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Wednesday, June 20, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Once tough on cops, is chief now too easy?

Seattle Times staff reporter

In 2002, Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske publicly reprimanded an officer for being rude to a group of young jaywalkers. His tough message was viewed as overkill by rank-and-file officers and led to a no-confidence vote.

Now Kerlikowske is under fire for allegedly being too lenient. A citizen-review board has found that the chief improperly interfered with an internal investigation and then cleared two officers of serious allegations of misconduct before all the facts were known.

It would seem to be a broad leap between discipline in one case and exoneration in the other. But in a string of cases over the last several years, the chief has reversed or watered down the conclusions of internal investigators and the civilian director who oversees their work. Those decisions represent a marked shift from his first years on the job.

Kerlikowske has defended his decisions, noting he has fired several officers and been upheld in appeals.

After becoming chief in 2000, Kerlikowske took tough stands on officer misconduct.

In 2001, he released the names of officers who had been disciplined that year, prompting the leader of the Seattle Police Officers' Guild at the time to label Kerlikowske's action as "disgusting."

The chief's standing with his officers was damaged even more that same year because of his handling of the Mardi Gras riot that led to one death and 70 injuries.

Kerlikowske also had been criticized by incoming Mayor Greg Nickels, who had hinted he would replace the chief over his handling of the riot. Kerlikowske had been hired by Mayor Paul Schell, who lost in the primary election, partly because of problems in the police department.

But after a private meeting with Kerlikowske in December 2001, Nickels kept him.

Nickels became one of the chief's staunchest allies, defending him from criticisms by police officers, the police union and, this week, the citizen-review board.

Kerlikowske needed that support when the guild, angry over the discipline in the jaywalking incident, voted that it had no confidence in him in March 2002.

The vote also reflected the guild's resentment over the department's handling of the Mardi Gras rioting. Police commanders initially kept officers from intervening, fearing for their safety.

Rank-and-file officers were upset that commanders weren't disciplined for their decision when one of their own had been disciplined for mere rudeness in the jaywalking incident. Union members accused Kerlikowske of a "double standard of accountability."

Nickels backed the chief, who promised better communication with the union.

Kerlikowske has said the no-confidence vote had no bearing on his subsequent disciplinary decisions. Attempts on Tuesday to contact the chief for comment on his record were unsuccessful.

He since has often cleared officers of wrongdoing or put their conduct in the least serious light.

In one case, internal investigators found that an officer had worked off-duty at an all-night dance party in violation of department rules, then made false statements when questioned about it. The civilian head of the department's Office of Professional Accountability, which oversees internal police investigations, concluded there was strong evidence against the officer. But Kerlikowske decided there wasn't enough to discipline him.

In another case, Kerlikowske was presented with information that an officer had used binoculars to look into the windows of a University District sorority house. The officer said he had decided to relax in a parking lot near the house and used the binoculars to make sure no one from a nearby disruptive party walked up to him. Although internal investigators didn't buy that and recommended a five-day suspension, Kerlikowske issued a reprimand, finding only that the officer had been guilty of sleeping.

A Seattle Times statistical review in 2005 found that since January 2002, Kerlikowske had reversed 27 out of 100 findings by investigators of misconduct by officers. In some of those cases, officers accused of multiple violations were disciplined for at least one offense. But in others, no discipline was imposed.

The reversals caught the attention of the citizen-review board -- the panel that last week concluded in a report that Kerlikowske intervened in the internal investigation into the actions of a pair of officers involved in a controversial drug arrest in January.

The man, a convicted drug dealer, complained the officers had roughed him up and planted drugs on him. Kerlikowske exonerated the officers on those points, as did investigators and a civilian auditor.

But a video of the arrest revealed discrepancies in the officers' accounts, putting their honesty into question and leading the civilian auditor and a Superior Court judge to question the officers' truthfulness. The auditor has concluded that the officers lied in their reports and hindered the internal investigation.

The review board examines the internal police investigations and the ultimate disposition by the chief, who has final say on discipline. Called the Office of Professional Accountability Review Board, it was created by the City Council in 2002 to act as citizen watchdog of the Office of Professional Accountability.

That office had been created two years earlier after disclosures that a detective's alleged theft of money from a crime scene had been ignored. The council appoints board members.

Nickels has dealt little with the citizen-review board during his tenure, delegating that role to aides.

And Tuesday, he again stood by Kerlikowske in response to the board's criticism, saying the chief has "my absolute and fullest confidence and support."

Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or smiletich@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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