A recent report from the Office of Professional Accountability, the Seattle Police Department office that investigates allegations of officer misconduct, shows that although more people are contacting the OPA, officer complaints went down in 2009 compared to previous years.
Asked if there are fewer complaints because there’s simply less crime (2008 was a 40-year low for crime) or whether Seattle Police are doing a better job, OPA Director Katherine Olson says it was not an easy statistic to explain or even analyze. “I think everyone agrees that the personnel for the Seattle Police Department are hardworking, passionate and ethical individuals—the Police Accountability Review Panel says so up front, and that’s certainly my experience,” Olson says. “It’s a fairly small group of officers who actually receive complaints and an even smaller subset of those who engage in professional misconduct. It really depends on what kind of work or contact they are having with citizens. Some officers just have a lot more contact with citizens—maybe they are working on a Friday or Saturday at 2:00 a.m."
But Estela Ortega, who heads the newly formed Community Coalition for Law Enforcement Accountability and is executive director of El Centro de la Raza, says that the finding about officer complaints should be taken with a grain of salt. “My sense is that it isn’t going to be a good barometer,” she says. “We have a lot of good police officers on the force, but there’s a certain percentage that have not had a positive relationship with communities of color. I hear complaints of how people were pushed around or subject to racist slurs. Often people don’t complain because they don’t feel confident that anything comes out of it.” Ortega also mentions the June 2009 incident where Seattle police officers were caught on tape beating a mentally-ill inmate who was resisting arrest. The officers were later exonerated. The OPA found that there was not sufficient evidence to prove that anything they had done was outside their line of duty and training. “People see that and are fearful of complaining,” Ortega says. “A lot of people don’t even know how to complain or where the OPA office is. I doubt that everyday people in communities of color will actually go and complain. There needs to be a place where people feel more comfortable going to report an incident.” Seattle police are currently investigating an unrelated incident caught on video in April that shows officers kicking a Latino man while threatening to "beat the Mexican piss" out of him.
In 2007 and 2008, 20 percent of officers received complaints. That number fell to 15 percent in 2009, of which the “majority were exonerated or otherwise found not responsible for the misconduct alleged,” the report says. The report shows that the West Precinct gets more complaints than the South Precinct, something Olson says could be attributed to the level of police activity in those parts of the city. The largest kind of complaints involves the use of excessive force.
According to the report, contacts with the OPA continue to rise, steadily increasing by about a 100 a year to 1442 in 2009. “This could be because people are calling in not just to complain but also commend officers for their work,” says Olson. The OPA also closed significantly more cases last year—198—as compared with earlier years. Although there were fewer officers named in complaints, the report shows that there were slightly more cases that resulted in sustained findings. “But we are talking about a very small number, so it’s difficult to draw conclusions,” Olson says. A majority of the cases had to do with criminal law violations—where officers were involved in off duty misconduct, DUI violation or domestic violence.
Seattle City Attorney Peter Holmes says that it was possible more people weren’t complaining about police misconduct because the OPA didn’t have a high enough profile on the public’s mind. “We want people to know about OPA, that they can go there if they want to—that’s probably better than increased tension on the streets,” he says. He also echoes Ortega’s concerns about access and language issues. Holmes says that during his tenure as chair of the OPA Review Board (OPARB)—the civilian body that oversees police investigation process—from 2003 to 2008, the number of complaints against police officers had varied from 25 to 10 percent.
More after the jump.
A disturbing finding in the report is that allegations of failure to use video and audio recording system in Seattle Police cars were increasing. “Sometimes there is no video—it raises the question whether the officer forgot to turn it on, did it malfunction or was it deliberate,” says current OPARB Chair Patrick Sainsbury. The OPA currently has a small number of complaints—16—related to the failure to use recording devices in police cars.
Sainsbury says it would be purely speculative to try and guess why the number of complaints had gone down. “In general, just because crime has gone down policing hasn’t gone down,” he says.
“It’s not just making complaints about the police—a lot of Latinos come from a place where they don’t trust complaining to the police because of immigration issues,” Sainsbury says. OPARB’s 2009 Community Outreach Report includes testimony from the Latino community who said that the Seattle Police did not takie their complaints seriously. “There is a perception among police that Latinos float around or get deported, so they don’t take them seriously,” Sainsbury says. Sainsbury adds that there was a lot of discussion about an education-based discipline model at the last National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement’s (NACOLE) conference, something Seattle has yet to implement. “Instead of suspending officers for seven days without pay, the education-based model gives them a training project to do in their spare time related to what they are in trouble for,” he says. NACOLE’S 16th annual conference will be held in Seattle from Sept 20 to 23. Councilmember Tim Burgess, who presented the 2009 OPA Complaint Statistics Report to the Seattle City Council June 7, supports the education-based model. He stressed it was important to flush out the difference between “well-intentioned mistakes” and “true misconduct.”
Although the SPD uses the traditional model of officers investigating other officers, it has a civilian review board, a civilian auditor, and a civilian director, who is up for reappointment this year. Retired Judge Terrence Carroll is filling in as interim auditor since May after Judge Michael Spearman resigned from the position to join the State Court of Appeals.
As for decreasing video recording, Holmes says it could simply be a training issue. His office is working with SPD to ensure that the video recordings made are being catalogued properly. “We have some improvements to make in retrieving the video and audio,” he asays. “Video is an important evidentiary tool, we have to rely on these recordings and turn them over to the defense council.” Both Olson and Holmes say they are hopeful that the new Seattle Police Chief would have a good working relationship with the OPA director. “The new chief will have to be respectful and supportive of the OPA,” says Olson. “I hope he will continue an open door policy which ensures that I can go to him and he can come to me with any questions.”