More from cop watchdog: Seattle police oversight 'stymied' by structure, union | KUOW News and Information

More from cop watchdog: Seattle police oversight 'stymied' by structure, union

Jul 6, 2016

Last Friday the Seattle mayor’s office issued a statement saying that two key people serving as watchdogs over the city’s police force would not be reappointed. That’s the city’s investigator of police misconduct, Pierce Murphy, and his office’s independent auditor, Anne Levinson.

The Seattle Police Officers’ Guild greeted the mayor’s announcement as “good news.”

The mayor said he will seek community input before their positions are posted and filled.

Related: Seattle's police oversight officials say pressure from mayor, union could hinder reforms

Levinson had previously informed the mayor that she is not seeking another term. But Murray said Murphy is encouraged to reapply for his job. Murphy said he’s been stymied by the limitations placed on his role in heading the Office of Professional Accountability. 


Murphy: "The mayor notified me several weeks ago of his plan not to reappoint me for a three-year term starting July 1 but instead to have me continue on on an interim basis until the federal judge overseeing the consent decree had held his hearing in August [15th] and there was a ruling or some direction from the court. As well as action by the mayor and the city council on reforms to police accountability and civilian oversight that had long been coming. So I knew that a few weeks ago."

KUOW: So was the statement on Friday a surprise in that case?

Murphy: "I had a little bit of advance notice that the mayor not only was asking me to stay on as an interim OPA director but was going to open the process up for, well for any accountability rules that came out of the reform of the process later this year. That was a bit of news to me, but I did learn that early Friday."

KUOW: The conversation you had with him before was to ask you to stay on after your term ended, but to say that the next step is still waiting for direction from the [federal] court and from the legislation that the city is going to pass?

Murphy: That’s right, and then on Friday I learned the mayor had made a decision to have a public community and council process to fill any positions that came out of the reform.


KUOW: When did you realize that it would be a process where other candidates would also be invited to apply?

Murphy: I learned that on Friday. It’s important to point out that the mayor contacted me personally and I take the mayor at his word. He assured me of his support for the work I’ve done. He was very complimentary. And he told me personally that he had a strong desire that I apply for either reappointment or appointment for a new oversight or accountability position that will come out of the reforms we’ll see later this year. 

KUOW: So has anything in this process taken you by surprise so far?

Murphy: Frankly I want to say it’s been no surprise to me that the police union [Seattle Police Officers Guild] has taken the mayor’s announcement Friday as a signal that somehow they’ve been successfully able to get rid of me.

I’m an OPA director who’s been unflinching in my dedication to conducting full, unbiased and objective investigations into allegations of officer misconduct. And for some reason the union seems to blame me for the fact that the chief is holding officers accountable. I would say, I’m not surprised by that. But I would say to the union perhaps they should look inward and stop justifying the misconduct of some of their members.


KUOW: I was going to ask why you thought they were greeting this as “good news.”

Murphy: I think somehow, for some reason, the Seattle Police Officers Guild seems to think that they’re in charge of the police department. And the sooner they clearly understand and accept the fact that they’re not, and the fact the chief under leadership of the people’s elected representatives, the mayor and the council, are in fact in charge, the better.


KUOW: Anything else you need to do your job effectively that you don’t have right now?

Murphy: That’s a good question and the answer will guide my decisions on whether I apply or reapply for any openings that come up. I came here and recognized right away – I knew before I came here – that the accountability system needed to be reformed. I’ve done everything within the system that currently exists, and the union contract, to make OPA or accountability as independent, as accessible and as transparent as it possibly can be. But frankly I’ve been stymied by the current structure of oversight and by the union contract.

OPA being required to be part of the police department is an obstacle. A greater obstacle is the fact  that all of my investigators, the ones who investigate allegations of police misconduct, are in fact members of the same police guild that is blocking accountability. And one day these investigators, even the best of them, are going to have to go back to work,  and work side by side with the officers they’re investigating, and just from a structural and independent objective standpoint that is a problem.


KUOW: Are you interested in applying for the position [when it’s posted]?

Murphy: "I’m committed to the process of long-term reform of the Seattle Police Department. I left an excellent position in a community where I experienced deep support in order to come here to do that.

And I’m not a quitter, I don’t walk away from a challenge, but I want to make sure that I’m going to have at least affair chance to see the reforms through. I think it’s important to point out that the current settlement agreement between the Department of Justice and the city of Seattle over police reform will someday come to an end but that’s not going to be the end of reform. There needs to be in place, as I wrote to Judge Robart when he asked for my opinion on accountability, there needs to be in place an accountability structure and community-based civilian oversight of the police department that’s strong, that’s independent, that can’t be subverted, and is going to continue the reforms that the settlement agreement made. And I would very much like to be part of that if I feel that the structure reforms that will take place this fall are going to give me a fair chance to accomplish that."


KUOW: Do you feel like you or the auditor’s office, from what you’ve seen, have been subjected to political pressure that you wouldn’t face [under proposed changes to the OPA]?

Murphy: "There’s nothing that’s more political in a city’s life than its police department. It’s always a highly charged question how the police department is managed. I’ve been in this business a long time and that’s just the case. But I think it’s important that in laying out structure for officials who are going to be investigating police and insisting on accountability and oversight, that they be insulated from any sense that their decisions are going to have any impact on their ability to continue to do the job.

So when I as a police accountability official, when I’m reviewing the evidence of a case, I can’t be thinking about, ‘oh gee, is this an officer I think is a nice person or is this an officer I think is not a nice person,’ just as much as I can’t think about, ‘if I make this decision will it anger political leadership, or will it make the union angry at me, or will it upset the chief.’  Those are going to happen. I only fail if I’m worrying about what people think of me. I won’t fail if I’m looking clearly at the evidence and making recommendations and decisions that are based on that."


KUOW: Have you seen a willingness by the department to kind of act according to your findings and recommendations in terms of the discipline they impose?

Murphy: "I have to say I’ve been very impressed with Chief O’Toole. She’s a very thoughtful deliberative person. She has her own mind. She makes decisions based on the facts presented to her. She’s also compassionate and caring about not only the needs of the officers that work for her but the community as well. She’s been, I think, exceptionally open to the recommendations I’ve made to her. In nearly all the cases she’s agreed with them which is hopefully some sign that I as the OPA director am not some sort of renegade who is not paying attention to the facts.

We have disagreed on certain things and she has not followed some of my recommendations. But I don’t see that as a problem. I see that as an indication of a strong independent system that works. I have the authority and the freedom to make recommendations that the Chief has the authority and freedom to disagree with. The people of Seattle should be pleased that that happens from time to time because it shows that this is a strong system.”