Cop furor: Nickels orders probe of a probe
Seattle Times staff reporters
Faced with a furor over allegations that the police chief interfered in an internal investigation, Mayor Greg Nickels on Wednesday asked a civilian official to review the case, including the chief's role and a leaked report that was critical of him.
The mayor has said he fully supports Chief Gil Kerlikowske. Still, he sought the review by Kathryn Olson, the newly appointed civilian director of the police department's Office of Professional Accountability (OPA), to "provide the public with an independent review of the issues."
The public will "get a thorough vetting," Nickels said.
While the decision was praised by some, the co-author of the leaked report said Olson's role presents conflicts of interest: She would be reviewing the work of her own department; the controversial role of her boss, the chief of police; and she would be looking at the work of the review board that oversees her office.
Kerlikowske said he welcomed the review: "I support it very much. I think it's important [Olson] have this opportunity to weigh in "
The chief was infuriated by the accusations contained in a draft report by a three-member citizen panel that monitors the Office of Professional Accountability. The report, written by two of the board members and given to The Seattle Times on Monday, said Kerlikowske undertook extraordinary measures to influence an investigation into the actions of two police officers during a Jan. 2 arrest of a longtime drug dealer.
Kerlikowske has lashed out at the report's co-author, review-board chairman Peter Holmes, accusing him of playing politics with the Police Department. The chief has said it's his job to monitor investigations.
Holmes said Wednesday he was skeptical of the mayor's request and questioned whether it poses a conflict of interest for Olson, who has been on the job for a month. Olson, 54, was appointed by the mayor, approved by the council and answers to the chief, who has the final say in matters of officer discipline.
"So does this mean that once her review is complete, we can review her report reviewing our report?" asked Holmes, who pointed out that the review board routinely looks at closed OPA investigations. "It's a head-scratcher."
But Nickels' request was praised by others, including Council President Nick Licata and former OPA director Sam Pailca, who downplayed a potential conflict of interest.
"This poses no more of a conflict than any of the work she faces every day," Pailca said. "I don't think it is going to be easy for her to do. But it's not a conflict." She pointed out that the OPA director also reports to the mayor and council.
Pailca called the mayor's action "a great sign."
Nickels said his call for the review was prompted by the review board's draft report, which examined the chief's involvement in an internal investigation into allegations that two police officers, Gregory Neubert and Michael Tietjen, planted drugs on a suspect and roughed him up during the January arrest. The suspect, George "Troy" Patterson, 26, was charged with a felony but prosecutors dismissed the case after a videotape of the arrest called the officers' version of events into question.
The chief cleared the officers of the most serious allegations on the recommendation of an acting OPA director, a department captain. They were disciplined for failing to follow department arrest policies.
The officers have declined to comment in the past.
A King County Superior Court judge has questioned the officers' reliability and prosecutors have alerted defense lawyers in more than 30 cases involving Neubert and Tietjen that the officers may have credibility problems. A civilian auditor, former U.S. Attorney Kate Pflaumer, concluded the two officers lied in their reports and obstructed the OPA investigation, and that one of them pocketed a small amount of marijuana taken off another suspect.
Nickels asked Olson to review three areas: the overall Patterson investigation, "concerns regarding the investigative process, including inquiries by the chief of police," and the review board's report.
"I feel it is important for you to provide the public with an independent review of the issues," the mayor wrote in a letter sent to Olson Wednesday afternoon.
"I just want her to take a look and give her take on the findings," Nickels said later Wednesday. He did not think it would pose a conflict of interest for the OPA director to review the work of the review board that oversees her office.
"They will have additional confirmation that they know the facts and that all aspects will be looked at at a number of different levels."
Olson believes she is up to the job and sees no conflict in her role. She's already conducted a preliminary look at the case at Kerlikowske's request.
"I appreciate there are disputes right now about the evidence that was collected and what it all means," she said. "But I would submit that it's possible to have different viewpoints on the same evidence.
"It's premature to be indicting the entire department, the OPA and the civilian-review process based on one case," she said.
Olson was a longtime lawyer for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission before taking the post. She is the second director of OPA, which was established by the council in 2000 after a mayor-appointed panel criticized the department's internal affairs section.
Olson also said she was "quite dismayed" the review board's report was leaked to the media.
"Everyone is caught up in some of the issues and allegations that were made initially in the report issued by the review board," she said. "It has been a snowball effect."
For Licata, the review-board report raised "red flags" about the adequacy of civilian oversight.
"I'm obviously pleased that the mayor has decided to take these steps and I'm pleased he is looking at all three things, not just the [review board] report, but also the chief's role and actually reviewing the Patterson's case. I just hope she has the tools available to do a thorough job."
He said that ultimately, the council will still need to decide whether OPA needs clearer procedures or structural changes.
Staff reporter Steve Miletich contributed to this report.
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