As the Seattle City Council prepares to make changes to the Police Department's civilian-led reviews of officer misconduct, another report by the department's citizen police watchdogs is in legal limbo, languishing in the City Attorney's Office.
The three-member civilian review board of the police department's Office of Professional Accountability sent an annual report May 23 to the City Attorney's Office about the police's internal investigations of misconduct. The report revisited a high-profile case of police abusing their authority last year, among other incidents; it did not use officers' names or recommend discipline.
But the City Attorney would not indemnify the report's authors, who are volunteers, from liability -- meaning that they would have to defend themselves personally in court should any member of the police force sue over the contents of the report.
A June 3 memo by an assistant City Attorney said the report may exceed the review board's authority to evaluate internal investigations. The memo also noted that the report could be released if Council President Richard Conlin deems it appropriate. The City Attorney's Office refused to release the memo to Real Change.
Review Board Chair Peter Holmes says he contacted Conlin's office repeatedly asking for a meeting about the new report, then asked Conlin to indemnify him and the co-authors. But on June 25, Conlin sent Holmes a letter saying that "it is not clearly within my authority" to indemnify members of the board, and that anyway, indemnification would kick in after a legal challenge, not before.
Holmes, a lawyer, says that's just false. Not making the report available is "a choice to willful ignorance."
Councilmember Tim Burgess, head of the Human Services and Public Safety Committee, says he would like to see the report "eventually, of course."
"Right now there's a legal dispute over its contents," he says. "The City Attorney's letter is very explicit about why it can't be released and what it would take for it to be released."
Holmes redacted the parts the City Attorney's Office found objectionable and sent it back to the city June 16. The redacted version was leaked to members of the press.
A report by the same civilian review board in 2005 was also tied up by questions of liability; then, too, the city refused to protect its authors from lawsuit. And last year's report criticized chief Gil Kerlikowske for clearing two officers of misconduct charges before the OPA's civilian director had closed the case.