Community Police Commission Files Brief on Police Accountability Reform

The CPC has just filed its federal-court response to the City of Seattle’s draft accountability legislation. The CPC asks the court overseeing the consent decree process to clear the legislation for consideration by the Seattle City Council. The council has promised to give the legislation a full public hearing, with a meaningful opportunity for the community to provide feedback.

Read the brief here.

The brief reads:

The people of Seattle are deeply concerned about police accountability, and it is the sense of the community that the current system requires strengthening in several respects .

With valuable assistance of technical advisers, members of the CPC have studied reform models from across the country and assessed possible changes to our present accountability system. We found that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to police accountability, nor any universally well-regarded model or reliable quick fix. Every city starts with its own unique institutions, experiences, needs, problems, and opportunities. The challenge is to identify and discard bad elements of the status quo, strengthen what is good, fill gaps with new institutions and mechanisms where needed, and establish crucial measures to ensure the independence and effectiveness of each component body of the oversight system. Reforms must put each body involved in oversight—whether it be the police department, the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA), the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), or the CPC—in a position to succeed. This is the approach the CPC has taken in making its accountability system recommendations.

Among other things, one must be mindful of the different ways that accountability systems can fail. Prejudicial statements to the press can taint misconduct investigations. Inadequate funding can starve oversight bodies or make them pay for taking positions unpopular with or inconvenient for elected officials. Barriers to access to data and lack of relevant expertise can handicap civilians attempting to perform oversight functions. The City could fail to pursue an agenda in collective bargaining that truly advances accountability. Vague definitions of authority can fuel toxic turf wars. Politics may take precedence over fairness. The accountability legislation must address these and other foreseeable points of failure. The best way to guard against such risks of failure is to establish oversight bodies that are independent, effective, and credible.

The draft legislation filed by the City represents consensus on many items, including a strengthened OPA, the creation of an OIG, and a permanent CPC. The CPC strongly supports many of the provisions for the authority and responsibilities of these bodies. As can be seen from the draft legislation, however, important differences remain in vital areas.

On some topics, the draft gives options representing different philosophical or practical points of view. The City’s brief does not ask the Court to pick from these options. The options are instead intended to give the Court a fuller understanding of some potential directions the legislation may take once it is before the City Council and subject to public debate. If the Court allows the draft legislation to proceed, the City Council will have the opportunity to consider the merits of the draft legislation from top to bottom, consider the alternative options offered, and make changes it deems appropriate—subject then to this Court’s review. The CPC also understands that the Court’s review both now and after consideration by Council is designed to determine (1) whether any aspects of the legislation contravene the purposes of the settlement agreement and (2) whether amendment of the settlement agreement would be needed on any points before the legislation takes effect.

The independence, effectiveness, and credibility of the civilian oversight bodies are the essential pillars of effective police accountability. The public must trust that the accountability system is fair and responsive to community expectations. It is essential that the oversight bodies be well-resourced and protected from interference. And it is essential that the public have a meaningful voice, representing Seattle’s many diverse communities, inside the system. It is no secret that some of the remaining disagreements directly implicate these values.

The CPC asks that the Court allow this draft legislation to proceed to City Council as soon as possible. The CPC has long advocated for an open and transparent political process to consider the merits of various approaches to achieve a strong system that both the public and police view as fair. This can only occur once the City Council has an opportunity to deliberate in the full light of day. To that end, the CPC appreciates the City Council’s commitment to hold public meetings and looks forward to engaging with the City Council—and continuing to engage with the community—about what the accountability system should look like once the Court gives permission to proceed.