by Cliff Cawthon
The Gender, Equity, Safe Communities and New Americans Committee considered legislation today that would increase police accountability to the public. This recent push was set in motion after Mayor Ed Murray sent a draft of the reform legislation for review by the city council. The measure is intended to create the strongest civilian oversight regime in the city’s history.
The legislation would increase the independence and permanence the Community Police Commission, the scope of the Office of Professional Accountability to investigate misconduct; and it would create an independent Office of Inspector General to audit the process. Cities such as New York, and even smaller cities closer to Seattle’s size have an independent Office of the Inspector General.
Specifically, the Community Police Commission will become a permanent 15 member community-led body and formalize its role in the review and revision of SPD policies that affect public trust.
In addition to reviewing policy, this community-led body will also have input on hiring policies, such as how many SPD officers live within city limits. The Office of Inspector General will have independent jurisdiction over all SPD policies, procedures, and operations with subpoena power to compel cooperation with investigations. The office will have auditing power over the Office of Professional Accountability and will be charged with investigating outcomes, misconduct, reviewing incidents, and reviewing the disciplinary system for police.
The Office of Police Accountability, whose leadership will be appointed by the Mayor, will be a mixture of sworn and civilian investigators supervised by civilian staff. This office will also have subpoena powers and will improve the internal investigation process.
An immediate concern that was expressed by city council members and the public itself was independence and accountability. The legislation, despite having the endorsement of the Mayor and eight city council members, ensures that police reform and accountability will not be subject to executive caprice.
“We’re trying to insulate [the CPC] from whatever Mayor comes along. Nationally, we have an executive that [thinks] he can do whatever the hell he wants…so we’re trying to insulate it from the politics” according to Enrique Gonzalez, a commissioner and one of the co-chairs of the commission.
The Community Police Commission, in particular, will receive permanent and elevated status as a community engagement body with power. Councilmember Juarez, however, expressed concerns about district representation; especially, given that her area (5th District- North Seattle) was the location of the controversial North Seattle Police station project.
According to comments from City staff, their qualifications, ethnic and professional diversity are the prime focus of the appointment of commissioners; though geographic representation may be considered in the final phases of approaching this legislation.
Commissioners from the Community Police Commission also presented a proposal based on their 2016 recommendations to the council committee. Rev. Harriet Walden, a community advocate known for her role in founding Mothers for Police Accountability in 1990, led the delegation and emphasized the importance of this legislation as a victory in a longer history of fighting against segregation and discrimination.
In the vision that the commissioners provided, parallel to Mayor Ed Murray’s proposal for the CPC, they advocated for a similar CPC structure but they wanted budgeting mechanisms to maintain the capacity and autonomy for the commission. If their version goes through then their budget would be on budget parity with the police department in order to conduct their work.
This proposal would also formalize the CPC’s Executive Director’s role, especially when it comes to proposing budgets and administering the budget of the commission; a change to buffer the commission from being punished for positions they may take. To add another layer of accountability, the Executive Director, while a Mayoral appointment, could appeal a removal or change in their position to the city council president.
Rev. Walden spoke to the Emerald and hoped that their proposal would strengthen the proposed legislation and make the commission “sustainable, instead of a paper tiger.”
This was the first part of a larger public process, according to city council sources. Councilmember Gonzalez, as the chair of the GESCNA committee, will host the first in a series of committee meetings to consider legislation intended to reform the Seattle Police Department.
Cliff Cawthon is a Seattle-based writer originally from New York’s queen city, Buffalo. Clifford has been civically engaged since he was a teenager in Buffalo and his advocacy work taking him to places as far away as Cuba. He’s also an alumnus of the University of Manchester, in the UK, where he graduated with an M.A. in Human Rights and Political Science.