Investigating misconduct by Seattle police is an inside job. There’s just one group that exists to make it open to the public, but the group has little power, and people are confused by its name.
Many people want to change that, but some say the timing is wrong.
Seattle City Councilmember Bruce Harrell has proposed a number of reforms for the Office of Police Accountability Review Board (OPARB), the independent, citizen-led group that reviews complaints against the police and offers recommendations for reforms.
Members of the review board, police reform advocates and Harrell want to give OPARB more power so that the public has at least one place outside the police department to air complaints and conduct public scrutiny of police actions and policies.
The proposal includes granting the group greater responsibility and changing its name to the Independent Police Oversight Review Board to clarify its position outside of the Seattle Police Department (SPD).
“There is a lot of confusion in the community about the role of the review board,” OPARB member Dale Tiffany said. “People in the community assumed that we were part of the police department.”
The Office of Professional Accountability leads internal investigations on police misconducts and recommends any discipline. OPARB, by contrast, works outside the police department and does not handle individual cases. Its memebers make broad recommendations in an advisory role.
Police reform is already under way in Seattle, and this includes reforming OPARB. A 2011 report from the Department of Justice (DOJ) found that the police department had a pattern of excessive force. A settlement between the city and DOJ outlines a number of reforms to the police department and calls for an independent monitor to make sure the reforms are working.
That same report found that OPARB lacks adequate support to accomplish its lofty goal. The volunteer board is supposed to make recommendations to improve how SPD handles misconduct.
Harrell and members of the review board offered a number of modest changes to OPARB and committed to making deeper changes later. The changes include adding two more members to the board, creating a public satisfaction assessment and having an annual review to determine whether SPD is complying with recommendations the board has made.
The local branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has opposed these changes because the police department is already going through a significant reform process, which will eventually include changes to how OPARB works.
“It is premature to make any changes,” said Jennifer Shaw, an ACLU attorney.
Proposed changes to the citizen-led OPARB could conflict with the work of the other citizen-led police reform organization, the Community Police Commission.
The commission formed last year to help reform the police department following the DOJ report.
The 15-person panel has an extensive to-do list, co-chair Lisa Daugaard said, and won’t be able to tackle OPARB until later this year.
Daugaard said the commission does not have an official opinion on Harrell’s proposed changes, but noted that commission members would rather wait to examine reforms for OPARB.
“This is a one-time shot we’ve got here, and we want to get it right,” she said.