by Carolyn Bick
In early 2016, Micah Smith found himself interested in a particular American Medical Response (AMR) ambulance service employee. So, he texted her a few times to see if she was interested in going on a date.
Problem was, Smith — a Seattle Police Department (SPD) officer — had gotten her phone number by “inappropriately using his law enforcement access to obtain her cell phone number from a police report in which she was listed as a witness and in which the Named Employee [Smith] had no involvement,” according to the official summary of the case by the Office of Police Accountability (OPA), which was called the Office of Professional Accountability when the report was filed in 2016. Two of four other allegations against Smith were also sustained.
For all of this, then- Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole handed down an eight-day suspension. OPA’s Director of Public Affairs Anne Bettesworth said in an email to the Emerald on the morning of Aug. 21 that all suspensions are without pay, but that “[w]hether or not the employee gave up vacation time during that suspension is not something OPA could answer.” This means Smith could have used vacation time to cover what would have been unpaid days.
Thanks to user DivestSPD on Twitter, the Emerald obtained a spreadsheet of unredacted OPA case numbers and associated information for SPD officers between 2014 and 2017. Normally, officers’ names are redacted from the OPA official closed-case summaries, due to the terms set out in the Seattle Police Officer’s Guild (SPOG) contract between SPOG and the City of Seattle. Instead of their names, they are referred to as “Named Employee.” However, MuckRock user Hal Hodson filed a public records request with SPD in 2018 that resulted in the spreadsheet in question.
In the course of researching this story, the Emerald also obtained additional documents from MuckRock user Phil Mocek. These redacted case documents show the details of the case, excluding the AMR employee’s name. According to these documents, Smith contacted the AMR employee in late March 2016, on Easter Sunday. The AMR employee reported the situation in April 2016.
Smith was investigated for five different alleged violations of rules laid out in the Seattle Police Department Manual. Three of those charges involved what are termed “Standards and Duties,” and Smith was investigated for alleged violations of discretion, professionalism, and using his authority for personal gain. The remaining two charges were alleged violations of his use of the Criminal Justice Information System — using the police database to find the ambulance worker’s phone number — and Crisis Intervention, in which it was alleged Smith involuntarily detained people to see the ambulance service employee.
Ultimately, three of those charges — professionalism, using authority for personal gain, and using internal police data for something other than professional police work — stuck.
The OPA found that “[t]he actions of the Named Employee not only caused the subject concern and anxiety, they threatened to damage the trust of a vital and valued service partner;” “[t]he preponderance of the evidence showed that the purpose of the text messages was completely unrelated to the Named Employee’s authority or duties as a Police Officer,” with regards to Smith using his position for personal gain; and “[t]he preponderance of the evidence showed that the purpose of the text messages was completely unrelated to the Named Employee’s authority or duties as a Police Officer,” with regards to Smith using a police database for purposes other than police work.
Though the allegations were not sustained, the AMR employee provided the OPA two different text messages that appeared to suggest Smith “was subjecting people to involuntary detention without lawful justification merely to get the ambulance service to come in the hopes she (the subject) would be assigned to the call.” While Smith said he didn’t remember sending the text messages, he didn’t deny sending them, the report states.
“A review of past involuntary detentions in which the Named Employee was present revealed two instances in which the basis for the detention was not clearly obvious based on the report. These same incidents were mentioned by the subject and alluded to in a text message sent by the Named Employee,” the report reads. “At the same time sufficient facts listed in the report and visible on In-Car Video raise the possibility an emergency detention was justified.”
Nevertheless, the report found that Smith had abused his authority and his standing as a police officer in order to get in touch with and send unwanted text messages to the ambulance service employee. Contained within the documents the Emerald received were screenshots of the text messages between Smith and the AMR employee. The Emerald has included below screenshots of all the text messages used in the case documents, including the text message that the AMR employee said suggested Smith had involuntarily detained people, in order to see the AMR employee; and the text messages that appear to show Smith admitting to using internal police data to get the AMR employee’s personal phone number.
Smith’s actions and text messages “clearly caused anxiety and concern for the subject,” the OPA report reads. According to the report, the AMR employee said that she went so far as to stay inside her response vehicle, after going out to a following SPD call for aid at which Smith was present, thus rendering the AMR employee unable to effectively do her job, the OPA case summary read. The case summary also said that “she requested a transfer to a different assignment, partly for her own convenience and partly in order to reduce the possibility she might encounter the Named Employee at a call.”
As a result of Smith’s actions, the AMR employee found herself unable to do her job on at least one occasion and even requested a transfer to an entirely different shift and location, in part to avoid encountering the officer causing her anxiety. The report does not state what ultimately happened to the AMR employee or if she successfully changed shifts. For his lack of professionalism, abuse of authority, and potentially damaging “the trust of a vital and valued service partner” of the SPD, not to mention the public trust, the Seattle Police Chief handed down an eight-day suspension for Smith, apparently deeming that a reasonable application of justice and an appropriate resolution of the matter.
The Emerald has reached out to the OPA for comment regarding the rationale behind its findings, and to SPD for comment about its history of disciplinary actions in cases like this and other sexual harassment cases. It should be noted that decisions regarding discipline rest with the police chief, and that the police chief in charge of this case has since retired. However, Bettesworth said that OPA is involved in recommending discipline. She did not say what the office recommended in Smith’s case.
A search of the spreadsheet the Emerald used to obtain the information showed Smith was also the subject of a handful of other complaints in 2015 and one more in 2016. However, these complaints did not generate full-scaled investigations — they only led to what is broadly termed on the OPA’s site as “Supervisor Action,” which “generally involves a minor policy violation” — and the OPA website does not have case summaries for complaints that do not trigger investigations. It should be noted that the OPA has investigated complaints against officers for allegations of things like not completing mandatory classroom trainings.
In the course of reporting this story, it was unclear how publicly transparent the OPA is, regarding its investigations into abuse of power and sexual harassment, or if this particular case would have come to light, without DivestSPD tweeting about it. While the OPA site does have some closed-case summaries listed, as described above, and a Case & Policy Newsletter, it does not publicly publish summaries for all the cases for which it has received complaints and looked into. Bettesworth said that the office looks into every complaint it receives.
Moreover, because of the anonymity language included in the SPOG contract, unless individuals file public information requests — which may take several months to complete, under normal circumstances, and even longer, during the current novel coronavirus pandemic — the general public does not know what officers the office investigates. It is also unclear if the OPA makes an effort to update the public on its findings in all cases it pursues, or if the public must take it upon themselves to keep track of cases — which aren’t necessarily going to end up having published closed-case summaries.
However, the office does occasionally provide public-facing updates regarding its overall departmental workings. For example, in late May, the office tweeted about its 2019 report, saying that “[u]nprofessional behavior was the most common complaint against SPD employees in 2019. It made up one out of every five allegations.” According to the report it cites, the OPA has “shifted away from investigating cases involving minor policy violations,” and, in doing so, “the types of discipline imposed by the Chief for sustained findings also changed. From 2018 to 2019, the number of disciplinary actions imposed on SPD employees decreased by more than half” from 134 disciplinary actions to 66 disciplinary actions.
“However, the number of suspensions as a percent of all discipline imposed increased from 17% in 2018 to 29% in 2019. Meanwhile, oral reprimands decreased from 37% to 16% of all discipline imposed in the same time period,” the report reads. “When comparing trends over the last five years, the percent of employees who received no discipline for a sustained finding decreased from 15% in 2015 to zero in 2019, meaning OPA and SPD are now imposing some form of discipline for 100% of sustained findings.”
It should be noted that the report states that 40% of all SPD “sworn employees” received some form of complaint against them, which means that just a fraction of those complaints triggered a full-scale investigation.
The report does not break down the different kinds of disciplinary measures for different sustained allegations, and goes into further detail about the kinds of cases it investigated in 2019. However, it uses broad categories like “Professionalism,” which Bettesworth said covers things like sexual harassment. However, this is where it gets murky.
“If you are considering Micah Smith’s case to be sexual harassment, it is not criminal sexual harassment and therefore would not be recorded under “Conformance to Law” allegations,” Bettesworth said, citing the case described in this story as an example. “Due to how many “Professionalism” allegations we get, it would be nearly impossible to search through all professionalism allegations to find ones involving sexual harassment or harassment of females.”
The report does not give the average length of time for an investigation, or provide information about what interim actions are taken while cases are being investigated. It does provide situational examples for the kinds of cases it undertakes.
Though the report also dedicated a brief section to the OPA’s community outreach and engagement functions, and included a table that boasted a total of 91 public outreach and engagement events, it notably did not remark on the accessibility of its information for the general public. However, on the following page regarding the OPA’s engagement with SPD officers, it did include a mention of the Case & Policy Update Newsletter, the archives for which run from November 2018 through April 2020. The newsletter appears to be accessible to the public, and was sent to “individuals who have signed up to receive it,” according to the first volume of the newsletter. However, like the case summaries, no officers are named in the newsletters.
Bettesworth told the Emerald that the newsletter has continued publishing, but because of the recent protests, OPA staff have not updated the webpage. Bettesworth said this would resume once OPA had the resources to do so.
After the flood of protest complaints came in, the office also announced in a tweet that it was launching a special dashboard to keep track of the investigations into current protest-related complaints. However, as of the initial writing of this article, the more than 18,000 complaints have generated just 34 investigations, none of which were complete.
In the mid-afternoon on Aug. 21, the OPA announced that it added 53 new cases to the dashboard, and updated the status of the existing 34 cases. However, it also updated the number of received complaints to 19,000. According to the new data, the most common complaint is excessive use of force. Just two investigations have been completed.
Smith is still employed with the Seattle Police Department, and, as of this writing, the Emerald is unaware of any other similar complaints filed against him since 2016.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the OPA disciplined Smith with an eight-day suspension. The ultimate decision rests with the Seattle Police Chief, but the OPA plays a role in disciplinary recommendations. As indicated above, the Emerald has reached out to SPD for comment. The Emerald also mistakenly said that the 2019 OPA report does not further break down the information on allegations, but it does so briefly from pages 11-12. The Emerald also clarified the difference between a complaint investigation and a full-scale investigation, and the non-public investigations into Smith that only generated what is called “Supervisor Action.”