By Elizabeth Turnbull
At a time of increased scrutiny on chain of command after the Proud Boys ruse revelation, a Public Safety and Human Services Committee meeting of the Seattle City Council this week brought to light controversial practices within the Seattle Police Department when it comes to officer discipline including ineffective suspensions and inadequate documentation.
Auditors with the Office of the Inspector General presented the committee, chaired by councilmember Lisa Herbold, with discoveries from an audit of SPD disciplinary actions from January 2018 to March 2021 to assess whether or not the disciplinary system for the department has been maintaining “timely, fair, consistent and transparent’ disciplinary action. This standard is required by an accountability ordinance created in 2017.
The audit found a number of issues which showing that the SPD disciplinary system is not meeting these goals.
“Our audit did find that current practices and processes along with some of the contract divisions do create some gaps in the disciplinary system,” said Dan Pitts, the lead auditor of the assignment. “[The system] has a lot of room for improvement and may not necessarily live up to the timeliness, fairness, consistency and transparency that’s envisioned in the accountability ordinance.”
These gaps include mislabeling minor violations–making them look less credible– allowing officers to spread out suspension periods over a period of weeks, and the absence of disciplinary action reports in some of the personnel files of the officers who resigned or retired before discipline.
In a business, Pitts pointed out, if an employee gets suspended for thirty days, that generally means that they are suspended for work for a consecutive thirty day period. If you are a Seattle Police officer, however, there are practices in place which mean that an officer will not be dropped within half of their hours in a given pay period.
The audit found that administrative controls around assigning suspension periods was fairly lax and that some officers had suspension periods that extended beyond two pay periods, with a few suspensions spread across as many as ten pay periods.
Administrators have cited low staffing and benefits as the reason behind their suspension practices, but it can be difficult to see how a suspension maintains a disciplinary sting when officers are also able to make up for their lost suspension hours by working overtime.
Although SPD officers are not allowed to work overtime on the days they are suspended, there’s nothing stopping them from working overtime on all the other days of the pay period.
“I don’t think this is quite what you might imagine what the accountability might look like with a suspension,” Pitts told the committee.”That might not meet the public’s expectation of what a suspension should look like.”
The audit comes with SPD and City Hall still working to lift federal oversight of the city’s policing. Seattle’s police force was put under federal consent decree in 2011 after an eight-month investigation found evidence of excessive force and biased policing.
There is also a new police contract to pound out. Advocates were frustrated with the previous contract, which took years to negotiate, saying that it turned its back on accountability measures the city passed in 2017. At the end of 2018, the Seattle City Council approved a hotly debated new contract for the Seattle Police Officers Guild that critics said didn’t go far enough to cement needed reform. It was a six-year deal. Most of the deal struck that November was about the past — a back-dated contract to cover the city’s officers who had been working without an agreement since 2014. The 2018 agreement ended in 2020.
Officer discipline — and how it is processed, recorded, and shared — is an area the department must improve. The audit’s findings found that, for labeling violations classified as “minor” related to in-car and body-worn video, bias free policing, use of force reporting and others, OPA and SPD have adopted language that is, at best, confusing.
If a “minor violation” needs to be addressed but administrators do not think it deserves a penalty, they will label it as a not sustained training referral. This label generally means that they were unable to prove that the incident happened, not that it was simply not worth a penalty.
Overall, the audit found more not sustained training referrals than sustained ones.
“We felt this was confusing in some regard to have a large collection of violations of policy that are found to have happened,” Pitts said. “But you’re calling them ‘not sustained.’”
Pitts says the change in language was made in 2018, after SPOG complained to SPD employment council and OPA that it wanted to classify these violations of policy as either a sustained reprimand or to a not sustained training referral.
Most significantly, the audit found that 23% of disciplinary action reports were not in personnel files. In particular, Pitts said this absence was most prevalent among employees who resigned or retired prior to discipline.
The result? Even if an officer disciplined in Seattle decides to leave the city’s police force, they can move onto a department in a new city with a clean slate.
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