Mayor Mike McGinn has nominated Pierce Murphy, a police ombudsman from Idaho, to head the Seattle Police Department Office of Police Accountability (OPA).
While Boise’s police watchdogs have lauded Murphy’s performance there, some question whether Murphy — or anyone — can be effective in Seattle’s version of the job.
In Boise, Murphy answered to Boise’s mayor. Mayor Mike McGinn has proposed Murphy to head the OPA, a position that answers to the city’s chief of police.
Some say that it’s impossible for someone who answers to the police chief to be objective about police accountability.
“The OPA director cannot do his job effectively,” said KL Shannon of the King County NAACP. “That’s been shown; that’s been determined.”
Murphy must first be approved by the Seattle City Council. Councilmember Bruce Harrell, chair of the public safety committee, said he expects the council to make a final decision this summer.
Seattle is just starting police reforms following a 2011 report from the Department of Justice (DOJ) that found that SPD officers have a pattern and practice of excessive force. The DOJ report also found fault with the structure of the OPA.
According to the DOJ report, the director is tasked with remaining objective of the SPD without being seen as an advocate.
“This is more easily said than done,” the report states. “Particularly as the director reports to the [chief of police], sits horizontally as an equal to command staff and leads a team of sworn SPD personnel.”
To fix that, reforms include changes to the OPA as recommended by the newly formed Community Police Commission, a 15-member panel of citizens, police accountability advocates and SPD officers and sergeants. If Murphy comes to Seattle, he’ll be under the watchful eye of Merrick Bobb, a court-appointed monitor working to enact SPD reforms.
Bruce Harrell, chair of city council’s public safety committee and a candidate for mayor, hopes some of the changes examine the relationship between the OPA director and the rest of the police department.
“You’re asked to evaluate someone that is your boss, your friend, someone that you may have lunch with,” Harrell said. “It’s only natural to have an affinitive relationship with the chief and the officers you are investigating.”
The outgoing OPA director, Kathryn Olson, said speaking truth to power has never been a problem for her.
“I’m pretty clear about my thinking and very comfortable asserting my position in a case,” Olson said.
But she conceded that some question her independence and that her disagreements with the chief of police are rare — maybe a couple times a year, at most.
“If there’s a perception that my independent thinking is compromised, then we still have a problem,” she said.
Boise vs. Seattle
Murphy’s résumé reflects a sprawling professional journey. He’s been a human resources manager, financial analyst and reserve police officer. He’s also attended two seminaries and holds master’s degrees in counseling psychology and pastoral studies from Gonzaga University and Loyola University respectively.
Murphy became Boise’s first community ombudsman in 1999. It was a new position created to investigate complaints against the Boise police, recommend policy changes and rebuild trust between the police department and the community.
Murphy joined the city of Boise following a series of controversial officer-involved shootings.
He has investigated 18 officer-involved shootings since 1999 and, according to city reports, fielded fewer complaints against the police department every year since 2006.
Boise ACLU Executive Director Monica Hopkins said Murphy was an honest, independent voice on police accountability.
Murphy, who visited Seattle last week and met with the city council’s public safety committee, insisted to Real Change that he would first answer to Seattle residents. He has no doubt that he could be critical of the police department and the chief of police, he said.
“I think what worked in Boise, and what I believe will work here is being objective and transparent,” Murphy said.
But Harrell said Murphy lacks experience working with communities of color and homeless people.
“I always prefer looking at proven commodities in our community when making employment decisions,” Harrell said. “Why do we always assume that the grass is greener on the other side of the Seattle fence?”
Murphy said it will not take any adjustment or training for him to take on Seattle.
“It doesn’t frighten me, it doesn’t overwhelm me. I’m excited about it,” Murphy said.