Seattle leaders unveil plan to strengthen police accountability groups

Dec 3, 2020, 2:07 PM | Updated: Dec 4, 2020, 5:25 am
Seattle police, sanctions, police tactics...
Police officers attend an injured man detained during a protest after the Nov. 3 elections. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and Councilmember Lisa Herbold announced a new measure Thursday, which would strengthen the ability of Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability (OPA) and Office of Inspector General (OIG) to issue and enforce subpoenas in officer misconduct investigations.

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The OPA and OIG operate alongside the Community Police Commission (CPC) as the three governing bodies responsible for managing law enforcement oversight in Seattle, with the OPA leading investigations any time a complaint is filed against an officer.

The investigation process often includes witness interviews, but it’s been unclear whether witnesses are legally obligated to cooperate. With more well-defined subpoena powers, the OPA and OIG will be able to seek a court order if someone fails to comply (while affording witnesses standard due process protections typically given to anyone issued a subpoena).

“This new legislation is critical to promoting public confidence in our police oversight entities and advancing police accountability,” Mayor Durkan said in a written release. “Passing this bill will set the City on better footing to pursue stronger accountability measures in our collective bargaining agenda for the next round of negotiations with (the Seattle Police Officers Guild).”

The goal from Durkan and Herbold is to strengthen the city’s police accountability processes, while following the advice of a 2019 assessment conducted by law enforcement policy consultant 21CP Solutions. That assessment pointed to “uncertainty” surrounding the OPA and OIG’s subpoena authority, and called on the city to provide additional clarity. Both organizations were first given the ability to issue subpoenas through legislation passed in 2017, but in the years since, the scope of that authority has been unclear.

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The updated proposal was roundly praised by OPA and OIG leaders Thursday, with Seattle Inspector General Lisa Judge stating that “true oversight requires a full understanding of SPD operations — which cannot always depend on voluntary participation.”

“The subpoena authority provided to OIG and OPA in the 2017 legislation was a vital step in the right direction, but has not been fully realized,” Judge continued. “The collective effort of the Mayor, Councilmember Herbold, and the accountability partners to codify this important process continues to move Seattle’s accountability system forward.”

The legislation will first be presented in Seattle City Council’s Public Safety and Human Services Committee on Dec. 8.

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Seattle leaders unveil plan to strengthen police accountability groups