Seattle: Police Accountability - Who Makes Public Policy?

News Release: 
Wednesday, January 30, 2002

Q. Who determines the rules by which police officers employed by the City of Seattle are held accountable for their on-duty actions?


  1. the Seattle Police Officers Guild?
  2. the Police Chief?
  3. the Mayor?
  4. the City Council?
  5. the people of Seattle?

For too long, the reality has been a) the Seattle Police Officers Guild ("the Guild" or "SPOG"). Over years City has relinquished Guild significant management over officer discipline. The result is less policy-making by our elected leaders in a crucial area governance, continued undermining of the Police Chief's authority to supervise his employees, and the lack effective civilian review of police conduct.



Issues around public control over police practices go back to the 1970s, when the City, trying to avoid police officer pay raises, entered a mischievous bargain. It traded some of its own policy-making authority in the area of police discipline in exchange for lower police pay increases. That decision has haunted the City ever since.

In December 1999, after several official task forces had called for more police accountability, the City Council passed ordinances establishing the Office of Professional Accountability within the police department with a civilian director position to oversee internal investigations, establishing a three-member citizen review board, and transforming the IIS auditor position to serve as staff for the OPA Review Board.

However, in June 2000 the City announced an agreement with the Guild that significantly undercut the advances only recently secured in the 1999 ordinances. The agreement not only reinstated the former IIS auditor position (thereby removing the position as the Review Board's staff), it left on the table for further negotiation a number of other important issues regarding the composition and authority of the Review Board.

In January 2001, the City announced that it had settled all but one of these issues, but in November 2001 the public learned that the City's concessions fundamentally weakened the OPA Review Board in several significant areas:

  • the composition of its members
  • the candidate eligibility requirements
  • the process for appointment
  • access to unredacted investigative files
  • confidentiality requirements
  • limits on the Board's authority to request further investigations
  • exclusion of data in public reports regarding officer race, ethnicity, gender

It is difficult to identify any improvements in police accountability that the City obtained by entering the November 2001 Interest Arbitration Award agreement. The City seems to have backed down when it should have been resolute, even if doing so requires arbitration or a challenge to PERC rulings.

Recommendations for Upcoming Contract Negotiations

The city should strengthen its authority over police discipline policy by reversing its previous concessions. During the next round of contract negotiations with the Guild, the City should insist upon the following provisions:

  1. Eliminate the Guild's right to file grievances over the composition and function of the OPA Review Board and over confidentiality issues involving the Review Board.
  2. Revise the requirement that no person with a prior felony conviction can serve on the Board, so that persons whose civil rights have been restored are eligible for Review Board service.
  3. Eliminate the Guild's right to conduct background checks on potential Board candidates. Alternatively, if the Guild is allowed to conduct background checks on Board candidates, the City should not provide the Guild with information that goes beyond the stated eligibility requirements (arrests, charges, allegations of criminal conduct, nonconviction data, and "department records of any complaints of police misconduct filed by the candidate"). And, in fairness, apply to the Guild the same penalties for breaching the confidentiality of nonpublic background information as apply to the Review board.
  4. Reinstate the provisions of the June 2000 SPOG contract that recognized the OPA Review Board's power to request further investigation where the Auditor and OPA Director disagree. The final labor agreement forbids the Board from reviewing disputes over classification decisions and, requires that, in order to request further investigation, the Board must find fault with the relevance of witnesses contacted, the evidence collected, or the thoroughness of interviews. This provision, which cuts back on the earlier agreement, is too limiting.
  5. Give the OPA Review Board more than the current 180 days to conduct investigations, and allow time for additional investigations if necessary. The current time limit is insufficient, as noted by Ms. Pailca, especially when one considers that the line review and a considerable number of steps by the Auditor and Director must be completed within this period.
  6. Reinstitute the OPA Review Board's reporting powers regarding race, ethnicity, and gender of complainants and accused officers. The original ordinance established such reporting by the Review Board, but the 2001 Interest Arbitration Award gives the Guild the right to request reopening of negotiations if data collection on complainants and accused officers is the course of action chosen by the City. This provision denigrates the work of the Racial Profiling Taskforce, which is debating data collection procedures and content.
  7. Entrust the OPA Review Board with complete access to unredacted investigation files.
  8. Assert the City's right to implement an effective "early warning system" to identify performance problems without the need to go into collective bargaining.
  9. Require longer retention period for disciplinary material, including written reprimands and OPA files.
  10. Authorize interview of officers prior to the officer's review of the classification report and the identity of the complainant, and amend the "Police Officers' Bill of Rights" accordingly.
  11. Abolish the "contact log" and "supervisory referral" systems and require OPA to more thoroughly review all complaints prior to their classification.
  12. Change the IIS Auditor position to serve as staff for the OPA Review Board (as per December 1999 ordinance).
  13. Expand the time OPA has to review a complaint prior to notifying the officer that an investigation will be conducted.
  14. Limit line commander review and comment to the proposed form of discipline recommended for a sustained complaint, rather than continuing to allow review and comment for all proposed dispositions of investigations (Pailca, June 2001 report).
  15. Require OPA to review allegations of misconduct made outside the complaint process (Pailca, June 2001 report), including tort claims, lawsuits, etc.
  16. Revise Police Officers' Bill of Rights to delete reference to a vested right in past practices.
  17. Adopt formal appeal process for citizens who are dissatisfied with OPA handling of their complaint (Pailca, June 2001 report). We suggest that this role be given to the OPA Review Board.
  18. Create a better system for investigations of shootings aside from the firearms review board and inquests.
  19. Make OPA a City body outside SPD, reporting directly to the Mayor. This would structurally improve OPA's efficacy.

Give OPA Review Board and/or OPA subpoena powers and other independent investigative powers, including the authority to recommend disposition of complaints.

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