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Monday, February 4, 2008

What Is Fair?

In the course of the debate over whether or not the current oversight and accountability system used in Seattle is working and whether the police union (SPOG) will allow recommendations made by two different oversight review panels to be put into place there is a common theme popping up from the police officer's and their union... "We want a fair system".

Well, I do too! Suprise! I am on the police union's side on this issue! I don't want innocent officers punished and I don't want bad cops to be encouraged to keep harming civilians without fear of reprecussions. I too want fairness.

So... With that said... What is a fair system?

Well, currently the system works as follows:
First, a citizen calls, writes, or visits the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) with their complaint. The OPA is staffed with Seattle Police Department officers who were pulled from various duty assignments, such as patrol work, and given minimal training as internal investigators.

Next, an OPA investigator (a police officer) calls the complaintant back and asks to record the entire complaint over the phone or in person, once this recording is made an investigation starts or the complaint is referred to the officer's supervisor for resolution and that's the end of it. If investigated, officers are interviewed by their fellow officers, victims and witnesses may be investigated as well, and any evidence is taken into consideration before a finding is made.

Once a finding is made the OPA gives the cheif a report of the finding, reasons, and a recommended course of action. The cheif takes this into consideration and holds a hearing with the officer in question and a union representative, during this hearing the officer may present additional information not revealed in the report and the cheif may make a ruling that either matches the findings and recommendations or not, without any explaination.

Once the disciplinary hearing is finished, the resulting actions are not open to appeal and not arguable, except if the officer disagrees with the punishment... if so the officer can have the union appeal the disciplinary finding or even take the matter to court with the use of union lawyers. The complaintant cannot appeal, cannot present new facts, and actually has no control over anything that happens once the initial complaint is made.

The civilian review panel (OPARB) and civilian auditor (OPA Auditor) can then, maybe, review redacted versions of the investigations if that specific investigation was one of the few "randomly" selected files that were presented to the OPARB for review. The OPARB can try to make sense of the file full of black marker streaks that block out identifying information and make general remarks in a report to the city council and mayor about trends and recommendations, but have no say in the disciplinary process whatsoever and their recommendations can be ignored without consequence.

In the end, the complaintant may or may not be told of the outcome, and then are not protected frome retaliation from the officers. (remember, one of the recommendations made by the mayor's review panel that are being fought by the union is a policy ammendment that discourages officers from making retaliatory contact with complaintants DURING investigations... nothing is said about what happens afterwards).

So, under the current system, the officer has many people representing him or her, even the prosecution (OPA) is on their side. Meanwhile there is nobody representing the civilian, nobody who believes in that person's case, there is no adversarial system whatsoever in fact. The civilian oversight portion of the system, the small part that is supposedly there to defend the citizen's side of the issue, has no real say in the system or any real ability to change anything at all.

So... the police feel this system is unfair to them... If so, how can it be made more fair?

Well, we could assume that our justice system is fair for defendants, so perhaps an oversight system that mirrored the justice system would be more fair? Officers could be assigned a public defender with minimal resources who is pressured into convincing clients to plead guilty while a prosecutorial unit, with no working relation to that officer or his fellow officers, uses a vast system of governmental personnel and resources to build it's case on behalf of the public which it serves. Meanwhile, the officer is confined to a jail that may mistreat him or her and has to spend money out of his or her own pocket to hire a lawyer and post bail in exchange for temporary freedom. Finally both sides present their case to a judge and/or jury of civilians who rule whether or not the complaint is true, with no chief who can overrule that finding... but only a chance to appeal to another judge somewhere, at more personal cost.(yes, I'm simplifying it, but that's the supposed basis of our adversarial system of justice).

I wonder, would that seem more fair to the officers who complain about the currently "unfair" system that is staffed by fellow officers, can be overruled by an exoneration-happy chief, and hasn't resulted in a significant case of discipline in years? That's the system we civilians have, surely it's not too good for police officers too.

...indeed, what could be more fair than that?

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