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Tuesday, September 9, 2008

A New Wall Of Silence Around The SPD

The Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) is the internal investigations branch of the Seattle Police Department that is responsible for investigating allegations of misconduct. Part of the role within that department is community relations in order to build trust within the community for the police department and trust in the internal investigative process itself. Two recent reviews of the OPA found, among other things, that the OPA needs to do a better job of communicating with the public… How well have they done since those reports?

First, the OPA is supposed to issue a monthly report each month that details the findings for the previous month and gives a statistical summary of those findings and the number of investigations opened. However, the OPA is currently 3 months behind in issuing those reports with the latest report available being the one for June. Prior to hiring a new director towards the middle of last year, the department had been fairly consistent in issuing those reports but towards the end of last year the department fell behind. While they had appeared to catch up for a while, they have fallen behind again under the leadership of this new director.

The problem is not with the OPA being overburdened as the number of complaints opened has been lower this year than previous years, unfortunately in large part because so few trust the process anymore after several high profile cases of officers escaping discipline.

Also, as I reported here in an exclusive story, the OPA have not even been performing investigations as often as they used to. In fact they have only investigated 40% of allegations this year and instead allowed SPD officers to make summary findings without investigation 60% of the time, in previous years they would investigate an average of 90% of allegations made. Of course, this has impacted the rate at which officers have been found guilty of misconduct, (previously 28%-30% rate, now only 11% of findings are sustained), but it has not appeared to have made them more open with the public, in fact they grown strangely silent instead.

Earlier this year the civilian oversight review component of the OPA, the OPARB, had issued a report to city council that was sharply critical of the OPA process and had warned it was on a track to failure but that report was kept secret due to civil litigation worries on the part of the city who worried it would prompt the police union to sue. Since then the OPARB members have been replaced with other members and has not issued any new reports.

In fact, the last reports issued were from the OPA auditor in April of this year, nearly 5 full months ago. Furthermore, there have been no publicized community outreach meetings by the OPA and, in fact, if you go to the OPA home page and click on their “Community Outreach” link, this is what you get:

Clearly the OPA is no longer interested in reaching out to the public, nor are they interested in increasing transparency into the internal investigation and disciplinary process as was called for by the SCCPAP in their report made to the city council about the OPA process and what was needed to improve relations between the police and the public.

Instead, this new and increased lack of transparency is deeply disturbing because of the apparent drop in the number of cases that the OPA is actually investigating which has led to a drop in the rate of sustained findings. There are clearly problems within the OPA and the Seattle police department itself, and apparently the city seeks to hide that fact behind a new wall of silence.

UPDATE 09/09/08 13:39 - The SPD OPA finally released their monthly report for July shortly after this article was published.

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