Cop watch

Does the City Council's new civilian review of police misconduct have any teeth?

Considering all the sound and fury directed at the cops in the wake of WTO, you'd think that the final results of a months-long inquiry into how police misconduct charges are handled would receive some attention. But the public and press were strangely quiet last week as the City Council approved two landmark ordinances on the matter.

Stranger still were the laws themselves, which seemed to simultaneously adopt two differing models of police reform by creating both internal and external bodies charged with looking into officers' misconduct. It was obviously an attempt to please everyone, and it has come close to doing just that. Strident police reformer Jerry Sheehan, the American Civil Liberties Union's legislative director, calls it "the greatest thing since sliced bread." In the opposing camp, Seattle Police Officers Guild president Mike Edwards grumbles about not being included in the process, but he hasn't really kicked up a fuss.

Some doubt remains, however, about how independent misconduct investigations will be. The City Council followed through on Mayor Paul Schell's vision of an Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) to investigate misconduct allegations. Schell's OPA offers only limited external oversight since the civilian who will sit at the helm must report to the police chief and pick a police captain as his or her deputy.

So outgoing City Council public safety chair Tina Podlodowski came up with the idea of a separate civilian OPA "review board," to which the council agreed. But this board won't function as a typical "civilian review board" since it won't be doing any hands-on investigating.

Instead it will . . . well, that's a good question, actually. Podlodowski originally intended the three-person review board to audit the OPA's work. This is not a revolutionary idea. We already have a police auditor, the ex-judge Terrence Carroll, but his job was thought redundant given the creation of the OPA. But for some mystifying reason, when facing a resurrection of Carroll's role, the council now deemed auditing too highly charged a proposition to assign to regular folks. (If you want to call the lawyer, the criminal justice professional, and the community organizer who will sit on the review board—all appointed by the council—regular.) So the City Council decided to have the board hire an auditor, presumably a professional.

Thus the review board, though fully independent, has no particular responsibilities, other than to report quarterly to the council. That doesn't trouble University of Nebraska criminal justice professor Sam Walker, one of the country's foremost experts on civilian review of police misconduct. While the board's success will depend on what it makes of its role, he says, it has the power to tell the council, "'We have reasons to believe there are problems in the following areas. We want you to do something about it.' And it has the power to come back six months later and say, 'We called for an investigation and we didn't get it.'"

Similarly, the ACLU's Sheehan believes that the board can function as the "conscience of the community." That role may be vague, but Sheehan has a point when he says, "You have to look at where we started from."

Amid post-WTO demands for police accountability, we will soon have a chance to see what both the OPA and the review board can do.

 
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