA makes a finding on a complaint.
Committee chair Bruce Harrell hastily assembled the meeting, which included interim police chief Harry Bailey, deputy mayor Hyeok Kim, mayoral police-reform advisor Tina Podlodowski, and OPA director Pierce Murphy, after the Seattle Times reported that Bailey had reversed seven sustained misconduct findings in response to grievanaces filed by the Seattle Police Officers Guild, the police union, over the course of several years.
Of those, six—involving allegations such as an officer who lost a baggie of cocaine and an officer who refused to arrest a domestic violence suspect—have been overturned, the Seattle Times reported.
At today's meeting, officials revealed that they will revisit the findings in those six cases to determine whether the original misconduct findings should be reinstated. Bailey has said his predecessor Jim Pugel tentatively approved the reversals in writing, but officials said today that they could not find written proof of Pugel's approval.
The highest-profile of the seven cases involved Stranger news editor Dominic Holden, who filed a complaint with OPA after Officer John Marion aggressively confronted him when he took photos of police surrounding a man at a transit stop. OPA found Marion guilty of misconduct, and recommended an unpaid day off, plus time training other SPD employees on how not to behave toward the public, as discipline.
Bailey subsequently overturned the disciplinary and misconduct rulings in the Marion case (he said he didn't intend to overturn the misconduct charge, which goes on an officer's permanent record, although his actions had that effect); then, Monday, overturned his own decision, keeping the misconduct charge in place. Bailey says Marion already fulfilled the training portion of his punishment.
Today, though, council members' questions focused on why Bailey was able to re-assess cases that had been closed for years—cases that were reopened again because the union filed grievances against the city. Once the union files a grievance, it becomes the subjective of the collective bargaining agreement between the police union and the city—and is, from that point forward, no longer public.
"The impact of adopting this grievance procedure has really corrupted the intent of transparency from OPA," council member Nick Licata said. "We, right now, don’t know how many sustained findings [of misconduct] by the chief, whoever was the chief at the time, have ultimately been reversed in settlement so that there is no longer a penalty. ... We have no way at this point, at least, of knowing what the scope of this trend has been."
Compounding the problem, under the city's current system, cases can be reopened at any time if the union files a grievance; in other states, like California, the statute of limitations to reopen cases is one year.
"We have an investigation, complaint, and grievance process that is outdated," Kim said. In response to concerns over the "convoluted" process (see chart above), Kim said, "The mayor has asked, and the chief agrees, to place an indefinite hold on any further actions that could result in a settlement on any outstanding grievance where an OPA finding of misconduct has been determined." In other words: No more overturned misconduct findings until the city sorts out the OPA process.
Additionally, Mayor Ed Murray has said he plans to assign his top public safety advisor, Barney Melekian, to convene a group including representatives from the law department and the city's labor relations division, plus input from the federal police monitor and the DOJ, to look at the six cases where Bailey overturned previous misconduct rulings.
After the briefing, during public comment, Seattle Police Officers Guild president Rich O'Neill—speaking on his last day as the head of the police union—denounced the city council and mayor for requiring Bailey to hold a press conference and appear before the city council to justify his actions.
"Chief Harry Bailey was brought into SPD to make decisions. He has made more decisions and brought more positive change in the last two months than anyone else has in the last two years," O'Neill said. "Chief Bailey has more police experience than anybody in this room."
Police accountability Harriett Walden, with Mothers for Police Accountability, said Bailey has "done more reform in six weeks than all of his predecessors. I don’t think this event should be a mark on his leadership."
Speaking specifically to Holden's case, SPOG's O'Neill added, "I find it appalling and extremely disrespectful that the first African-American chief in this city has to hold press conferenecs and go before the city council in a minor administrative case involving a violation of courtesy. … The case in question this past week should have been sent to mediation so the officer and complainant could sit down like adults and explain their positions instead of grandstanding in the media." *
Holden, who testified in front of the committee today as well (he said he was commenting both as "the complainant" and as "a journalist"), got a chance to address O'Neill's gripes. Holden said he'd made a big deal of his verbal altercation with Marion (writing about it numerous times for both the Stranger newspaper and Slog) because he wanted it to be "a test of the public complaint system in a very public way"—that is, to see if he'd get more attention from SPD by making his complaint public than a regular citizen would by simply making a complaint. "We shouldn't be treating public cases differently than private cases," he said.
* Incidentally, I filed an OPA complaint after officers pepper-sprayed me in the eyes at point blank range, shoved me, and slammed me repeatedly with their bikes during last year's May Day protests; I chose mediation, in part because (thanks to the pepper spray) I was blinded and couldn't identify the officer who attacked me.
I found the process moderately satisfying—I felt I had my say, and was able to give the commanding officer some suggestions on how officers could take more care to identify who was actually a threat and how they ought to deal with people they've rendered unable to move (i.e., don't shove them with a bike). I have no idea if they've incorporated any of my comments into training for future riots.