Although the Seattle City Council has adopted reforms to strengthen citizen oversight of police misconduct investigations, a move is already underway to weaken them by eliminating one component -- the citizen audit panel.
In December, 1999, based on recommendations of a blue ribbon citizen panel, the Mayor and City Council adopted a number of reforms to improve investigations of police misconduct. The Seattle Police Department's Internal Investigations Section was renamed the Office of Professional Accountability and a civilian position was created to head it. The nine-year-old position of independent civilian Auditor, which reviews the records of completed internal police investigations, was enhanced with a three-person "audit review panel."
"While the ACLU believes ultimately the entire investigation of police misconduct should be outside the Police Department, having a civilian head the investigative unit, combined with an outside auditor and audit oversight panel, should improve the quality of investigations of police misconduct," said ACLU-WA Executive Director Kathleen Taylor.
"We are concerned, however, that the audit review panel may be eliminated before it is given a chance to function," said Taylor.
The ACLU strongly supports the citizen audit review panel. The citizen panel working with the Auditor will accomplish two important goals: First, the panel brings community perspectives into the analysis of trends in the Office of Professional Accountability, providing the auditor a sounding board outside the police department. Otherwise the only input the auditor receives is from the police department. Secondly, the panel provides the City with a group of citizens specifically focused on how our police department responds to complaints of police misconduct.
"Over the past nine years, we have seen that the reports of the Auditor have dwindled in scope. Initially, the Auditor's reports were evaluative and analytical, offering suggestions to the City and the Chief. Over time, however, the Auditor reports have been reduced to little more than a statistical account of the activity of the IIS, with little or no meaningful analysis of the actual process. That would be much less likely to occur with a citizen panel working with the Auditor," explained ACLU-WA Legal Program Director Julya Hampton.
The ACLU-WA urges its Seattle members to tell the City Council that a citizen review mechanism for community input into the policies and process of police misconduct investigations is vital to improving police accountability and community confidence.