It wasn't exactly a Mensa moment for the Seattle cop who, in uniform and leaning against his patrol car, embraced and kissed a stripper outside Frank Colacurcio Sr.'s nude-dance club. Ditto for the vice cop who was arrested patronizing a prostitute—or, rather, patronizing another cop who was posing as a prostitute. Then there was the off-duty officer involved in a road-rage incident who claimed that the other driver, because he was black, must have been a pimp out to get him. And there were off-duty cops who drank too much. One, who had a 0.21 blood-alcohol level, had to be rescued from his rolled, burning car. The other, with a 0.22 blood-alcohol level, told arresting state troopers, "If I get out of these cuffs, I'll fucking kill you both."
They are some of Seattle's finest who themselves broke rules or laws—cases mostly unknown to the public despite the existence of a civilian board empowered to review and issue reports on Seattle Police Department internal investigations. The City Council recently gave new protections to the board, whose public reports are being delayed because members worry they'll be sued for releasing the information. City Council President Nick Licata says he's looking forward to seeing the board work as intended "for the very first time." But the council-approved protections face a possible legal challenge by the police officers' union and, as it is, won't take effect until 2007.
So what's been happening inside SPD? A Seattle Weekly review of sustained complaints, which are public record but cleansed of names, provides a peek into the Office of Professional Accountability. Nonsustained cases, by law, aren't released. Besides the 2005 Belltown nightclub-security scandal first detailed in The Seattle Times, and some potentially deadly weapons violations we reported earlier (see "Cops Jumping the Gun," May 24), the newly released incidents are among almost 30 complaints sustained by SPD against officers from 2005 through the first quarter of 2006. The cases range from life-threatening situations to minor issues of personal decorum, such as rudeness.
Sgt. Rich O'Neill, president of the Seattle Police Officers Guild, thinks the OPA system is unfair. Cops must give sworn statements to internal investigators while complainants do not, he says by way of example. A former internal investigator, O'Neill says some civilians who have been arrested file OPA claims merely to help their own cases. "A citizen can claim just about anything, and we have had very few criminally charged for filing a false complaint," O'Neill says. Some officers, using a guild legal fund, have brought lawsuits against complainants who allegedly lied.
Conversely, at a recent city hearing, some citizens said they wouldn't bother to report alleged abuses to SPD because the system is unresponsive. Caught in the middle, OPA director Sam Pailca says her detectives aggressively and equitably investigate all complaints; they also issue monthly capsule reports (www.seattle.gov/mayor/issues/OPA.htm). More than 300 complaints were recorded in 2005 against some of the 1,000-plus sworn officers, with more than 200 cases assigned for investigation. For contrast, there were almost 500 commendations of officers offered up by thankful citizens.
OPA's independent auditor, former U.S. District Attorney Kate Pflaumer, says conflicts are often avoidable. It's "distressing," she reports, "to see how many of the excessive-force complaints begin with minor street confrontations" such as jaywalking. One recent complaint resulted from a dispute over picking up dog poop. A uniformed SPD officer, also a St. Louis Rams fan, was disciplined last year for swearing at Seahawks fans at Qwest Field—"Boo hoo . . . shut the fuck up!"—then arresting one of them. Complaints were also sustained against officers for taking unauthorized breaks, sending sexually graphic images via SPD e-mail, and missing court dates. Another officer was found to have loaded up his car with meat and drinks he "inappropriately" took while working off-duty at the Bite of Seattle.
In June last year, an off-duty cop lost control of his car on Interstate 5 in Snohomish County. It hit a guardrail, rolled over, and trapped him. The vehicle was burning. Citizens cut his seat belt and removed him. The officer said he had had one beer. After his blood-alcohol level tested out at 0.21 (0.08 is legally intoxicated), an expert said he might have consumed up to 18 beers. The cop was suspended for five days.
In a separate Snohomish County DUI incident, an off-duty Seattle cop whose blood-alcohol reading was 0.22 threatened the lives of arresting state troopers—an act he later said he was too drunk to recall. He was suspended 20 days.
Among other incidents:
• An off-duty officer was accused of pointing a gun (which the cop denied) at another man during a road-rage incident. The other man also had a small girl in the vehicle. The cop thought the man was a pimp out to get him, he claimed, because of "his physical appearance, being black, and also being very husky, and also his attitude. . . . " A department investigation concluded the pimp claim was "beyond incredible and is racially insensitive," resulting in a three-day suspension.
• An off-duty SPD officer who often worked vice was arrested by Lakewood police in Pierce County for propositioning a female officer who was posing as a prostitute. SPD sustained a separate complaint of misconduct last December. The officer said he just wanted to see how stings were conducted in Lakewood. The experienced vice cop, who received a 10-day suspension, insisted he didn't ask the decoy for— nor even know the meaning of—an "around the world" sex act.
• At Rick's strip club in Lake City, operated by ex-cons Frank Colacurcio Sr. and Frank Colacurcio Jr., a uniformed cop was seen "romantically" kissing and holding a stripper against a police car in 2004. Sustaining the misconduct complaint last year, OPA suspended the officer one day, concluding, "The kiss gives the impression [of] preferential treatment" to a club where "there have been numerous complaints and arrests."