If you have already read our blog covering the CPC, you hopefully have an understanding that what seems good on paper does not always translate into results - the OPA is worse. Once again, we know that with knowledge comes power and it's time this power is placed in the hands of the Seattle People. With that in mind, in this blog we hope to provide the information needed to understand the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) - the second accountability partner in the three-pronged system.
A little bit of background information…
Nearly two decades ago, in 1992, the City of Seattle began civilian police oversight by establishing a civilian auditor whose job was to independently review the Seattle Police Department (SPD). In 2012, the City extended this oversight to include the same OPA Auditor, the Office of Police Accountability (OPA), and a three-member OPA Review Board.
Five years later, in 2017, the Seattle City Council (SCC) passed legislation to overhaul the Seattle Police Accountability System. This legislation implemented the current three-pronged system consisting of the existing OPA, Office of Inspector General for Public Safety (OIG), and the Community Police Commission (CPC). Please link the blogs
What does the OPA actually do?
The OPA is responsible for handling and investigating complaints filed against SPD officers, overseeing SPD employee conduct, and recommending any policy or practice reforms as they see needed.
When the OPA receives a complaint, a preliminary investigation is opened to determine how to categorize it. This process reviews the complaint along with any initial evidence to see if any policies were violated in the case the allegations are true. Based off their findings, the OPA then classifies the complaint as one of the following:
- Contact log: nothing was violated, OPA simply takes notes of it
- Supervisor Action: minor violation best handled by the employee’s supervisor
- Investigation: serious violation, OPA begins investigation
- Expedited Investigation: Very serious violation, no investigation is needed to determine wrong-doing
Alternatively, the complaint is “processed via an alternative dispute resolution method”:
- Mediation: Structured conversation to find common ground between employee and complainant.
- Rapid Adjudication: the employee admits fault and accepts repercussions without opening an investigation.
So, is the OPA effective?
While the OPA may seem like a solution to the SPD’s accountability failings, in actuality they have very little power to investigate complaints and their ability to perform their job is severely limited by SPD interference - this is the opposite of true accountability. The following paragraphs illuminate the ways in which the OPA is ineffective throughout the entire complaint and investigation process.
Before complaints reach OPA:
In 2018, the OPA, in collaboration with the SPD, initiated the Unsubstantiated Misconduct Screening Program which allows SPD supervisors to investigate allegations for “clearly refuted” claims before the OPA and email any findings to the OPA director for review. This program allows the SPD to decide if complaints are valid and dismiss complaints that they feel are not. If full accountability was truly a priority to the OPA, they would be the ones to determine the validity of complaints, not the SPD.
The year following the initiation of this program, only 23 of the 242 allegations (less than 10%) made it to the OPA for formal submission. This allowed the OPA to report a 52% reduction in allegations against SPD employees. That statistic is not an accurate representation of the number of complaints filed against Seattle officers. This switch by OPA is simply improving the SPD’s image without any actual change being made.
In the case that the SPD does not immediately refute a claim, the OPA would likely process the complaint using Mediation. Mediation is an alternative dispute resolution method in which the officer, complainant, and a third-party mediator discuss the event to reach a resolution. Both parties (officer and complainant) must agree to Mediation for this conversation to take place. However, as stated in the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) contract, when a SPD officer agrees to Mediation they avoid any disciplinary actions regardless of the complainants decision.
Where is the accountability in a conversation? Nowhere; the officer faces no consequences. Even worse, the officer in question can get off with no more than a slap on the writs even without having a conversation. This is an unsatisfactory and unjust conclusion for the complainant and completely restricts any accountability.
If an investigation were to actually be opened, the OPA only has 180 days from the day the complaint was filed - not received - to complete the investigation. The SPOG contract makes it very difficult for the OPA to extend this deadline and limits the OPA’s subpoena authority. OPA staff have reported that these restraints have led them to “self-limit” investigations. An effective investigation would have ample time and access to evidence. However, because they have so little time, the OPA is not able to complete thorough investigations, again limiting their ability to actually ensure accountability.
Furthermore, any investigation that is likely to end in a termination must be conducted by one of the sworn investigators (9 out of 11 investigators are sworn officers). Obviously, this leads to a conflict of interest as the investigators are closely involved with the officers in question. This is essentially an internal investigation - how is that appropriate for holding officers accountable?
Finally, in the case that the OPA’s investigation proves a violation of policy or misconduct by the SPD employee, the OPA will recommend consequences and/or a policy change. However, it is left up to the Chief of Police to decide which recommendations to adopt, if any. There is no time limit for the Chief to reach a decision and the officer in question can continue working in the meantime. The OPA is purely an advisory body.
What good is an accountability system if there is no required follow through in holding officers accountable?
This information is also readily available in a visual format on our Instagram. There are three separate posts available: What is the OPA? History of the OPA. Is the OPA effective? Please like and share. Let us know any questions or comments you may have.
Check us out on...