Seattle: Testimony of Executive Director before Amnesty International

News Release: 
Wednesday, March 29, 2000

While concern over police accountability in Seattle has come to the fore in the past year, it is hardly a new issue. In the last dozen years, no less than six City-sponsored reports, and three ACLU-WA reports, have criticized the police internal investigations system for not responding to the needs of the community it serves.

The year 2000 could -- and should -- be a watershed year for Seattle and its police community relations.

  • The City has the opportunity to learn from the mistakes made during the World Trade Organization's ministerial meetings (WTO) in Seattle late last November, where peaceful political activists suffered from indiscriminate tear gas, rubber bullets, and arrests.
  • The City has the opportunity to select a police chief who can garner the trust of our police officers, and lead them toward an understanding that improved accountability will benefit both officers and citizens alike.
  • And, the City has the opportunity to implement the important reforms adopted by the Seattle City Council last November. Those reforms are what I will address.

Briefly, let me remind you of the recent Seattle events. In 1999, in the wake of disclosures of a police theft of $10,000 from a crime scene, Seattle Mayor Paul Schell and the Seattle City Council adopted the most extensive reforms yet to the Seattle Police Department's Internal Investigations Section, (IIS) the unit that investigates complaints of police misconduct. There was new leadership arising from the Mayor and the City Council, and we applaud their efforts.

Based on recommendations of a blue ribbon panel, the Mayor and the Chief proposed a variety of reforms in the practices and procedures of police investigations of police misconduct. The IIS was renamed the Office of Professional Accountability and a civilian position was created to head it. The City Council also strengthened the position of the independent civilian auditor by creating a three-citizen "audit review panel" to oversee the work of the auditor, which for the past nine years has reviewed the records of completed internal police investigations and issued reports to the Chief and the Mayor.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington called for an independent office for police accountability. In a report issued last June, we explained in detail how Seattle's system for investigating citizen complaints of police misconduct has failed. I have a copy of the report for the panel. In sum, the report explains why we continue to believe that the best structure to advance meaningful accountability is an independent office for police accountability, staffed by professionals who are not police officers and who have the power to investigate and to issue subpoenas.

However, we work in the real world of politics and recognize that reform in a democracy usually comes through a series of incremental steps. The reforms adopted last year, if implemented in a good faith, are very important developments toward greater police accountability, and we are willing to work with the City to make the best of them.

The combination of reforms should advance toward the goal of real accountability. Having the police internal investigations office headed by a civilian -- assuming the selection of just the right individual -- should help improve that department's operations and give the community greater confidence that allegations of incidents of police misconduct will receive a fair hearing. We remain concerned however, that the new system continues the practice of police investigating their fellow officers.

The key to Seattle's success or failure over the next few years will be the Mayor and City Council not just calling for reform, but in committing themselves to the long and difficult task of actually ensuring the effective implementation of their reforms. So far the changes are on paper only. The Mayor's Citizen Panel made its recommendations last August, followed immediately by Chief Stamper's issuance of a "12 Point Plan." Then last November, the City Council adopted three ordinances related to investigations of police misconduct. Yet, to date we have not seen any reports indicating actual changes in IIS operations. The reforms have been delayed by a combination of three factors: The WTO debacle which has taken the attention of the City Council, contract negotiations with the Police Guild, and the resignation of Police Chief Stamper. As a result of these delays, it is too early to know how and whether the reforms will work.

The City Should Keep the 3 person citizen audit review Committee

However, we fear that the City Council is likely to eliminate one of its own reforms -- the citizen audit review panel -- before it is even given a chance. Former Councilmember Tina Podlodowski proposed the three-person citizen audit review panel. Sadly, she is no longer on the Council to defend the ordinance.

Let me explain why the ACLU strongly supports the citizen audit review panel. As I mentioned, in 1991 the City Council created a civilian auditor. The auditor position has been in place nearly nine years. Before the City adopted the IIS Auditor ordinance, the ACLU of Washington wrote to the Mayor and City Council raising concerns over the position's lack of independence and authority. In our letter, we predicted that the "…Auditor's report is likely to become little more than a relatively brief statistical report."

Time has proven that prediction to be true. The Auditor's reports initially were evaluative and analytical, offering suggestions to the City and the Chief. Over time, however, the Auditor reports have been reduced to little more than a statistical account of the activity of the IIS with little or no meaningful analysis of the actual process.

The citizen panel working with the Auditor will accomplish two important goals: First, the panel brings community perspectives into the analysis of trends in the office of professional accountability, providing the auditor a sounding board outside the police department. Otherwise the only input the auditor receives is form the police department. Secondly, the panel provides the City with a group of citizens specifically focussed on how our police department responds to complaints of police misconduct. Wouldn't that be useful now, as the City grapples with the fallout of WTO?

The problems associated with the City's response to the WTO demonstrations clearly bring a new sense of urgency to reforming the process for police misconduct investigations. The ACLU received over 500 reports asserting violations of civil liberties by police during WTO conference. Sadly, until serious reform takes place, we do not believe it is fruitful for the complainants to file reports with police department. The police conduct during WTO highlights the need for a police complaint process that is fair and has the confidence of the citizenry. A fair and neutral office to evaluate complaints of police misconduct is equally beneficial for the police, who need the trust of the community.

Within about a month, the ACLU-WA will issue a report on our view of what went wrong at WTO. And this summer the City Council's evaluation is due. There are many lessons for the City about responding to political protest, which go well beyond the basic structural reform needed of police misconduct investigations.

We hope, however, that that people who experienced or saw unacceptable police conduct during WTO protests will take an interest in the long-term policy issues of police accountability.

Seven Principles for an Effective Office of Police Accountability

Ultimately the ACLU believes that a structure for fair and effective investigations of police conduct must include the following principles.

  • Open and Trustworthy Process
    Procedural safeguards that guarantee that the investigation of complaints is open, understandable, and fair to the complainant as well as the officer.
  • Professional and Independent
    A professional office independent of the police department, with direct access to the Chief and to the Mayor.
  • Investigatory Power
    Authority to investigate incidents, to subpoena witnesses and documents, and to issue findings on complaints.
  • Disciplinary Role
    Its findings should be provided directly to the Chief of Police for consideration in determining appropriate disciplinary action.
  • Analysis and Reporting
    It should provide meaningful public reports that describe trends in citizen allegations and police conduct.
  • Policy Recommendations
    Responsibility to understand community concerns and to make recommendations about policies and procedures that will improve police accountability.
  • Sufficient Funding
    Funding sufficient to staff a professional office that can capably carry out these functions.