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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Seattle Moves The OPA

The city of Seattle has finally decided to move the Seattle Police Department's Office of Professional Accountability, (otherwise known as the OPA), and the Internal Affairs units out of the Seattle police department's headquarters in order to address concerns that fewer people come forward with complaints about police abuses when they have to do so at a police station.

story here

Of course, this would be true if it weren't for the fact that you don't have to go to a police station to file a complaint, you can also do so via phone or even by a form on the OPA's website. The more subtle issue is that having the IA and OPA located at police headquarters gives the impression of impropriety and a conflict of interest.

Unfortunately, it is that same subtle issue that ultimately means this move is not sufficient to address the conflicts of interest and the fear of reprisals that limit the number of complaints that are received by the, largely powerless, OPA. As I mentioned previously, the fact that the OPA is staffed by police officers pulled, non-voluntarily, from the ranks of the SPD means that citizens encounter a skeptical voice at the other end of the line after they file a complaint.

For example, when I filed a complaint with the OPA this year, part of that process meant that I had to leave contact information with my complaint form. A few days after the complaint was filed I received a call from a person identified not as a member of the OPA or IA, but as a Seattle police officer. While the call was somewhat startling for me, a victim of police misconduct who really does not want to have any more contact with the police, it was also somewhat cordial... at least until I actually started to explain what happened to me.

The response from this police officer was given in a fairly sarcastic tone, "Oh really? Is that it?" It didn't leave me very encouraged that a serious investigation was about to be performed by that particular officer. But this is the result of an inherent conflict of interest that is formed when you force police officers who consider themselves officers over being members of a task force dedicated to finding and removing misconduct from the SPD.

This is why the move will ultimately be a failure in regards to removing that perception of impropriety and will not result in any significant increase in the willingness of people to report abuse, and ultimately why you will continue to see even more accounts of abuses in the newspapers since people feel that the media are the only ones who will take their testimony seriously.

In order to remove this conflict of interest and appearance of impropriety on the part of the SPD through the OPA and IA, it is necessary for the city of Seattle to move more than just an office, they need to move the unwilling police officers who staff the OPA out of that office and replace them with people who were not members of the rank and file and who are specifically recruited and trained to perform the task at hand... not protecting abusers within the ranks, but discovering them and working to limit the abuses they can inflict on members of the public.

Until then, while most will see the planned move as a step in the right direction, most will eventually discover that it is only a step into a good bit of window dressing for that new office space with the same old faces behind it.

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