Seattle Begins Police Reforms in Wake of Federal Civil Rights Investigation

Reporter Ansel Herz discusses the Seattle mayor adopting reforms after a federal investigation found the Seattle police force carried out discriminatory practices

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Story Transcript

JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore, where after facing accusations of unchecked brutality, the police department is undergoing federal review, leaning towards requiring police officers to wear body cameras and considering revamping its civilian review board that’s been widely panned for being ineffective.

Well, we now turn to Seattle, where this week the mayor indicated he’s going to accept the recommendations of a civilian review board impaneled as part of a 2011 federal civil rights investigation and resulting consent decree.

Now joining us to discuss this is Ansel Herz. He’s a reporter for the Seattle publication The Stranger. His recent piece is “Mayor Murray Gets More Serious About Police Reform”.

Thank you so much for joining us, Ansel.

ANSEL HERZ, JOURNALIST, THE STRANGER: Glad to be with you.

NOOR: So, Ansel, Seattle faced a civil rights investigation after a pattern emerged of disturbing wrongful death and brutality cases. Now it’s more than three years later. The mayor this week said he’s going to accept the recommendations. There’s a similar scenario in Baltimore, but it’s important to note that here the city is not undergoing a full civil rights investigation that can compel any changes.

So talk about the role and reaction of the public and grassroots groups to this announcement by the mayor.

HERZ: Well, I haven’t heard a lot from the public and from grassroots groups, honestly, about this announcement earlier this week, because really all the mayor did was confirm and accept some of the recommendations of the Community Police Commission. So it’s not actually really a civilian review board. It’s a commission. And it’s meant to basically play a role of providing input and representing the community when it comes to police accountability. It does not have the power to fire or discipline police officers. It’s really just meant to be a voice that provides input on that process.

And so the commission recommended, back in April, 55 different things to improve police accountability at SPD. And Ed Murray has said that he is either implementing or is working to implement 40 out of those recommendations. There are 15 of them that are going to have to be negotiated with the two police unions that represent thousands of police officers here in Seattle, and those two unions traditionally have fought the reform efforts at the Seattle Police Department.

NOOR: And so what changes over accountability did the mayor approve and still need to be negotiated with the union?

HERZ: So there are things like hiring preferences. A lot of people in Seattle would like to see the Seattle Police Department actually try to hire more officers from within the city. People feel like if we had officers who actually lived amongst us policing us, walking the streets with us, that relationships would be stronger and that you would see less abuses. That is going to have to be negotiated with the police union if the city wants to try to implement that.

There are a range of other things, involving sort of consolidating the Community Police Commission and a lot of its functions, and also making it permanent. So that’s another piece of this that’s pretty important. The commission initially was set up as a rule of the federal government, which came in a number of years ago now, and said that SPD was engaged in a pattern of racially biased policing and excessive force. And one of the conditions of the settlement with the Justice Department was that this commission would be set up of civilians. And that commission was meant to be temporary at the time–that’s how it was talked about. The mayor is making that a permanent body. So that’s also pretty significant.

NOOR: And so what you just mentioned about where officers live and in their relation to the police force, that’s something we hear a lot of in Baltimore as well and around the country. Who selects the members of this board? I know the mayor has indicated he wants to make it permanent.

HERZ: I believe that it is the mayor who appoints the members to that commission. Currently it’s made up of a pretty diverse group, including a representative of the main police union itself, which is called the Seattle Police Officers Guild, but as well a number of community activists are on that commission. So I think they in general were very appreciative that the mayor did act on the vast majority of their recommendations and is looking to implement them.

And it’s really a significant turnaround for Mayor Ed Murray, who took office earlier this year. Back in January, when he first came to office, one of the first things that happened, actually, was the interim police chief that he had appointed reversed a number of misconduct findings on Seattle police officers, and he just basically did this unilaterally, and there were questions about whether he was even honest with the City Council and with the public about how he did that and his reasons for doing that. The mayor had received some contributions from the police union. And so, in Seattle many people feel that the mayor really stumbled on police reform in his first number of months in office.

And this, I think, is an indication that he’s getting more serious. He appointed a new chief back in the spring, Kathleen O’Toole, who has come from Boston, and she seems to be doing a pretty decent job so far.

NOOR: And so, is the board going to be tasked with just–if it does become permanent–with only looking at infractions or allegations of brutality and excessive force? Or will it have the power to be proactive and actually examine and review police practices?

HERZ: That’s a great question. The commission, the Community Police Commission, is a volunteer body, so it does not have paid staff.

[Ansel later sent us this correction: “the commission itself does have three paid staff”.]

All of the [unsalaried] members have day jobs and other things that they’re doing, and they’re really doing this in their spare time. So it’s relatively limited in what it can do.

There’s also an Office of Professional Accountability, and that’s really the body that is actually charged with investigating police misconduct and holding officers accountable and meting out discipline. Again, the Community Police Commission is more of a body that’s meant to kind of weigh in on those things and issue opinions and try to represent the community that way, but the OPA is actually charged with carrying out discipline. And for a long time, actually, they were housed, that office was housed within SPD’s headquarters. Just a couple of weeks ago, they moved out of SPD’s headquarters in a bid to sort of demonstrate their independence and try to be more accessible to the public itself. They’re near a light-rail station. So the OPA is kind of saying to the public, if you have complaints about Seattle police, come to us. We’re not in the same building as the Police Department anymore. Come right into our office and start the complaint process. And they’re really the ones who are charged with doing a lot of the investigatory work.

NOOR: And so, last question. So what is the public’s perception of the OPA? We know there was the string of accusations that led to this federal review back in 2011, which led to the consent decree in 2012. Was the OPA still in effect back then? And I guess because these allegations were put forward and the federal authorities had to step in, it seems like the OPA wasn’t effective. Do you think that there’s going to be an actual change with it moving locations?

HERZ: We’ll see. The [director] of the Community Police Commission, a woman named Fe Lopez, was there when the OPA director was showing reporters and officials around the new headquarters of the office, and she said basically this is just a good first step. There’s a lot more community outreach that needs to happen for people to really feel like they have a really meaningful voice and to really feel like the OPA is doing its due diligence.

Just a couple of weeks ago, the Garfield High School Black Students Union actually marched on a Seattle Police precinct station. They marched through the rain. The actually walked out of school. And then, for about an hour, they basically stood in the street and protested the police and said that they were tired of the police brutality, they’re tired of racial profiling, and that they weren’t going to be silent in the face of both Ferguson and also the problems that we have here in Seattle. One of the things they said is that a lot of people feel like Seattle is some kind of liberal utopia when in fact we have some really serious problems with our police force, and they intend to hold police officers accountable for that.

NOOR: And Garfield High, some of our viewers will remember, that was also the site of the historic MAP boycott just recently as well.

Well, Ansel Herz, thank you so much for joining us.

HERZ: Thanks.

NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End

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