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Legislation to strengthen subpoena power of OPA, OIG passes Seattle City Council

Police follow protesters as they move through the city during a Nov. 3, 2020 protest in Seattle.(Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)

The Seattle City Council approved stronger subpoena powers for the city’s police oversight agencies in misconduct investigations.

On Monday, the council passed legislation from Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and Councilmember Lisa Herbold 8-0 that strengthens the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) and Office of Inspector General’s (OIG) power to subpoena those who may have been involved in or witnessed incidents of potential officer misconduct.

KIRO Radio’s Hanna Scott reports that the change clarifies subpoena powers for the OPA and OIG that were in doubt due to competing language in the city’s 2017 police accountability ordinance and SPD contracts. Both the OPA and OIG have the power to compel officers and others to testify and turn over evidence in misconduct investigations, but the new rules will give more teeth to the enforcement, as well as providing clarification and leverage.

According to a written release from the Mayor’s Office about the adopted legislation, OPA and OGI will also be able to seek a court order should someone fail to comply with a subpoena for an investigation.

“The legislation also codifies and makes clear that complainants and witnesses who may be subpoenaed have due process protections; this effort is intended to increase civilian compliance with subpoenas and mitigate any chilling effects of providing information that might later be used in separate proceedings,” as explained in the release.

The change is subject to bargaining with the police unions, and Mayor Durkan says passing this law gives the city better leverage on accountability measures during those upcoming contract talks.

“This legislation is critical to promoting public confidence in our police oversight entities and advancing police accountability, and it sets the City on better footing to pursue stronger accountability measures in our collective bargaining agenda for the next round of negotiations with SPOG. Ultimately, Olympia must pass critical reforms this session regarding police discipline and other key accountability components,” Mayor Durkan said in a written release. “This is real progress, and it represents strong collaboration between my office, the City Council, civil rights groups, and the accountability partners. I’m grateful to Councilmember Herbold’s partnership in our ongoing effort to advance and strengthen police accountability and oversight.”

The OPA and OIG operate alongside the Community Police Commission 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).

Find more information on the adopted legislation here.

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