Who's watching the cops?

Despite promises of reform, the police have no real citizen oversight.

DID OFFICER Chris Price use his gun appropriately when he shot and killed Aaron Roberts during a traffic stop two weeks ago? Lots of people want to know, and they want citizens, not just police, to have a hand in the answer.

"I think that, first and foremost, we should have a citizens' review board," says Dustin Washington, a leader of the protests that have erupted in the Central District and a member of the People's Coalition for Justice.

But don't we already have civilian oversight of police, courtesy of a ballyhooed package of reforms passed by the City Council a year and half ago? Well, yes and no.

The reforms did create a civilian- headed Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) to oversee investigations of police misconduct. Former prosecutor Sam Pailca launched the OPA when she became its director in late January. But the city still hasn't formed the additional three-person citizen's board ordered by the council, a delay caused by prolonged haggling between bureaucrats and the police guild over the board's composition and other details. The American Civil Liberties Union's Doug Honig calls the year-and-a-half wait "utterly ridiculous." Though the board is to have a limited role, confined to adjudicating disputes within the OPA and commenting upon closed investigations, it at least promises further outside scrutiny of misconduct investigations—all the more important because the OPA's director, although a civilian, reports to the chief of police.

Yet even if the citizens' board was in effect, it wouldn't have much of a role in investigating Roberts' death. In fact, even the OPA isn't very involved, although Pailca is sitting in on detectives' briefings. In the most serious of cases, there is little room for citizen oversight, at least initially.

Pailca's full-time job revolves around investigating misconduct complaints made by citizens or by police themselves, and no official charge of misconduct has been made in this case, despite all the protests. Even if a charge had been made, the OPA wouldn't formally look at the matter until the completion of separate investigations by police and prosecutors.

Whenever a firearm is used by an officer, a firearms review board considers whether the officer used the gun appropriately. That board sends a report to the county prosecutor's office, which presents evidence before a judge and jury at an inquest. The inquest provides a public airing of the case, but critics argue that since the evidence is collected and presented by law enforcement officials, the process is slanted toward police. In the more than two decades that Norm Maleng has served as prosecutor, no inquest has ever found a police shooting to be unjustified (see "License to Kill," Nov. 4, 1999).

Reform-minded council member Nick Licata acknowledges that there may be a need for more extensive civilian oversight. "The attitude has been, 'Let's see how this system works,'" he says, referring to the new OPA. "But if it turns out that the system isn't applicable to a situation like this, maybe we should take a look at tweaking the system now."

Activists like Dustin Washington and Harriet Walden of Mothers for Police Accountability go further. They want an entirely new kind of citizens' review board that is independent from both the police and the mayor and has both subpoena and disciplinary powers.

But it was difficult enough getting the 1999 reforms passed and implemented. While the city drags its feet on creating a citizens' board, Pailca is struggling to flesh out her role. Currently, her office is not even listed in the city's directory of phone numbers. Says Pailca, "I'm working on that."

nshapiro@seattleweekly.com

 
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