compiled by the Emerald Team
On June 8, 2022, the four final candidates for the role of OPA director spoke at a public forum produced by the City of Seattle, hosted by Seattle Channel’s Brian Callanan, and broadcast on the Seattle Channel. Each of the candidates answered a selection of questions submitted by Emerald readers, the Emerald itself, and other members of the public.
Mayor Bruce Harrell nominated Gino Betts for the position on July 19; his appointment needs to be confirmed by the Seattle City Council to be finalized. Originally from Chicago, Betts currently serves as a Cook County assistant state’s attorney, where he leads the Southside Community Justice Center. Betts’ answers from the forum are presented below, to help Emerald readers understand the OPA director who will likely soon head the organization.
What have you done in your work to reach out to the community, especially the BIPOC community, to build trust and communicate how you are keeping law enforcement actions transparent and accountable?
[Added by host Brian Callanan of the Seattle Channel] Specifically, what does accountability and transparency look like to you?
Gino Betts: Sure, so I was born and raised on the West Side of Chicago. I don’t know if it gets more BIPOC than that. That’s the capital of BIPOC. But in my current role at the state’s attorney’s office, I am a community justice prosecutor. It’s a bifurcated role. Part of my time is spent prosecuting violent offenses. The other parties working within the BIPOC communities educating them about public safety, the criminal justice system. When I worked at the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, that was part of my role, too. I would take every opportunity I could to get out into the community and engage. I really believe that, whether as a prosecutor or as an attorney at COPA, you know, we have to be visible in the community well before we ask the community for help with anything, right?
[Follow-up from Callanan] What does that outreach look like? Is it visiting with different community groups? Give me a picture.
Betts: So in my current role you can find me on, we call them beat meetings in Chicago. So these are police-hosted meetings, but they are to host the community and update them on crime and public safety concerns. To your point about police accountability, I recall recently at a beat meeting there was a citizen, he told the officers, “Hey, I witnessed one of my neighbors get arrested, he was pulled from his car, they searched the car, they searched my neighbor, they actually pulled down his pants in public and searched his naked body. Who can I talk to about that?” And of course the police, they were silent. They didn’t want to talk about the police oversight agencies. But I took that opportunity to educate not only that person but everyone else, that there is an agency out there that is tasked specifically with investigating that type of situation.
[Follow-up from Callanan] So the beat meetings are an important part of that. Is that something you do regularly, that type of outreach?
Betts: I do beat meetings almost every other night. I host webinars where I educate the public on the criminal justice system, the role of the prosecutor within that system. I do webinars, mock trials in schools. My week is always different.
[Follow-up from Callanan] It sounds like that piece, that outreach is really an important part of what transparency is all about in your view.
Betts: Absolutely. So I am 100% a huge proponent of transparency. The ultimate goal is to rebuild community trust in the police accountability framework. Transparency is an easy tool to get us there. It’s kind of low-hanging fruit. I know Chicago, and forgive me for keep talking about Chicago, that’s my frame of reference, but in Chicago we release video — body worn camera squad video — within 60 days of the incident. So I would like to — that’s something I would like to bring to Seattle as OPA director as well.
Callanan: To make sure that video is getting out there more quickly.
Betts: As quickly as possible. As long as we are not compromising the integrity of our investigation I feel like we should release it to the public.
The Emerald’s Questions
What is your track record for holding police officers to account for their actions and decisions?
Betts: So my track record with police accountability started in 2017. I was introduced to the concept of police accountability after we saw a national wave of police misconduct captured on video. So in New York we saw Eric Gardner [sic]. In Minnesota we saw Philando Castile. In my city, in my backyard, there was the murder of Laquan McDonald. The City responded by further investing in police accountability and oversight. They further invested in the agency, the oversight agency, the Office of Police Accountability, I was selected to be part of the inaugural class of that agency. So some of my most meaningful professional work was done at that agency. I served as an attorney for a team that investigated police officers accused of misconduct.
One of the most gratifying cases I had the opportunity to work on involved a police sergeant — his name was Ronald Watts — who ran a team of corrupt police officers. They were essentially extorting drug dealers in the neighborhood. Why would they select drug dealers? Because they knew that no one would believe drug dealers when they reported that the police was extorting them. So this went on for a long time. For the drug dealers who pushed back and refused to be extorted, they were wrongfully arrested and ultimately convicted. So the administrative investigations that I was a part of led to the discipline of several of those involved officers. It also led to the imprisonment of some of those officers. And ultimately the overturning of 200 wrongfully convicted community members who were convicted by members of that team.
Additional Questions From the Public
What will you do to separate police oversight from police who historically defend themselves against accountability and oversight?
Betts: I think the question is directed toward the framework of OPA. How it is currently structured where it is predominantly sworn officers investigating allegations of misconduct against other sworn officers. I am not personally aware of any research or data that suggests that is inherently wrong or it somehow compromises the integrity of the investigation. However, what I would say is that the optics of it is not a great look, right? At least from the community perspective. And that is a perspective that’s been shaped by decades of police abuse and distrust that has been built up. So the optics of it don’t look great. Even though I’m sure these officers are doing the best they can do, I don’t know what authority I would have as OPA director to change that, because it really comes down to the collective bargaining agreement that requires that seven out of the nine investigators are sworn officers and then the other two can be civilians. But those two can’t work in any classes that will lead to the termination of the officer. So it’s really a conversation that needs to be had.
[Follow-up from Callanan] If you had your druthers what would it be? More civilian involvement with those investigation pieces?
Betts: My background, coming from Chicago, we had an agency of over 60 civilian investigators. We have no sworn investigators. So I’ve seen it work — I know it can work. I’m not opposed to having sworn investigators, but I think it has to be a more balanced approach.
What prevents officers from being held accountable?
Betts: I feel like we’re going to be talking about the CBA all night. It comes down to the collective bargaining agreement, right? We have a pretty strong and robust accountability ordinance here in Seattle. But it’s undermined by terms in the CBA that — you know, police accountability should not be negotiated in a labor negotiation agreement. I think police have done a masterful job, not only here in Seattle (police unions) but nationwide, of turning what has historically been a labor negotiation, which would consist of salaries and benefits and vacation days, things of that nature, and making it into a legal shield against police accountability. So that is one thing.
Another thing with the CBA, you know, the covering of private arbitrators to basically undermine discipline handed down by the police chief. That’s another thing. So that’s done behind closed doors. We can’t scrutinize it from a public perspective. So anything that is done in the dark, you know, to me, personally, is a red flag.
I think we also need a stronger decertification database, right? You shouldn’t have officers floating from jurisdiction to jurisdiction looking for employment. And I think it should be expanded to a national database. So you can’t go from Seattle, if you were SPD and you were disciplined or terminated, you shouldn’t be able to go to Chicago and become an officer.
[Follow-up from Callanan] I know this is an issue that happens in police departments all around the country, have you had dealings with police unions and talked about issues like these — some thoughts about that?
Betts: I have had conversations with the public about these issues. I’ve dealt with police accountability where I was handicapped from doing certain things because of collective bargaining agreements. That’s my experience with CBAs.
[Follow-up from Callanan] Would you like the OPA to have a stronger role in that CBA process or is there anything you want to add to that to wrap up?
Betts: I don’t know that we would have a seat at the table when it comes to negotiations, but I will publicly state my objections to certain parts of it. Including the inclusion of police accountability being part of those negotiations.
What do you perceive the role of the OPA to be in broader discussions around public safety? And, what alternative response models and services interest you and will you actively advocate for those being developed in Seattle if you become director?
Betts: Right, so I think police accountability — it directly impacts public safety. If people have confidence in the systems we create in police oversight and they have confidence that our investigations will be thorough, will be competent, and will be independent, then they are more likely to uphold the rule of law. So that directly impacts public safety. What I think accountability looks like — accountability is kind of twofold. There is front-end accountability that addresses policy work. I think the community should have a strong position and a strong voice when it comes to shaping police policy. And I have the back-end work that OPA does investigating individual cases of police misconduct. So that’s what I will be doing as OPA director. There’s still a role for the community, but those investigations will not be swayed by public opinion.
[Follow-up from Callanan] Let’s talk about the second piece — this whole concept of alternative response models. When you think about those, would you advocate for those if you got the job?
Betts: I absolutely would advocate for them. I was excited to see the expansion of the Health One units. I think that is a great start. I think we ask a lot of police right now when it comes to responding to calls for service. I don’t know that police would be the best suited unit to respond to certain calls like a behavioral health concern or a mental health episodes or a homeless person being asked to leave. I think there are other avenues to explore before activating police.
[Follow-up from Callanan] And those would work with the police department? I’m asking an impossible question because we don’t know what this would look like, but do you have any thoughts about that? What would that look like?
Betts: You know, I think it depends on the nature of the call. If there is an indication that there is a chance for violence, then of course you want to have the police present as well. But a lot of these calls for service — most of these calls for service that the police get — are not for violent offenses or violent crimes. So we can call — like with the Health One unit: It’s an EMT and it’s a social worker that can connect folks with resources. We need more of that.
What would be a key indicator for success for you as director of OPA?
Betts: I think the number one measure of success would be, are we growing public confidence in police accountability? That is the number one thing. Number two is, are we collaborating with the stakeholders, whether it is OIG, CPC, the community, you know, are we collaborating to address police accountability? Number three is, are we building confidence within the community, not only just the civilians but police members. We want them to buy into it as well. Right? That’s really important. So one tool that has proven to be a good way to bring satisfaction to both the accused officer and the complainant is mediation. So that’s another tool that had to stop because of COVID, but that is something I would look to bring back as OPA director.
Callanan: Got it. Just because we have a couple minutes left, anything you want people to know about you other than what you have said already and maybe why you think you’re the right person for this job?
Betts: I do believe — I’m sure we have a bunch of qualified candidates. I think my perspective is very balanced. Like I said, I have the experience of being a prosecutor that shapes my view on police accountability. I also have the experience of being a Black man or a Black boy raised on the West Side of Chicago. It is the personal and professional experience I am bringing to the table that gives me a very balanced approach.
📸 Featured Image: Screenshot of Gino Betts speaking at the OPA Director Candidate forum held by the City of Seattle and broadcast on the Seattle Channel on June 8, 2022.
Before you move on to the next story … Please consider that the article you just read was made possible by the generous financial support of donors and sponsors. The Emerald is a BIPOC-led nonprofit news outlet with the mission of offering a wider lens of our region’s most diverse, least affluent, and woefully under-reported communities. Please consider making a one-time gift or, better yet, joining our Rainmaker Family by becoming a monthly donor. Your support will help provide fair pay for our journalists and enable them to continue writing the important stories that offer relevant news, information, and analysis. Support the Emerald!