Calling for a Crackdown

The city is considering a new system for watch-dogging the police. It could be a national model, but the temptation to compromise may prove irresistible.


With these words, Khalil Ayes, a young African-American emceeing a half dozen speeches, summed up the fear and anger of a crowd standing only a few Central District footsteps from where police shot and killed Edward Anderson in January 1996. The June 15 rally and march, along with last month’s First A.M.E. Church confrontation between Mayor Paul Schell and a crowd of 800 angry citizens, marks a new and potent movement demanding law enforcement accountability and the end of police violence in Seattle.

The crisis facing the Seattle Police Department is not one caused by a single shooting. True, the fatal April 12 Queen Anne shooting of an armed outpatient, David Walker, has drawn much community ire. US Attorney Kate Pflaumer, overruling an FBI recommendation, has ordered a federal civil rights investigation of the incident. But the black community’s demand for independent accountability for the police force dates back at least 40 years and spans lifetimes of perceived injustices, racist treatment, “Driving While Black” traffic stops, and an almost universally held truism in communities of color that police are not your friends and cannot be trusted. “There is an undeniable double standard in the treatment of persons of color with respect to the law,” says Reverend Leslie Braxton of Mount Zion Baptist Church, echoing the sentiments of many. “Black folks have been living with this always in this country. We’ve always had to deal with tyrannical power.”

Moreover, many believe the police will never investigate themselves and that their internal processes are an open joke. The current round of pressure for civilian review of the police stems from a mayoral blue ribbon panel called last year in the wake of the Sonny Davis case. In that incident, several officers and an internal review failed to uncover and deal with a detective’s alleged posthumous theft of money from an African-American man shot and killed by the police.

The King County inquest process has also been a grossly inadequate check. In the last 20 years, no fatal police shooting or death in police custody in Seattle, whether of armed or unarmed suspects, has been ruled unjustified. Regardless of the individual circumstances or of the checks and balances in the system, with that record it’s hard to convince people the system is not rigged. Furthermore, plenty of anecdotal evidence bolsters the widespread belief that abuses of power are common in communities of color. Therefore, no matter how honorably SPD officers conduct themselves as individuals, as long as a large segment of society distrusts, fears, and hates the police, SPD has a problem.

PROTESTER’S DEMANDS FOR an independent civilian review board are largely responsible for the apparent police guild concession in recent contract talks that gives the OK to some sort of citizen advisory panel. (Contract details are confidential until the tentative agreement between the city and the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild goes to a guild membership vote in the next few weeks.) Without the groundswell of activism by some of the leading members of Seattle’s African-American community, particularly the black churches, it’s unlikely the city would have held out for the concessions.

The contract adds to what is already a complicated, awkward, multilevel approach to investigating police misconduct. For years, an independent auditor has monitored complaints against SPD. But without the power to conduct investigations, that position has been no more than a rubber stamp for the SPD’s own internal investigations. Last November, acting on recommendations from the mayor’s committee, the City Council created an Office for Police Accountability (OPA). The Director of the OPA, a civilian, is appointed by the police chief (a feature criticized by many); he or she, in turn, answers to a three-person panel comprised of a city representative, a police officer, and a community member. Although the enabling legislation was passed late last year, no civilian director of the OPA has been hired, pending the outcome of negotiations with the guild.

Press reports indicate the tentative contract agreement calls for a “citizen advisory panel.” However, apparently the structure called for is close to the council’s version of the OPA, with minimal involvement by private citizens. This won’t be enough to satisfy department critics.

What demonstrators and African-American community leaders want was well summarized by the demands presented to Mayor Schell at the May 15 First A.M.E. meeting. Those demands included an independent citizens review board with investigative and subpoena power, the collection of data on racial profiling and racially disproportionate arrest, a review of the SPD’s policy on the use of deadly force, the hiring and promotion of more minorities within SPD, and reform of King County’s inquest system.

Reverend Braxton was unimpressed by Schell’s performance at First A.M.E. “I thought he genuinely meant well, but he was very poorly prepared for that meeting. He failed to make a general statement to the effect that we all saw something that went terribly wrong. . . . They just recently killed a black man where all eyes can see.”

Dustin Washington of the grassroots People’s Coalition for Justice, an organization that has been sponsoring regular marches and rallies in support of police accountability, is more blunt. “It was a joke, it was a waste of time,” scoffs Washington, who walked out during the meeting. “Hopefully that will be reflected come election time.”

The platform of the People’s Coalition for Justice is even more of a departure from the city’s timid steps. It calls for a number of items, including a civilian review board “made up of more than just three members, with majority representation from the neighborhoods and communities,” independent investigation of complaints, and funding that is both adequate and nonpoliticized. In conversation, Washington emphasizes a civilian review board, policies to end racial profiling, and yearly antiracism trainings for SPD officers.

Yet another approach, an initiative for which signatures are now being collected, calls for a review board with elected members serving two-year terms. Initiative 52’s sponsor, David Olson, is contemptuous of both the city and community activists. “No one on City Council is courageous enough to do the right thing,” says Olson, but neither are the critics, most of

whom have shied away from I-52: “I’ve been really discouraged by the community activists; they’ve got no balls.” While longtime SPD critic John Hoffman—newly relocated and elected to the city council of Grand Forks, North Dakota—helped draft I-52, it has received little support from other accountability activists.

LEADERS AS DISPARATE as Braxton, Washington, and local American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Kathleen Taylor are all concerned about the direction the city’s police accountability efforts are headed. Taylor thinks current negotiations have been a step backwards: “That body [the OPA review panel] had no independent authority to engage in any investigation; it merely reviewed actions taken by the OPA. Now they seem to be weakening that panel even further.”

Experts suggest that this skepticism is well founded and that it’s easy for police reform efforts to fail. By 1997, 38 of the nation’s 50 largest cities had some form of citizen review. Yet they are often ineffective—plagued by poor funding, lack of independent investigative powers, poor cooperation from police departments, politicization, and community doubts that misbehaving officers will ultimately be disciplined.

Van Jones is the Executive Director of San Francisco’s Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. The EBC houses a number of police reform efforts, including Bay Area PoliceWatch and New York City PoliceWatch, and Jones is unimpressed by what he’s seen so far in Seattle.

“First, civilian review boards actually having paid civilian staff to do investigations is critical. You have to have a certain ratio of investigators per officer. Secondly, there needs to be a civilian body above the chief of police that can impose discipline against the chief’s wishes. . . . In Seattle there’s an opportunity to create a model for the country, to take advantage of the best thinking of the past 30 years. Instead, the police guild has done everything it could to hold on to its old ways. The whole world saw what was wrong in Seattle [during WTO], but now what we’re seeing is an opportunity blown.”

The human rights group Amnesty International has also been watching Seattle’s process with concern. After the police crackdown during last fall’s WTO ministerial talks, Amnesty sponsored a panel in Seattle calling for an independent civilian review board. AI spokesperson Dennis Palmieri says “the system that’s proposed is a good step, but it does seem that some of those steps are going to be negotiated away; that’s a terrible step backwards. . . . This is a national crisis. We have to do exactly the opposite of what’s happening in Seattle.” Palmieri also echoes the concerns of many that the city is seemingly allowing the police guild to exercise veto power over the imposition of any public oversight of the department. “This is not the purview of the police guild,” Palmieri explains, “This needs to be decided by public policy.”

Although Schell and City Council Public Safety Committee Chair Jim Compton deserve credit for getting the guild to agree to a review board, ironically, they’re only restoring what the city once gave away. The ACLU’s Taylor notes that the city had oversight powers written into the guild contract up until the late 1970s, when the city conceded those powers for lower wages.

Eileen Luna ran civilian oversight agencies in California through much of the 1980s and is now an assistant professor at the University of Arizona. She is most concerned about whether the review process will be public and whether complainants will have access to the files for their cases—details that have not yet been decided in the negotiation process. “That’s a critical piece,” says Luna. “You shouldn’t go forward if you don’t have that. What good is bringing a complaint if you don’t know how it is handled? Community rights are as important as the officer’s rights.”

Seattle’s police guild, as with police unions nationally, has opposed outside review of officer performance. They’re concerned about the city’s direction, too, but for different reasons. Police unions generally claim that civilian overseers undermine police authority, don’t understand how police departments operate, and are motivated by political, antipolice sentiments. The elaborate protections given officers suspected of misconduct—they are currently allowed to be questioned only in writing and through a union representative, rights police would consider unthinkable for the average suspect—are one of the major targets of reformers. Guild head Mike Edwards was too busy briefing officers on the details of the contract settlement to be interviewed for this story.

Police resistance to civilian oversight is deeply rooted and can even turn nasty. In New York City police opposition has doomed a far-reaching effort to institute a review board. When former New York City Mayor David Dinkins supported an independent civilian complaint review board in September 1992, police officers protested and engaged in actions that, according to a police department report, were “unruly, mean-spirited, and perhaps criminal.” The officers’ protest, sponsored by the police union, involved thousands of uniformed cops demonstrating at City Hall, blocking traffic, and reportedly shouting racial slurs at Mayor Dinkins, who is black. Dinkins’ political opponent, Rudolph Guiliani, participated in the protests and later replaced Dinkins as mayor.

From this highly politicized start, New York’s Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) was faced with an impossible mission. According to a 1998 report by the international group Human Rights Watch, “the police department has often refused to accept its findings or has stalled action on the board’s recommendations beyond the statute of limitations, ensuring impunity for officers that the CCRB has found responsible for misconduct. . . . During the independent CCRB’s first three and a half years, only one percent of all cases disposed of led to the disciplining of a police officer, and out of 18,336 complaints, there has been just one dismissal of an officer stemming from a CCRB-substantiated case.”

SOME REVIEW PROCESSES have worked well. The same Human Rights Watch report praises Portland’s relatively limited Police Internal Investigations Auditing Committee (PIIAC), stating, “though imperfect, [it seems] to be working productively. . . . The PIIAC’s role is limited to reviewing the police department’s internal investigations, rather than the broader duties assigned to many review agencies. . . . PIIAC’s citizen advisers seemed to have good relations with relevant police officials, and, in addition to conducting reviews as stipulated in its mandate, PIIAC had successfully identified and promoted necessary reforms and seen them carried out in some instances.” Of course, it has failed to prevent all problems. Just last month, Portland police rioted during May Day demonstrations, prompting a huge public outcry.

Seattle is not New York, with its epic tales of police misconduct. And the guild here denies that there’s a problem with the system. That view certainly won’t mollify critics, and neither will a highly compromised accountability structure. “We will do what is necessary to achieve our end of structural change,” promises Braxton. Again, Dustin Washington is more blunt: “I think we’re gonna have to continue on our path of direct action. If need be we’re gonna have to step it up.”

The problem, ultimately, is more fundamental than the integrity of the SPD’s internal investigative process or the fairness of the inquest system. “The police are a paramilitary force,” says Van Jones. “They need democratic oversight.”

The majority of officers enter the ranks of the police with the best of intentions, and once in the job carry it out well. Problems rest not with individual officers but with a militarized police force that is competently carrying out its job of viewing certain segments of the population as the enemy— including law-abiding, tax-paying citizens whose guilt is a function of their class, race, or the part of town they live in. Setting up an inclusive public accountability process is a step in the right direction, but so long as we have public employees who hate the public, and policies that encourage throwing massive numbers of people into a brutal, inhumane “justice” system, all the review boards in the world won’t solve the problem.