City Hall

Council Member: OPA Recommendations Don't Go Far Enough

By Erica C. Barnett December 13, 2010

A new report by the Office of Professional Accountability, the city office that oversees allegations of police misconduct, makes recommendations for improving officers' interactions with the public. However, city council member Nick Licata, a member of the council's public safety committee, says that based on conversations he's had with the office, he's alarmed by what isn't in the report: Recommendations for how Seattle Police Department officers can ensure that the public gets accurate information about incidents of officer violence against civilians.

"When [homeless woodcarver John T.] Williams was shot by Officer [Ian] Birk, all of the information they released [to the media] was wrong," Licata said this afternoon, poring over a copy of the report in his office. Police initially said that Williams confronted Birk with an open knife and headed directly toward him, brandishing the knife while ignoring demands that he back away and drop the knife. Evidence later indicated that the knife was closed, that Williams was turned away from Birk, and that he was deaf in one ear and extremely drunk.

"I asked what OPA was going to do about inaccurate statements [to the media], and [OPA director Kathryn] Olson said she didn't plan to file a complaint because there was no indication this was done on purpose," Licata said. "So my concern is that it's a systemic approach, and the system is not working.

"There are a lot of recommendations [in the report] but I'm not sure we're going to see an analysis of why these events keep happening."

Olson did not immediately return a call for comment.

Although the report says that in light of "a series of high profile incidents involving allegations of unnecessary force" this year, SPD officers have received training in de-escalating potentially violent altercations and using alternatives to violence (receiving training in racial profiling and use of profanity with suspects, for example), the department could do more.

The report suggests that officers with "proven street skills and communication skills" train lower-ranking officers in how to behave professionally with suspects. And it recommends more training in "procedural justice," giving civilians the feeling they are being treated fairly. It suggests that officers need more training in de-escalation methods, particularly with low-level offenses like jaywalking (an officer punched a teenage jaywalker in the face when she struggled with him earlier this year). And it recommends that SPD partner with an outside agency to train officers in defusing tense situations.
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