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Thursday, February 7, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Officers taking no-confidence vote on chief; mayor backs Kerlikowske

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The union representing rank-and-file Seattle police officers is holding a no-confidence vote on Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske, triggered by his recent discipline of an officer involved in a controversial jaywalking stop of Asian students last summer.

And just as the Seattle Police Officers Guild printed up ballots to be mailed by the end of the week, the smaller union representing Kerlikowske's command staff sent a letter to the chief disagreeing with his discipline of the officer and the way he publicized the decision to the news media.

"This was sort of the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back," an officer close to the officers-guild leadership said yesterday. "It was one thing to not support us, but to not support someone when they did the right thing is too much."

Guild leaders declined to talk about the vote.

Kerlikowske also chose not to comment specifically on the union moves yesterday, saying he won't be deterred from running the department and has total respect for his officers.

Mayor Greg Nickels said the union vote, which has no legal consequence and is purely symbolic, wouldn't change his mind about keeping Kerlikowske in the job.

"This city is going to insist on its Police Department being accountable — it may not be an easy thing to accept, but it's the way it's going to be," Nickels said. "The Seattle Police Department doesn't belong to the police guild, and it doesn't belong to the chief.

"It belongs to the people of Seattle, and I'm their representative. And I believe (Kerlikowske) is the right person to lead this department."

The news of the union vote filtered out this week just as Nickels and Kerlikowske repeated the public message they have been sounding for weeks: There will be no repeat of last year's Mardi Gras disaster, when a riot broke out that left a young man dead and dozens injured.

Kerlikowske's handling of last year's Mardi Gras riot is at the root of the police union's displeasure with him.

The guild threatened a no-confidence vote last March after the Mardi Gras violence, but opted instead to commission an independent study of Kerlikowske's handling of the event. The study, released last fall, was highly critical of the chief's inaction.

This is the first no-confidence vote the Seattle police union has taken on a chief, though it has threatened to do so several times on other chiefs. The guild represents about 1,200 officers, detectives and sergeants.

Members have three weeks to return their ballots.

The latest uproar is caused by the discipline of Officer Jess Pitts, who was accused of racism last July by a group of 15 young Asian students who were stopped in the Chinatown International District for jaywalking.

The students complained to the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) that Pitts was rude to them, made remarks about their Asian descent and asked them whether they spoke English.

They also contended that Pitts improperly searched some students, targeted them because of their race and was excessively rough with them.

Last month, Kerlikowske released a 16-page report that exonerated Pitts on all but one of the allegations, agreeing with the officer that the students had indeed been jaywalking and that some had acted in a way that added to the confrontation. The chief also rejected the notion that race was a factor in the stop.

But Kerlikowske agreed with the OPA's recommendation to issue an oral reprimand, the lightest disciplinary measure possible, for "conduct unbecoming an officer," saying Pitts was "sarcastic and demeaning" to the students.

"(Pitts) did not treat the student group with courtesy and respect," the report said. "In a minor but not insignificant way, (Pitts') treatment of the student group brought discredit upon the Seattle Police Department."

To many in the rank and file, that decision scapegoated Pitts, a retired Air Force colonel with a highly decorated four-year history in the department. The guild said any discipline, however light, was unwarranted and a sign that Kerlikowske is kowtowing to the OPA and recent racial-profiling controversies.

"It was definitely viewed as a politically expedient move at the expense of the (officer)," one of Pitts' colleagues said yesterday. "It's demoralizing as hell."

While that vote is just symbolic, added the officer, "we need to make our opinion known. This seems like the most effective way."

Late Tuesday, the Seattle Police Management Association, the union representing about 55 captains and lieutenants, sent Kerlikowske a letter saying Pitts should have been quietly counseled by his commander rather than slapped with a formal, public reprimand, said Capt. Mike Sanford, acting president of the commanders union.

Volunteering individual officers' discipline to the public is damaging to morale, said Sanford, who commands the department's West Precinct.

"We want to motivate police officers to do crime fighting," Sanford said. "In order to do that, they have to have confidence in the system, that it's fair and not political."

The commanders union has no opinion on the guild vote, Sanford said.

But other law-enforcement associations yesterday called the guild vote ill-advised.

"Someone has a wild hair, and I don't see where it's warranted," said Carlos Bratcher, a King County sheriff's deputy and president of the Black Law Enforcement Association of Washington, which has about 100 members who are Seattle officers and guild members.

"I don't see how this minor issue would prompt a vote of no confidence," Bratcher said. "Chief Kerlikowske has always been upright and fair with us. We're strongly urging our members to vote to support the chief."

The OPA's civilian director, Sam Pailca, who made the disciplinary recommendation approved by Kerlikowske, said yesterday that holding the guild vote isn't going to stop her office from issuing future disciplinary recommendations that might be unpopular within the ranks.

"To me, this means (the OPA) is working the way it was intended," Pailca said. "He (the chief) is the final decision maker. It's his department, and it's his decision. He has the right to set the standards that he wants his officers to live up to."

Advocates for the Asian students contend that Pitts got off too easily and that the no-confidence vote raises concerns about the power and influence of the guild, said Karen Yoshitomi, a regional director of the Japanese American Citizens League.

Seattle Times staff reporter Jim Brunner contributed to this report.

Ian Ith can be reached at 206- 464-2109 or iith@seattletimes.com.

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