In a letter sent yesterday to Mayor Mike McGinn, the ACLU of Washington calls into question the professionalism of the head of the city's police accountability department, who recently dismissed a Seattle Police officer's threat to "make stuff up" about a suspect as playful banter.
If you'll recall, on February 14, video surfaced of SPD Officer Brad Richardson threatening to make up evidence about two suspects during the course of an arrest. The men—who were later released without being charged—filed a complaint with the city's Office of Professional Accountability (OPA), which is supposed to act in a watchdog capacity by investigating citizen complaints against officers.
But at a February 15 meeting of the city council's public safety committee, OPA director Kathryn Olson defended her department's decision to exonerate Officer Richardson of wrongdoing* by arguing that his threat was "taken out of the context of a larger conversation that he was having." She added: "It was a bantering that was going on with the suspect—not necessarily the best of practices—but there was no issue of dishonesty."
Yesterday, ACLU of Washington Executive Director Kathleen Taylor called Olson's characterization of the officer's actions "sorely disappoint[ing]," adding:
Whether or not Officer Richardson violated SPD policy, the fact that his supervisors, the upper leadership of the SPD, and the Office of Professional Accountability all consider these kinds of comments merely "banter" is evidence of the culture of disrespect which the ACLU and many community groups have complained about for years. Even presuming that Officer Richardson did not falsify records, the threats were unprofessional, disrespectful, and sent the message that truth is irrelevant and rights are expendable.
*Alas, the OPA has courted a reputation for blanketly pardoning officers of wrongdoing (for example, in a three year period spanning from 2008-2011, the OPA only sustained three out of 321 allegations of officer misconduct).
It's interesting to note that Olson's term as director of the OPA lapsed almost two years ago and Mayor McGinn still hasn't reconfirmed her to her office (or sent another name down to council for consideration).
"It’s not uncommon for a department director to serve in an interim capacity," says McGinn spokesman Aaron Pickus, defending his boss's decision to simply not make for two years. "Her appointment is under consideration," he adds. "It’s an ongoing discussion—it’s not a question of whether or not she’s doing a good job or not, there are other factors in the decision."
Olson's re-appointment—if it ever happens—should face strong scrutiny by city council member Bruce Harrell, the new chair of the council's public safety committee, which would lead the charge in confirming or rejecting the mayor's eventual pick. Harrell has a history of being critical of SPD's treatment of suspects (especially minority suspects) and is exploring legislation to equip all SPD officers with body cameras in an effort to curb misconduct.
I have a call into Harrell to get his take on Olson's comments; I'll update if/when I hear back.