by Sharayah Lane
In a victory for police reform advocates, Seattle City Council unanimously passed comprehensive police accountability legislation on Monday to chambers packed with supporters and long time law enforcement reform advocates of law.
“By passing this legislation Seattle leaps to the head of the class on police reform and accountability,” said Councilmember Tim Burgess reading a statement by a nationally recognized police-accountability expert and professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska Omaha, “establishing these entities to provide oversight of police practices and policies is an exciting experiment that hasn’t been done before anywhere else. I’m excited to see where Seattle will lead the nation.”
The key points of the legislation will include creating a new public office of three separate bodies dedicated to police oversight.
- The Office of Inspector General (OIG) – Must be a civilian and would conduct reviews and audits of SPD processes and operations.
- The Office of Police Accountability (OPA) – would initiate, receive, classify, investigate and otherwise handle misconduct complaints and will be made up of a mix of civilians along with internal investigators within SPD.
- Community Police Commission (CPC) – created out of Department of Justice’s Consent Decree will become a permanent body upon completion of 3 years compliance with the consent decree. The CPC reviews and provides input to local community on the police accountability system, police services and SPD policies and practices, including input on recommendations by OPA, OIG or SPD.
The road to Monday’s vote has been several years in the making. Several people referenced Native American woodcarver John T. Williams at yesterday’s meeting, who was killed by police officer Ian Birk in 2010 after legally crossing the street in downtown Seattle.
Following the refusal of City Prosecutor Dan Satterburg to charge the officer, Birk he was fired from the SPD. The shooting, most of which was caught on Birk’s dashcam, prompted an investigation by the Department of Justice which found SPD had “a pattern or practice of excessive force that violates the U.S. Constitution and federal law”
Although Monday’s vote was unanimous Councilmember Kshama Sawant urged her colleagues not to lose sight of the legislation’s shortcomings.
“Although we welcome the progress I also urge the council to follow through but to view this in a proportionate light avoiding false expectations,” said Sawant, “legislation by itself will not stop the unconstitutional use of force by police officers.”
Sawant also called for moving toward having members of the CPC and the OIG be elected instead of appointed so that they too can be held accountable by the community and are not influenced by political power dynamics within the city.
The second phase of this legislation will be addressed in September when the council helps determine a City Budget. The CPC has asked that the council fully fund all the extra employees and resources needed to fully implement the three-tier accountability structure. Councilmember Gonzalez called for advocates of the legislation to return at budget time to ensure that momentum gained can be sustained through adequate funding of the measure.
Gonzalez closed the comment portion of the vote thanking everyone who has worked on getting the legislation passed. Rev. Harriet Walden, CPC co-chair and co-founder of Mothers For Police Accountability, received special thanks and a standing ovation for her years of community work.
“I truly believe that this will be an accountability system that will have legitimacy amongst our officers and police reform advocates and that is quite the achievement,” said Gonzalez, “although this is a significant step forward in our efforts to reform the police department, we need to maintain our accountability systems over months and years to see these reforms over the finish line.”
Sharayah Lane is an active seeker of good stories and social justice in Seattle. She is a new mama who loves spending time with her son Ian and watching him discover the world. She enjoys long naps, good books, and enjoying the beauty of the PNW.
Featured image is a cc licensed photo attributed to British Emergency Photography