- Ilya Andriyanov | Shutterstock
This guest post is Catherine Moore and Nika Dahlbacka, co-chairs of the Seattle Human Rights Commission, and Chris Stearns, a past chairman of the commission.
Last week, Seattle Interim Police Chief Harry Bailey announced that he would use his authority under city law to reverse a disciplinary decision and misconduct finding that was recommended by the Office of Professional Accountability and accepted by then-Chief Jim Pugel. Chief Bailey has since reversed his decision again after a public uproar that called into question the Seattle Police Department’s and the Mayor’s Office commitment to police reform mandated under a 2012 Consent Agreement with the US Department of Justice.
The controversy over Chief Bailey’s initial decision to overturn a finding of misconduct brings front and center the inherent flaw in Seattle’s current police accountability system. Simply put, our system leaves too much control in the hands of the police department and violates international human rights standards. It is time to create an independent civilian review board vested with the authority to investigate and, where warranted, overturn the discipline decisions of the Police Chief.
Following the fatal police shooting of First Nations carver John T. Williams on the streets of Seattle in 2010, the Seattle Human Rights Commission undertook an exhaustive study of police accountability practices in Seattle and other cities across the country. The commission looked at those practices against the backdrop of human rights standards and norms.
Basic human rights principles require that citizens have the ability to obtain due process and an appropriate remedy when their rights are violated, even if a government official commits the act. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has consistently interpreted due process to require that the person or panel making the final decision over proceedings be impartial in regards to the matter before them; that parties have access to witnesses and evidence; that the decision process be open to the public and subject to appeal; and that the remedy be commensurate with the offense.
The Commission issued a report that says, in order to meet human rights standards, a police accountability system should:
• Be run by an independent, neutral body equipped with the power to investigate and impose discipline as necessary.
• Provide officers and citizens alike with an equal opportunity to be heard.
• Allow parties to appeal an adverse decision to an independent decision-maker.
• Be transparent so that the public can observe and participate in the oversight process.
The Commission found that Seattle’s current oversight system does not meet these requirements because of three major flaws:
• The Police Chief has sole discretion to accept or reject the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) Director’s disciplinary recommendations.
• The civilian OPA Auditor does not have independent authority to review or overturn the Police Chief’s disciplinary decisions.
• The OPA Review Board does not have the authority to review the evidence the OPA Director relied upon, nor does it have independent authority to overturn the Police Chief’s decision.
What all this means is that it should come as no surprise when a police chief uses the very powers granted to him to overturn a disciplinary recommendation. That is exactly how the system is set up to work. In 2007, the OPA Review Board reported that former chief Gil Kerlikowske had undermined public trust by repeatedly reversing and reducing discipline for officers without explanation. In 2008, the Seattle City Council passed an ordinance requiring the chief to at least provide a written explanation of his or her reasons to reverse an OPA disciplinary recommendation. But even that falls well short of the goal of accountability because the decision still remains entirely in the hands of the chief.
To meet human rights standards of police accountability, the commission recommends the creation of an independent civilian review board with the power to investigate and review anew citizen complaints against police officers. Critically, the review board must have the authority to overturn the discipline decision of the Police Chief where the evidence and the interests of justice dictate.
Discipline, police or otherwise, should never be nor have the appearance of being political. The current accountability system fails miserably in this regard. To secure and maintain public trust and confidence in the police and, by extension, our city leaders, a disciplinary system that comports with the human rights principles of the rule of law and transparency must be adopted.
Now is the time for our city leaders to affirm that the police answer to the public whom they serve.