Given on April 18, 2006 before the Public Safety, Governmental Relations and Arts Committee of the Seattle City Council:
I would like to thank the members of this Committee for providing citizens an opportunity to share their views on police accountability, particularly their views about provisions they believe should be addressed in the upcoming police union contract negotiations.
This is an historic moment. It is the first time in Seattle that a public hearing has been held in advance of the city establishing the parameters and goals for its police union labor talks. While a public hearing was held before this committee in November of 2003, the hearing did not provide a meaningful opportunity for public comment since it occurred after contract talks already had begun and long after the city’s contract goals and parameters had been set. I suggest committee members consider adopting a council resolution that would institutionalize today’s public hearing by requiring similar hearings whenever a new police union contract is up for negotiation. Seeking public input should become a regular part of the labor negotiation process.
The issues I will address today all relate back to the central and fundamental importance of the reporting function to police accountability and effective citizen oversight. First on this list is the OPA [Office of Professional Accountability] Review Board’s authority to review investigation records that have not been redacted. We’re pleased that legislation has been introduced to authorize the OPA Review Board to have full access to OPA files.
The current practice of redacting records is not only unduly burdensome, but it significantly undermines the Review Board’s ability to carry out its reporting function. In addition to reporting complaint statistics, the Review Board is charged with looking at complaint patterns and determining whether there were officers who have been the subject of multiple sustained complaints. Heavily redacted files are not only difficult to read, they also tend to mask information (other than personally identifiable information) that would otherwise be readily apparent if the document could be read in full. Figuring out whether an officer has been the subject of multiple sustained complaints cannot be determined when the records are redacted. The staff time necessary to review and redact OPA documents before releasing them to the Review Board would be better spent conducting more investigations.
We support Councilmember Licata’s proposed ordinance to amend the special indemnification provision that currently applies to members of the Review Board. In the last contract, the city gave in to guild pressure to bind Review Board members to confidentiality requirements that are more onerous and difficult to apply than agreements binding members of other city boards and commissions. Members of the Review Board must indemnify the city in the event legal action is filed over an alleged violation of the confidentiality agreement. The last report issued by the Review Board was its 2003 year-end report. Since then, the Review Board has publicly expressed its concerns about the chilling effect of the indemnification requirement. I understand that discussions with the City Attorney’s office to develop reporting protocols have not been fruitful. Without clear guidelines as to what specific information is confidential, it’s not surprising that board members have been hesitant to potentially expose themselves to personal liability by issuing a new report. This must change.
The last issue I would like to raise is the current bar on reporting the race, ethnicity and gender of complainants and officers. Under the existing contract, the city is required to negotiate with the Guild if it decides that such data should be collected and reported by the Review Board. This data should be collected and reported. We urge the city to initiate discussions with the police officers guild to reach an agreement that will allow the Review Board to collect this data and include it in their reports. After all, one of the most important functions of citizen oversight is its reporting function. When this function is stymied, police accountability will always suffer.
Julya Hampton, ACLU-WA legal program director.