Candidate blues

The City Council candidates have few suggestions to make the police more accountable.

MIDWAY THROUGH a rather tortuous stab at addressing the issue of police accountability, Seattle City Council candidate Curt Firestone concedes, "I've not studied this to the nth detail." He's not alone. While the issue has never been hotter, thanks to the high-profile theft trial of Detective "Sonny" Davis, it seems to leave most council candidates strangely cold. Few have taken the time to look at the fine print in Mayor Paul Schell's "Accountability Action Plan." Fewer still seem prepared to fight for anything. Against that blank backdrop, Dawn Mason and Charlie Chong stand out for coming up with novel proposals of their own—which is not to say that the proposals make sense.

To the extent that the candidates have considered the matter, the most significant division centers on whether the mayor's plan to create an Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) goes far enough in bringing civilian oversight to misconduct investigations. Firestone has kept up with the details enough to know that the civilian director of the office is to report to the police chief. He says if he had designed the office, for true independence he would have picked somebody outside the department, but doesn't seem inclined to challenge a plan he considers "excellent."

Judy Nicastro is more critical. "The mayor's plan is just sort of shifting titles around," she says. Her judgment has more weight when you consider that those under as well as over the OPA's civilian director would carry badges.

Nicastro says she would advocate what's known as a civilian review board—an amorphous concept, but generally an entity independent of the police department, and therefore usually called for by the sharpest police critics.

The idea of a civilian review board has a bad rap among the candidates, even among rebels like Dawn Mason and Charlie Chong. Mason has heard that they've never worked, she believes in part because they are not directly accountable to the people through the election process. Chong contends the rank and file have a point when they worry that such a board could turn into a "kangaroo court."

Jim Compton and incumbent Margaret Pageler offer the surprising critique that civilian review boards tend to side with the police. "There's always the danger that the police will embrace it and hug it to death," Compton says.

When the candidates are pressed, it emerges that no one's done their homework. One of the foremost experts on the subject, University of Nebraska professor Sam Walker, who spent the last two years studying civilian review boards around the country, says simply that some work and some don't. But he dismissed both the notion of a kangaroo court ("most cities have an appointment process that weeds out people with an ax to grind") and that of a police-happy cabal (an idea he says is actually promoted by the police to scare people off the idea).

In his usual off-the-cuff fashion, Charlie Chong suggests "something like a municipal court" to hear complaints against officers. This would ensure independence from the police while also giving officers an expert in the law to hear their cases. The court would appoint counsel to officers and complainants if needed.

It's an intriguing idea, but Chong is sketchy on the details. OK, the judge would hear complaints, but who would investigate them? "The judge's staff would do it . . . ?" Chong says tentatively. Keep working on that one, Charlie.

The question marks start flashing for Mason's idea as well. She wants to dramatically strengthen the city auditor's office by giving it subpoena power. It could thus investigate complaints—and here's the catch—against not only the police but all city departments. "I think if any city department is put under the scrutiny that the police department has just been put under, you would find you need accountability," she says. Probably true, but the staff required would cost serious money, and there would seem to be a danger that the office would be too overwhelmed to devote the necessary attention to police matters.

Mason also feels strongly that such an auditor should be elected. The risk, of course, is that the office will become mired in heated political rhetoric—probably not the best way to bring about needed healing between police and their critics.

Nonetheless, Mason, who wants to be the council's public safety chair, is without question the most engaged on the subject of police, especially around the need for more training at a time when civility laws have given officers a role akin to social worker.

In contrast to those advocating greater independence in police investigations, Pageler, Compton, Heidi Wills, and Cheryl Chow all support the mayor's plan.

Pageler gives the oddest endorsement of the mayor's plan. "It's not clear to me that this structure provides more accountability. [But] it is an alternative that is seen to give outside accountability. I'm happy to support it if it lends credibility."

The appearance of change, rather than change itself, is OK with Pageler, who points out that police misconduct is not a big problem in this city. Hey, at least she's honest. But if she's right, given the general lack of interest among candidates in challenging the mayor, those who want safeguards in place for when misconduct does happen are likely to be disappointed.

 
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