An interesting trend appears to be developing at the Seattle Police Department's "Office of Professional Accountability" (SPD OPA), which is the civilian oversight mechanism for police misconduct investigations. Not only are complaints taking longer to investigate, but it appears as though fewer complaints are making it to the actual investigation process itself. Instead, more complaints than ever appear to be getting dismissed out-of-hand by SPD brass.
We took a look at the current and past OPA statistics and noticed this trend pretty quick because the change in data was startling. First, here's a graph showing the OPA findings from the past few years.
Of course, the SPD OPA categorizes how it handles and finds complaints in a number of somewhat confusing ways, as you can see above, but ultimately there are two different ways it goes about establishing a finding and two different basic findings it can come up with: The OPA can investigate the complaint or defer to a supervising officer's discretionary finding and the OPA can either find the complaint as being valid or invalid.
Now, first, let's look at the resulting findings of complaints over the same time period:
As you can see, the general trend in findings over the first few years was fairly static, ranging around 30% sustained, until 2007 and 2008 where the trend plummeted to only 11% of complaints being found sustained (of those a vast majority being managerial complaints like incorrectly reporting hours for example). So, why are complaints being dismissed far more often?
Well, while many people have so little trust in the OPA complaint system that they now bypass it and go straight to a lawyer in cases of serious misconduct, yet there may be another factor in play as well... It may have something to do with this:
As you can see, there has been a very drastic shift in the ratio of complaints that are actually investigated by the OPA and the number of complaints that are simply dismissed by administrative officers like Lieutenants and Captains as "administratively unfounded" or "administratively exonerated" without investigation. Previously, a vast majority of complaints, around 90%, were handled by the OPA with very few being discretionary, but strikingly the trend upended with complaints being deferred to the discretion of the brass in nearly 60% of cases so far this year and only 40% being investigated by the OPA.
Interestingly enough, this trend seems to have started when the OPA Director was replaced near the middle of last year and the entire OPA office was reshuffled. This was also around the time that the civilian oversight portion of the OPA system, the OPA Review Board, made a scathing report that alleged interference in investigations by the police chief and questioned the trustworthiness of the entire OPA process. The outgoing OPA director also expressed concerns about the future of the oversight system but her replacement has been a steadfast defender of the police department.
As a result of the accusations made by the OPA Review Board the entire board has also been replaced this year, with their last report on the status of the OPA system being kept secret because it was reportedly a scathing review that would have left the city open to litigation by the Seattle Police Officer's Guild. It is appearing more and more likely that the city and police department are responding to problems with the oversight and disciplinary system by making it less effective and more secretive than ever and staffing it with members who will keep quiet about problems with the process.
Needless to say, the results of all the changes to the oversight system are clear, whether they are intentional or not. More and more often, complaints are being dismissed without review or oversight and this appears to have a direct correlation with both the changes in management for the civilian oversight system in Seattle and the news coverage last year of failures within the oversight process.
While the city has made pains to publicize the changes to the system that help ensure officers found to have committed acts of misconduct are disciplined, it's becoming clear that the system has been altered to find fewer officers guilty of misconduct in order to bypass those new rules. Sadly, this means that the OPA system of civilian oversight in Seattle is looking more like a PR front that covers up cases of misconduct for the city's embattled and scandal ridden police department than a properly working and transparent civilian oversight system designed to clean up the police department. The end result will be even more distrust between civilians and the police as misconduct and brutality rates continue to climb due to a lack of consequences for misconduct.
Note: Since the 2008 statistics are only based on mid-year reporting statistics, all previous year statistics were taken from the same mid-year reporting time-frame for that year for accurate comparisons.