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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Dismantling Police Accountability From The Inside Out

A lot of attention has been put on the city of Seattle's civilian oversight and police accountability system's proposed reforms lately. While the city insists that all of the proposed reforms have been put into place with the latest contract agreement with the Seattle Police Officer's Guild, the guild has been hinting that they were able to remove and weaken some of those reforms during negotiations and the city appears to be reluctant to release the details still.

However, as we noted previously, there's been a lot of activity behind the scenes to dismantle the accountability process from the inside out while the public is focused on the reform items proposed by the mayor's review panel, or PARP.

The first blow to the accountability system was when Sam Pailca's, the Office of Professional Accountability's previous director, second term expired in June of 2007 and she left the position in the midsts of the Paterson arrest scandal and the Alley-Barnes brutality case. Known to be an outspoken and tenacious director who advocated for the system against severe pressure from the police guild, mayor, and police chief that required her to seek mediation in order to get the internal investigations unit to even talk to her, she stated that she left a lot of work to be done upon her departure.

Prior to her departure she raised serious questions about how the police chief consistently overruled OPA findings of misconduct and allegations of interference with investigations, most notably with the Paterson arrest investigation. But shortly after being replaced by Kathryn Olsen, a housing and labor rights attorney with no experience dealing with color of law civil rights abuse cases, the accusations were squelched and subsequent reports from the OPA became more conciliatory to the police guild and fell into line with the city's attempts to silence the public outcry over the broken system. Indeed, after the replacement of the director the OPA became very quiet, issuing fewer reports than ever and becoming slow to issue the reports it typically did issue previously.

Following this first chip away at the accountability system, the new head of the Public Safety board, the police guild sponsored ex-police officer councilman Burgess, completely dismantled the OPA Civilian Review Board (OPARB) by telling the last remaining experienced OPARB member that she would likely not be asked to continue on and personally filtered all new applicants for the three member board slots.

Now, with an inexperienced OPA Director and a completely guild-vetted and inexperienced OPA Review Board, the last remnant of the previously outspoken OPA system is the OPA Auditor, Katrina Pflaumer, whose second term expires at the end of this year. By replacing her with yet another inexperienced and more compliant member of the civilian oversight team, it seem certain that the public will be kept ignorant of problematic cases of police misconduct that are swept under the rug.

The OPA has been very quiet and compliant lately, and this trend will likely continue despite there still being some very questionable cases of misconduct that the current auditor has been raising red flags over... and it will only get worse once she is replaced and we're left with a novice OPA that is ill-equipped to deal with the intense opposition that the previous OPA officials had finally learned to stand up against.

There was more than one way to skin the OPA civilian oversight process, and the city seems to have succeeded in killing it twice over. Now with the rumors that the last remaining pro-accountability council member will be retiring soon, it seems that there is little left to defend the civilian oversight process from becoming completely gutted and rendered incapable of serving the function it was meant to.

Indeed, it seems that it is well on it's way to becoming yet another mouthpiece for the police chief and city government instead of a way for the citizens of Seattle to police their own police force.

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