by Erica C. Barnett
(This article was originally published on The C is for Crank and has been reprinted under an agreement.)
As calls to defund the Seattle Police Department continue, Mayor Jenny Durkan has proposed moving about $56 million out of the Seattle Police Department’s budget into other parts of the city budget — a ledger swap that could actually cost the city more money than the current system and could, advocates say, actually weaken the accountability system.
When announcing the transfers, Durkan’s office described the changes as “actions to transform the Seattle Police Department and reimagine community safety” by responding to requests from community stakeholders. However, it’s unclear where the impetus for the specific changes the mayor proposed — moving 911 dispatch, the Office of Police Accountability, and the Office of Emergency Management out of SPD — came from.
OPA is the city agency that conducts police misconduct investigations. Under the mayor’s proposal, it would move out of SPD and become its own department, most likely reporting “directly to the Executive and Council,” a spokeswoman for Durkan, Kelsey Nyland, says. “Our hope is that by making them a separate office from SPD, there will be an increase in community confidence in their independence from SPD.”
When asked where the mayor got the idea to move OPA out of SPD, specifically, Nyland pointed to the “Blueprint for Divestment” produced by King County Equity Now and Decriminalize Seattle, in which these three items appear at the end of a long list that includes a hiring freeze, the elimination of the Navigation Team, the elimination of community outreach implicit bias training, and communications, and the elimination of overtime pay.
The agencies that deal with police accountability, including the Community Police Commission — an independent oversight body — and the OPA itself, were apparently not consulted about the change or asked whether they had concerns. (The CPC only received notice about the changes the mayor was proposing a few minutes before her public announcement.) But three years ago, when police accountability advocates like the CPC, the ACLU, and the Public Defender Association were crafting a sweeping police accountability bill, they explicitly kept OPA under SPD’s aegis because doing so allowed them direct access to unredacted SPD files and to SPD personnel.
Retired judge Anne Levinson, the former OPA auditor whose recommendations for improvements to the accountability system were endorsed by the CPC in 2014 and incorporated into the 2017 accountability legislation, says the point of that ordinance was to create a firewall between the accountability agencies and SPD while preserving their direct access to data and records, case management systems, 911 calls, and other records.
“The usual progressive position is that in order to accomplish that, they also need to be totally outside of the department,” Levinson says, “not under the department’s organizational umbrella. But when we looked at others across the country, we frequently saw not only were they not well-resourced, but they did not have full, immediate, and unfettered access to all the information they needed to do thorough investigations. Some have to issue subpoenas or public records requests just to get basic evidence. So we said that until the City can ensure no loss in full, direct, and unfettered access to systems and evidence, OPA should not be moved to a stand-alone City agency. It makes a very significant difference.”
Nyland says that maintaining “unfettered access to SPD data and case files” is the “north star” for Durkan — one that could potentially be achieved by creating a new “data-sharing system between SPD and OPA” and amending the accountability ordinance.
Public Defender Association director Lisa Daugaard, who served on the CPC and worked on the 2017 law, says that “similar civilian-led oversight bodies in other cities have had extreme difficulty getting access” to records in a timely fashion and have had to resort to subpoenas. “Subpoena power still leaves the agency at arm’s length and taking a shot in the dark about what to ask for,” she says. “It’s extremely helpful that OPA can access the records and data it needs from within the organizational structure.”
OPA director Andrew Myerberg, who at the city attorney’s office in 2017 and worked on the bill, recalls that “the decision was made unanimously [in 2017] to keep OPA in SPD” in order “to preserve access to data and people.”
Myerberg says that not only would the changes likely be subject to collective bargaining (something Durkan acknowledged in her announcement), they would also require approval under a federal consent decree and amendments to the 2017 ordinance. For example, although moving OPA out of SPD could increase community confidence in its independence, Myerberg says, the legitimacy of OPA decisions might be called into question if no one from SPD is in the room when OPA is reviewing investigations.
And, Myerberg adds, moving OPA further away from the police will almost certainly cost more money, not less. “There’s a cost associated with moving all the administrative functions out of SPD,” not to mention increasing office space and hiring staffers to handle public disclosure requests, he says.
The Seattle Police Officers Guild contract championed by Durkan and approved by the council in 2019 undermined the accountability legislation in numerous ways, causing an outcry from advocates who decried the contract as a backdoor deal that took several huge steps backward on accountability. One significant change that resulted from the contract was that it removed the OPA director’s authority to determine how many civilian and sworn investigators (if any) are on the OPA payroll. (Previously, investigations had been conducted entirely by sworn officers. The legislation attempted to reform that process by allowing the OPA director to appoint investigators who are “entirely civilian or a mix of civilian and sworn, in whatever staffing configuration” best serves accountability to the public.)
The contract gave SPD more control over misconduct investigations by limiting the number of civilian investigators to two and requiring a sworn officer to investigate any allegations that could lead to an officer being fired. This is, of course, just one of many changes the police contract made to the adopted accountability legislation, which is further evidence that the real issue — and the place where a real reckoning is overdue — is in the police contract itself, which expires at the end of 2020.
Erica C. Barnett has covered Seattle politics since 2001 for print and online media. Read her latest at The C Is for Crank.
Featured image by Kevin Schofield.