Seattle: Report on Independent Office for Police Accountability

News Release: 
Monday, May 31, 1999


Throughout the decade and well before, citizens have called for real accountability for the Seattle Police Department (SPD). City reports have been issued, committees have been formed, and recommendations made. But the City has still not seriously addressed the problems caused by a system that allows the police department to investigate itself.

More than 20 years ago, in his 1978 Annual Report, the Seattle-King County Ombudsman stated, "While the number of sustained complaints involving excessive force, physical abuse and misconduct are relatively small, the internal process . . . continues to be weighted in favor of the police. The Department's internal investigations process should be reviewed with the purpose of assuring not only the appearance but the reality of fairness." Sadly, the City’s response to such suggestions at the time was the gradual defunding of the Ombudsman’s office.

In the last 10 years, no less than six City-sponsored reports have criticized the police internal investigations system for not responding to the needs of the community it serves. These include:

  • "Seattle Police Department Internal Complaint Handling: A Review and Evaluation," by M.M. Bell (known as the Bell Study, 1989)
  • "Report of the Seattle Human Rights Commission Regarding the Monitoring and Investigation of Citizen Complaints of Police Harassment" (1990)
  • Report of the Seattle Police Auditor (1992)
  • Report of the Seattle Police Auditor (June 1993) (Later Auditor reports became merely recitations of statistical data.)
  • "Recommendations and Report Identifying Means to Improve Police-Community Relations," Seattle Police - Community Task Force (1993)
  • "Report of the Seattle Human Rights Commission on Community and Police Relations" (1997)

Of the dozens of recommendations for improvement, only a few have been implemented by the department or adopted by the City Council or the Mayor. The similarity of these reports is remarkable. Each called for more openness to the public by the police department, increased professionalism in working with complainants, better record-keeping of complaints and investigations, a streamlined investigation process, and stronger oversight of the system.

For years, the ACLU of Washington has sought improvements in the current system for review of police misconduct complaints. The ACLU has pushed for changes small and large, through numerous letters, meetings, and the release of reports and recommendations.

Recommendations have gone largely unheeded. While City officials may have sincerely wanted to increase police accountability, they have to date been reluctant to do more than "tweak" an inadequate system.

The time for tweaking is over. Seattle deserves a responsible, professional, and independent system for evaluating complaints of police misconduct. This is needed to ensure honesty, integrity, and meaningful public accountability for our police force.

Mere tinkering will not solve the inherent problems in a system that has police investigate police. The citizens of Seattle deserve leadership from elected public officials in making systemic change. A bandage won’t do when surgery is required.

The current closed, secretive system for the investigation and discipline of our police officers must be discarded. Meaningful accountability will come about only with the establishment of an independent office for police accountability. It must be staffed by professionals who are not police officers and have the power to investigate and to issue subpoenas.

Effective police accountability will not eliminate the Police Chief’s authority to guide and discipline officers. Internal supervision of officers must continue, with line reporting.

This paper sets forth the reasons why an independent office for police accountability must be established and describes some of the many flaws in the current system.


People in Seattle who petition their City for a redress of grievances regarding police misconduct have been ignored, dissatisfied, and even threatened with libel suits. Some individuals with whom the ACLU has spoken since the Mayor’s citizen review panel was announced refuse even to present their concerns to the panel because they view yet another task force as more political window dressing offering little prospect for any meaningful change.

Concerns or complaints about police misconduct, by citizens or police officers, are currently handled either informally by the officer’s supervisor or formally by the Internal Investigations Section (IIS). This unit of the police department, staffed by between eight and 10 police officers, is charged with investigating and responding to complaints against their fellow officers.

The Civilian Auditor position, which reviews the SPD’s internal investigations department, was created by the Seattle City Council in 1991. Its creation came in response to pressure from racial and sexual minority communities and a Human Rights Commission report recommending that the City establish a citizen review board to review allegations of police misconduct.

Numerous reports, studies, and task forces have arrived at the same conclusion: The City of Seattle needs to be more open and responsive in the handling of police misconduct complaints. A more open and responsive system will help build a relationship of trust and respect between the police and the community it serves. A statement in the 1991 Seattle Human Rights Commission report (p. 4) is insightful:

In the view of the Commission, this attitude [of distrust by minority communities] results from a general lack of public accountability which is inherent in the existing philosophy and procedures which the Department follows when investigating citizen complaints of police harassment. This skepticism is fueled by negative experiences involving several of the people interviewed who related stories about individual officers or the Police Department's failure to provide adequate information about the availability, progress, and results of investigations of citizen complaints of police harassment.

Distrust of the internal complaint process has been particularly pronounced in minority communities. But it is not limited to citizens of a particular race, ethnicity, social class, or neighborhood.

We submit the following problems that frustrated citizens have brought to our attention and that we have been unable to resolve satisfactorily. They are symptoms of a fundamentally flawed system.

1.     The citizen complaint process is not responsive and provides no reason to be trusted.

People are discouraged from filing complaints. The public is not adequately informed about the complaint process. People with complaints are provided virtually nothing on the disposition of their complaints, and organizations that try to assist victims of police misconduct are stonewalled. The resolution process is unfairly weighted toward vindicating police officers.

  • Individuals are told they must submit a complaint in a different form, or to a different person, or at a different place or time, despite statements in the IIS brochure and in the Seattle Police Department Manual that assert that complaints will be accepted at any place or in any form.
  • Individuals who wish to make a complaint are not given a complaint form because none exists.
  • Individuals who call the internal investigations office for information about filing a complaint feel they are treated in a hostile manner. Complainants interviewed by the IIS often feel the investigator is more interested in justifying the officer’s conduct than conducting an objective investigation. (This suspicion is understandable since the investigators are reviewing complaints against their own colleagues.)
  • Individuals who voice their complaints at a precinct community meeting or who assist citizens in filing complaints have been threatened with libel suits. An ACLU lawyer who filed an IIS complaint on behalf of an individual was threatened with a libel suit and the complainant urged to "re-evaluate [his] position." In 1994 five Seattle police officers filed a defamation suit against six citizens who filed misconduct complaints. The officers’ union issued a press release to local news media to publicize the lawsuit, but later quietly let the case die for lack of prosecution. In each of these cases IIS declined to treat these actions as hindering or obstructing the complaint process.
  • When the ACLU filed three separate IIS complaints on behalf of individuals involved in different incidents, the IIS failed to acknowledge receipt of the complaints. Only after extensive follow-up did the IIS finally acknowledge it had received the complaints. Not only had the ACLU not been notified, two of the complainants had not received acknowledgement letters either.
  • According to the IIS brochure and the IIS Auditor reports, investigations are now generally completed within 60 days, and IIS notifies complainants if the investigation will take longer. However, even when an investigation is completed within 60 days, it often takes months after filing a complaint to receive a final disposition letter. IIS does not inform complainants that the process for making a decision after an investigation is completed will take several weeks at a minimum.
  • A well-respected community and religious leader submitted a complaint concerning abusive treatment of an African-American youth. The IIS responded to the complaint with a one-page letter. The letter stated the officer’s conduct was justified. It contained no description of the alleged facts; no description of the facts disclosed by the IIS investigation, or the source of those facts; no description of the rules IIS applied to determine whether misconduct occurred, and no explanation of IIS’s reasoning in reaching its conclusion. The outcome letter did not even inform the complainant of the disposition reached (sustained, not sustained, exonerated, unfounded, or administratively unfounded).
  • The Department does not adequately explain the standards for determining when a complaint is treated as a "supervisory referral," "line investigation," or internal investigation case. It does not identify who is responsible for classifying a complaint, nor does it set standards for what types of information to obtain in investigating complaints.
  • The IIS brochure asserts that third parties, such as the Citizens Service Bureau and the ACLU, which refer matters to the IIS will be notified of the outcome of a complaint. However, the IIS has asserted to the ACLU that the labor agreement with the police officers’ union prohibits such disclosures. We disagree with that contract interpretation. Nevertheless, the police department’s brochure has not been revised to reflect this change in policy.
  • The resolution process is unfairly weighted towards vindicating police officers. According to the IIS, there are five ways that complaints can be resolved. Four of these "disposition categories" are in the officer's favor, and only one in favor of the complainant. This has the effect of stacking the deck against the complainant.

Alternative responses – such as apology, referral for training without a finding of fault, or mediation – are permitted under the IIS procedures adopted in 1997, but it is unclear whether these options have been used. The ACLU was unable to obtain any information about their availability despite our requests. Such options might provide some satisfaction to complainants in situations where evidence is insufficient for a finding of misconduct. In his January 1997 report, the Auditor pointed out that, "The potential for mediation of minor matters is a real opportunity for both the officer and citizen to better understand each other and puts less reliance on ‘discipline’ in addressing officer conduct." Unfortunately, subsequent Auditor reports have not discussed the subject of mediation or provided any data.

2.     The current system fosters a lack of leadership in the police department and city government that discourages complaints of police misconduct.

The police department fails to responds to policy concerns. The attitude of the department leadership condones the "blue curtain" of silence. The environment of the department does not encourage reporting of misconduct.

  • The ACLU and other organizations have brought significant policy concerns to the attention of the SPD in recent years. The department either has not responded to letters raising these concerns, or it has promised action that never occurred. Such concerns include: arrests of civilian witnesses of police misconduct for "obstruction," thereby shielding officers from the legitimate observations of the public (observations which have been crucial elsewhere around the country in exposing incidents of police misconduct and excessive force); improper arrests for "pedestrian interference" of petition signature gatherers exercising their free speech rights; and race-based stops of drivers or youth in public places. The department either has not responded at all to letters raising these concerns, or it has promised action that never occurred.
  • Evidence indicates that officers are reluctant to "officially" report and investigate internal complaints. Recent allegations of police misconduct incidents involving a crime scene theft, the use of force against a suspect who was tied up, and the theft of a diamond ring raise serious concerns about the trustworthiness of the internal complaint process. Officers who have gone public paint a chilling picture of pervasive institutional pressure on officers who attempt to file internal complaints. A strong internal complaint process needs aggressive enforcement of department policies that require officers to report misconduct. Officers who fail to report misconduct or who withhold relevant information during investigations should be disciplined. Officers who lie during misconduct investigations of other officers should not be allowed to stay on the force.
  • Chief Stamper has characterized the discussion between an IIS investigator and an officer who relayed information about another officer’s misconduct as "technically and nominally" a basis for official action, but mostly just a private conversation between friends. He has been quoted praising Sgt. Cameron and the work of officers within the IIS, but has been noticeably reticent when it comes to praise of officers who come forward with internal complaints. What message does this send to police officers?

It is vital that police leadership not appear to condone the "blue curtain" of silence. This term refers to a police subculture in which the fraternity of officers is viewed as a family, with loyalty to family considered its most important value. This view, unfortunately, perpetuates a tendency for officers to cover up the misconduct of other officers.

As the October 1992 Auditor report noted, "An officer’s loyalty must first be to the public he/she serves – especially when faced with a fellow officer’s misconduct. We know that officers can pay an enormous price for telling the truth about a fellow officer. But we can’t permit a system that rewards a ‘code of silence.’ Fundamentally, it is a matter of confidence in the discipline system."

In his February 1999 report the Auditor explained: "[T]he ‘tone’ for not tolerating misconduct begins with the sergeants and precinct-level commanding officers. Without their support of the police code of conduct, the complaint system will likely be ineffective."

  • Although almost two and a half years ago, in January 1997, the Department revised its IIS procedures, the "new" procedures have still not been included in the Seattle Police Department Manual. The manual is distributed to all officers and civilian employees, and a copy is made available at the public library. It is inexcusable that the Department has not included the most current revisions in its own manual.

3.      Basic personnel management practices appear inadequate.

In any employment situation, an employer must have management tools to deal with conduct that needs to be improved but does not require discipline. The SPD has available a tool called administrative review. It is a valuable "early warning system" for police supervisors to help them identify officers who are showing signs of work performance problems. Administrative review is not disciplinary; rather, it is an opportunity to offer employees retraining or other assistance that will help them perform better on the job.

Administrative review provides an important means of responding to evidence that an officer’s performance may be lacking. In statements to the City Council during a briefing session Chief Stamper has asserted that the current review system relies exclusively on citizen complaints. He went on to say the Department’s administrative review system "lack[s] teeth," and needs to be "more thorough" and "timely." Since the union labor agreement doesn’t impose any impediment to an expansive administrative review system, the Chief should explain why he is using a toothless model.

Since 1997 the officers’ labor agreement has contained a provision that – in addition to the number of citizen complaints filed – administrative review can be triggered by an officer’s sick leave usage, off-duty work permits, accident records and performance evaluation. This expansion of the scope of administrative review should have significantly increased the number of officers reviewed. However, according to the Auditor’s reports, the number of officers undergoing administrative review dropped dramatically after 1996.


In 1991, shortly before the City Council passed an ordinance creating the IIS Auditor position, the ACLU of Washington wrote to the Mayor and City Council raising concerns over the position’s lack of independence and investigatory power. At that time, the ACLU noted that "[w]ithout the power to investigate complaints, oversight is simply the process of reviewing a paper trial created by the Internal Investigations Section. An Auditor’s report is likely to become little more than a relatively brief statistical report."

Time has only proven that prediction to be true. Over time, the Auditor’s 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. This, of course, is not primarily a reflection on the Auditor since his hands are tied by the existing inadequate ordinance.

In his 1998 survey of citizen review procedures, Sam Walker (Kiewit Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and author of nine books on policing) reported that since 1995 there has been a 42 percent increase in citizen review systems designed to provide more police accountability. Today about 94 cities have some form of citizen review of their police departments, accelerating a trend that has seen a 147 percent increase since 1990. Almost three-quarters of the police departments in the 50 largest cities have some form of civilian review. This trend reflects the results of a 1992 Harris Poll which found that 80 percent of the respondents favored citizen participation in police complaint procedures.

Citizen review procedures generally fall into four categories:

    1. systems where complaints are investigated by civilian (nonpolice) personnel;
    2. systems where complaints are handled by the police, and the investigations are reviewed by civilian personnel;
    3. systems where complaints are handled by the police, but where an appeal can be taken to a board that includes civilians;
    4. systems where complaints are handled by the police, but civilian personnel conduct regular audits of the complaint process.

Seattle’s system falls into the fourth category. Such auditing systems provide the least amount of citizen involvement and therefore are considered one of the weakest forms of citizen review procedures. Yet even among cities with auditing systems, Seattle’s is particularly weak.

In Portland, Oregon, for example, the Police Internal Investigations Auditing Committee is comprised of the five members of the city council who each appoint a citizen advisor. The Citizen Advisors issue quarterly reports based on their review of police data and police complaints and may hear appeals of police misconduct complaints. Their quarterly reports are detailed and cumulatively provide an impressive amount of information.

San Jose, California created an Auditor position in 1993 modeled in part on Seattle’s ordinance. However, the San Jose auditor may interview any civilian witnesses in the course of her review and may attend witness interviews conducted by Internal Affairs. In addition, complaints can be filed directly with the auditor, who then forwards them to the police department. The current auditor, Teresa Guerrero-Daley, recently announced plans to establish sites throughout the city where individuals can file complaints.

The Seattle IIS Auditor ordinance should be scrapped and replaced with legislation that provides the following powers and embodies the following principles. They are necessary for any effective effort to ensure police accountability and to improve the complaint review process.


Open and Trustworthy Process

Procedural safeguards that guarantee that the investigation of complaints is open, understandable, and fair to the complainant as well as the officer.

Professional and Independent

An independent and professional office with direct access to the Chief and to the Mayor.

Investigatory Power

Authority independently to investigate incidents, to subpoena witnesses and documents, and to issue findings on complaints.

Disciplinary Role

Findings should be provided directly to the Chief of Police for consideration in determining appropriate disciplinary action.

Analysis and Reporting

Meaningful public reports that detail trends in citizen allegations and police conduct.

Policy Recommendations

Responsibility to understand community concerns and to make recommendations about policies and procedures that will improve police accountability.

Sufficient Funding

Funding sufficient to staff a professional office that can capably carry out these functions.

June 11, 1999