Cities diverge in how they police the police
Seattle Times staff reporters
The setting: a midsize city near Canada with Scandinavian roots and a reputation for clean government.
The allegation: The police chief is ignoring recommendations by a civilian watchdog agency about how to discipline wayward officers.
Critics say they have lost faith in the ability of the Police Department to police itself.
The city creates a task force that looks into the chief's handling of discipline.
While the scenario might appear to be straight from recent headlines in Seattle, the turmoil occurred last year in a city halfway across the country — Minneapolis.
That city's police chief, after a rocky, two-year tenure, left for another job. Reforms now require the new chief "to be more explanatory," said Michael Weinbeck, chairman of Minneapolis' Civilian Police Review Authority, which investigates police misconduct and recommends discipline.
A look at how Minneapolis and other cities grapple with the issue of police oversight can provide a roadmap of what kind of changes could occur here. Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels recently appointed a panel of prominent residents to examine police oversight in the wake of allegations that Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske has been too soft on discipline.
Nickels' decision to form a panel came after Kerlikowske exonerated officers in two high-profile cases: a controversial drug arrest in Belltown in January and the recently revealed violent arrest of a bar patron on Capitol Hill in 2005.
Kerlikowske, appointed in 2000, has routinely overruled or reduced findings of the department's civilian director of internal investigations without explanation. The chief has also been criticized because the department has let deadlines expire for investigating some complaints, in effect dismissing them by inaction.
Minneapolis faced similar complaints about its previous chief, who frequently chose not to issue discipline at all, "letting cases just pile up on his desk," Weinbeck said.
"And when the chief did issue discipline, it was honestly paltry in comparison to what would have been appropriate," he said.
Now the chief must "write up reports about his choices, and if we want him to explain his discipline decisions, he has to appear in front of [us] and talk it through," Weinbeck said.
Overhauled in 1999
Mayor Nickels' new panel, which includes former Seattle Mayor Norm Rice and former Gov. Gary Locke, will examine what has worked or not worked since Seattle overhauled its police-oversight system eight years ago.
In 1999, civic outcry over a detective's alleged theft of $10,000 from a crime scene — and the failure by higher-ups and fellow detectives to act when they learned of it — sparked creation of a commission to improve police oversight.
The commission recommended that a civilian be appointed within the Police Department to oversee internal investigations. But the commission said final say on discipline should remain with the chief — as long as the chief provided written explanations when overruling findings of the civilian director.
In response, the City Council created the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA), which is headed by a civilian director who oversees the Police Department's Internal Investigations Section.
The council later added two other layers of oversight: a civilian auditor to monitor ongoing internal investigations and a three-member civilian board to routinely review a sample of closed cases.
For reasons unclear, the proposal requiring the chief to provide written explanations was never incorporated.
Kerlikowske can choose to explain in writing why he reversed an OPA recommendation, but he said he has decided against doing that because in some cases he might have to reveal highly personal information about officers. More recently, as criticism mounted, he said he is open to changes.
Since 1999, the number of large cities with civilian oversight of police has grown from a handful to 71 today, according to Nickels' office. The mayor's panel is expected to look at how other cities handle oversight.
The rapid rise in civilian oversight reflects a growing belief in many communities that the police are not capable of policing themselves. Often, police departments end up under increased civilian review after highly publicized instances of excessive force stir a community — such as in Los Angeles, after the violent videotaped arrest of Rodney King in 1991 — or when the public learns of repeated failures to punish police misconduct.
After years of resisting civilian oversight, arguing that outsiders were incapable of understanding the quick decisions and complex situations their officers face, police administrators and police unions have had to give ground.
But the conflict between civilian oversight and police control — at the heart of Seattle's struggle — continues to play out in cities across the country.
Most cities with civilian boards let police chiefs have the final say on discipline, believing they should be held accountable for managing their departments.
The boards generally operate outside the police department, conducting after-the-fact reviews of internal investigations. They look for trends and make recommendations but don't participate in internal investigations or get involved in disciplinary decisions.
In some instances, collective-bargaining agreements, arbitration rulings and court decisions limit civilian oversight. Another consideration is the concern that officers won't cooperate fully with an outside body. Even if told to do so, officers can resist and provide minimal cooperation.
San Francisco is one of the few cities that give civilians the upper hand, but not without controversy.
Its Office of Citizen Complaints (OCC), started in 1983 and staffed by civilians, investigates allegations of officer misconduct. Its employees cannot have held police-officer positions in San Francisco.
The OCC's director reports to a seven-member Police Commission, a civilian body that includes four members appointed by the mayor and three by the city's Board of Supervisors.
If the OCC sustains an allegation against an officer, the case is forwarded to a Police Department division that evaluates the case and makes a recommendation to the captain in the risk-management office. The captain again reviews the case and recommends any discipline to the police chief.
The chief decides if discipline is appropriate in some cases. But the Police Commission handles the more serious cases or those of high public interest. The chief can issue only a 10-day suspension or less; the Police Commission metes out more serious discipline.
In 2005, relations between the commission and the police union reached a low point when the civilian body fired an officer who allegedly had filed a false report over breaking the arm of an antiwar protester.
Trust in the commission "is zero," the president of the San Francisco police union was quoted as saying.
Earlier this year, the commission came under attack after city auditors said it was understaffed and mismanaged, letting cases pile up and failing to meet deadlines for investigations, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
Representatives of the OCC and the police union did not respond to inquiries from The Seattle Times.
Portland represents a middle ground between civilian and police control. The city struggled for years to come up with a civilian-oversight system trusted by police officers. In 2001, Portland established the Independent Police Review (IPR) Division, which a nine-member citizen advisory board oversees.
Complaints of police misconduct go to the IPR, which has eight full-time staff members who work with the citizen board. The IPR determines whether a complaint has merit or can be settled by mediation.
If a complaint has merit, the IPR sends it to the internal-affairs division of the Portland Police Bureau.
After the internal-affairs investigation, the case goes to a precinct commander for review. The internal-affairs division and citizen board make a recommendation to the commander.
If a complaint is sustained, top police officials review the case and recommend discipline to the police chief.
The chief makes the final decisions on discipline. If unhappy with the result, the person who complained or the police officer can appeal to the IPR for another review.
Lauri Stewart, an IPR manager, said measuring the success of the system is difficult. But citizen complaints are down, and some problem officers are no longer on the force or are in jail, she said.
Most complaints concern a handful of officers and the key is keeping them in check, Stewart said.
Overall, officers are no longer fighting investigations, she said.
Boston police operated at the other end of the spectrum, with no civilian oversight.
But recently the city has changed course and even turned to Seattle for advice, asking the first director of Seattle's OPA, Sam Pailca, who left in March, to help develop a civilian-oversight program.
The city created a three-member civilian review board just this year. The move followed years of demands that grew after a college student was killed in 2004 by an officer who fired a pepper-pellet gun he was not trained to use, according to The Boston Globe.
The Boston board reviews internal-affairs investigations to determine if they were performed properly. The board can ask detectives to do further work on a case, or ask the police commissioner to explain his disciplinary decisions.
But the police commissioner has final say on discipline.
"Society thinks that maybe the police can't police themselves," said Boston Police Lt. Detective Patrick Cullity of the department's internal-affairs division. "People don't realize how intense the investigation is, how many checks and balances there are."
Still, the review board helps to hold everyone accountable, Cullity said.
Unlike Seattle, Minneapolis allows its civilian overseers to conduct investigations before the chief makes a final determination.
Relations between officers and the overseers, once tense, have improved, said Assistant Chief Sharon Lubinski.
"We're fortunate right now," Lubinski said. "We have a very committed civilian review board, individuals to sit down with us and talk things out."
Members of the Civilian Police Review Authority (CRA) go on ride-alongs with officers and study use of force, police policies and data privacy.
If both sides agree that oversight is needed and "not just to bash police, you can have some decent results," said Lee Reid, the CRA's manager.
Lubinski said she attends meeting of the civilian board and at times provides members with confidential information in closed sessions so they have a better understanding of how a discipline case was handled.
"They're difficult conversations, but they're also healthy," she said. "The civilian board members then know a little bit more about where the police are coming from."
The Seattle panel begins its work next month and is to report to the mayor in November.
Seattle Times reporter Christine Clarridge and researcher David Turim contributed to this story.
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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