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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Analyzing Seattle's Police Misconduct Problem

The problem with police misconduct in Seattle is a complex and systemic one and is perpetuated via a mix of top-down negligence and lack of oversight empowerment along with an institutionalized acceptance of misconduct and an endemic discouragement of reporting incidents of abuse.

This article will discuss just a few of the various levels of complicity responsible the pervasive attitude of permissiveness in regards to police misconduct within the Seattle Police Department. I write this not only in the hope that it can motivate people to encourage change within the system, but to explain the problem to people who might not be familiar with Seattle's various public service institutions and governmental policies.

Executive Inattentiveness

Much research has been done regarding corporate culture and their relationships to abusive environments. The results of systemic abusive behavior in corporate culture research points towards two main culprits for corporate cultures that nurture abusive behaviors from the top down; leadership by example or executive inattentiveness/disinterest.

While not suggesting whether Seattle mayor Greg Nickles is leading in an abusive way, it is easy to see how the mayor is not concerned with police misconduct issues. Allowing abusive police behavior can be spun as being tough on crime to the electorate, so there is little incentive for making misconduct prevention a priority there. Also, because police misconduct lawsuits are difficult to file and do not cost the city much when successful, thanks to the city’s insurance carriers, there is no financial incentive either. Since there is little incentive to actually do anything about police misconduct, it’s clear that such issues are of a very low priority. Of course, Since police misconduct is a very low priority and of little consequence to the mayor, it becomes a low priority within the police department itself.

Governmental Policies of Secrecy

Part of a city government’s job is not just to protect and serve its citizenry, but also to protect itself and the job of defending the city from legal action falls to the Seattle city Attorney, Tom Carr. It is fairly well known within the city government that the primary policy is to never, ever, admit to any errors, apologize for harm done by mistake, or engage in discourse with victims of misconduct because the city attorney has declared that doing so only opens the doors to civil suit. A byproduct of this policy is to close off the openness of city government so that any errors or misconduct cannot be discovered and any misleading statements made in regard to denial of wrongdoing don’t come to light.

A direct and well publicized product of this policy of secrecy from the city attorney’s office is the reluctance of the Seattle Police Department to disclose police disciplinary records when other departments in the state do disclose them. Other practices to support this policy include keeping criminal cases open past the time charges are dismissed in order to keep these records closed to the public and civil lawyers as well as the practice of allowing the police chief to make summary judgments to overturn disciplinary recommendations from police oversight bodies without public explanation.

By keeping cases of abuse under wraps, it limits the ability of the public to see the true extent of police misconduct, which only serves to encourage misconduct to continue unopposed by public opinion since the true extent of abuse is kept hidden from that public at large, which allows it to remain a low priority item within government and the department itself.

Ineffective Oversight

The Seattle Police Department’s Office of Professional Accountability (SPD OPA), which is staffed by police officers, and the civilian led Office of Professional Accountability Review Board (OPARB) are the oversight bodies charged with investigating claims of police misconduct and making determinations of the validity of those claims along with recommended courses of action in regards to sustained claims.

The primary problem with this oversight body is that it is completely powerless to enforce its findings and it is prevented from making fully informed determinations by the city’s secrecy policies combined with strictures placed upon it by the contract formed between the city of Seattle and the Seattle Police Officer’s Guild (SPOG). These include some very binding limitations that include the inability to make any enforceable recommendations to the chief of police, who is free to overrule the OPA without explanation. Other limitations include a strict time limit that prevents the department from disciplining officers when investigations take longer than 180 days, and a limitation on what records the civilian oversight board can view when reviewing case findings from the OPA.

Beyond this, one of the chief problems with the OPA is how it is staffed. Not only do complainants have to tell police officers about police misconduct, which discourages them from making complaints due to widespread fears of police retaliation and obvious conflicts of interest. But the people who are placed within the OPA are put into those roles from within other departments by rank and file officers. The SPOG newsletters and other articles are rife with complaints from officers who do not want to be in the OPA but are placed there anyway. The main reason for the complaints is that the OPA is vilified within the ranks of officers and the guild halls quite openly, and nobody wants to be a social outcast within the department of their peers.

So, we see that the problems with the OPA are not only limited by policy, but also sociologically by peer pressure from other officers and their guild. Officers who fill the ranks of the OPA are discouraged from doing their jobs to the best of their abilities while the civilian oversight component is handcuffed by limitations to their oversight capabilities.

Systemic Opposition to Oversight

If you spend any time reading the Seattle Police Officers Guild monthly newsletters you can clearly see that there is clear opposition from the guild and the rank and file officers towards oversight and accountability mechanisms. Many opinion editorials and messages from the president are peppered with negative references describing programs to ensure the ability of officers to report misconduct without fear of reprisal, towards the oversight process and bodies, as well as the paperwork associated with use of force incidents. In fact, at least half of the content of the guild newsletters is devoted to complaints about oversight and accountability.

Beyond this, however, is the permissive attitude from the upper levels of management that overlook incidents of reprisal against officers accused of reporting incidents of misconduct, one well publicized event resulted in the police chief exonerating an officer for calling another officer a “rat” in front of that officer’s peers, in clear violation of established policies and whistleblower laws.

SPOG and many officers are so opposed to oversight that they often oppose policies and plans that would work in their favor towards limiting frivolous complaints of police misconduct. Most notably is the guild’s opposition towards placing cameras in precincts in order to monitor prisoner treatment and interactions between police officers and the public. It’s clear that such an initiative would work towards the officer’s advantage so long as they followed policy, so it’s difficult to see why they oppose this plan when they favor the placement of cameras in public areas.

It is this clear and systemic opposition to oversight and use of force policies that further encourages abusive behavior and even makes it seem expected within the ranks.

Social Acceptance of Abuse

This leads us to the social acceptance of police misconduct, not only within the department itself but also from other segments of society which view abusive tactics as a necessary part of the war on crime without thinking of the consequences which occur when police officers make mistakes and employ abusive tactics on innocent civilians.

Again, the SPOG newsletter opinion pieces include articles discussing how police work in Seattle isn’t “fun anymore”, in large part because of ‘use of force paperwork’ and oversight interviews that make officers feel as though they are on trial. This clearly demonstrates a bottom-up opposition towards the idea of accountability by many Seattle police officers, this attitude not only encourages others to engage in abusive behavior but also actively discourages officers from reporting incidents by making misconduct seem accepted and expected.


As can be seen, the problems with police misconduct are systemic and complex, abusive behavior is encouraged at every layer of city government either through disinterest or direct opposition to oversight processes. Because of this, it is clear that no oversight review panel report or single legislative change will be sufficient to reduce the number and blatant severity of police misconduct incidents that are being reported at an alarmingly increasing pace. A commitment to resolving police misconduct must be a high priority mission instituted from the top down and must remove the Seattle Police Officer’s Guild from the decision making body that determines how to establish effective oversight and disciplinary policies.

Until then, the problem of police misconduct in Seattle will only continue to escalate unabated and will draw national and international attention and condemnation.

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