Five Things We Should Do Right Now to Improve Police Oversight in Seattle
The Case of SPD Officer Cynthia Whitlatch Shows That Police Oversight in Seattle Needs to Be Radically Improved
by Ansel Herz
The Seattle Police Department's Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) has a real problem. Its mission is to investigate police misconduct and recommend discipline for bad cops. But in one of the most egregious cases of misconduct from last year—Officer Cynthia Whitlatch's July 9, 2014, arrest of William Wingate, an elderly black man, for no apparent reason—the OPA was missing in action.
The month after that arrest, in August of 2014, OPA director Pierce Murphy did deal with a complaint about racially inflammatory remarks made on Facebook by Officer Whitlatch. (She complained of "black people's paranoia that white people are out to get them.") Murphy's response was to recommend that a supervisor tell Whitlatch that her comments were out of line.
The previous month's arrest—in which Whitlatch claimed a golf putter Wingate was using as a cane had been swung at her, even though dashcam video didn't back her up—didn't appear on Murphy's radar until The Stranger exposed it on January 28 of this year. But by then, multiple people within SPD knew of serious concerns about Whitlatch's behavior, and Murphy and others in the department now admit the dots—Whitlatch's concerning arrest of Wingate in July 2014, her alarming Facebook remarks in August 2014—should have been connected earlier.
"It's been disappointing to see how SPD combined with the OPA doesn't yet have the ability to connect dots when it comes to individual officers' patterns, behavior, or performance that indicates a problem or misconduct," Murphy says, reflecting on the past few weeks.
Police chief Kathleen O'Toole agrees: "I will absolutely acknowledge that there was a systemic problem there," she said. "There's no question about it."
Before assessing what must be done to fix the problem, it's worth examining how the "breakdown," as O'Toole called it, occurred.
First off, nobody from SPD referred the golf-club incident to the OPA, according to Murphy. That's a huge fuckup. He said all SPD employees, per department policy, have an "affirmative duty" to notify his office about any allegation of misconduct against an officer, whether the person making the allegation wants to file a complaint with the OPA or not.
That means the allegation that Whitlatch's racial bias led to Wingate's arrest should have been referred to OPA months ago by Assistant Chief Nick Metz and East Precinct captain Pierre Davis. The two SPD veterans met with former state representative Dawn Mason, who was upset by the incident, in early September (more than four months before The Stranger posted video of Wingate's arrest on our blog, Slog).
Joey Gray, a local librarian, joined Mason in that meeting, along with Seattle Central College professor Carl Livingston. In an interview on February 9 with OPA, Gray said they were "jumping out of our chairs in outrage" that day, as they watched the dashcam video of Wingate's arrest with Metz and Davis. Wingate had been racially profiled, they argued. But the two police commanders defended Whitlatch's behavior, she said, and kept calling the golf club "a weapon."
People even higher up the law enforcement chain, and at the City Attorney's Office, had knowledge of the incident and the allegations against Whitlatch. After the outcry led by Mason, Deputy Chief Carmen Best worked with city prosecutors to dismiss the charges that had been filed against Wingate, and to return the golf club to him. Best also offered Wingate an apology. Deputy Mayor Hyeok Kim and Chief O'Toole knew about the case, too. And police spokesman Sean Whitcomb was copied on e-mails from Gray about the incident.
No one, according to Murphy, referred the case to the OPA, which could have noticed the pattern that SPD officials apparently weren't noticing themselves.
The OPA could also have noticed the pattern had Murphy been aware of concerned discussions about Wingate's arrest in the community—for example, on Mason's blog on August 20, and at a community meeting on police reform held on September 24. But he said he wasn't aware. "I'm not trying to shirk any responsibility," Murphy said when I asked him about this. "At this point, I don't know how I could have known."
So what can be done? Five things right off the bat.
1. Make more of the OPA's data available in real time
There is progress being made at the OPA, and Murphy is at the center of it. He's trying. Still, it's astonishingly slow-going work. The OPA has been around since 1999, and Murphy, who once trained to become a Jesuit priest, has been on the job for about a year and a half. "I get very frustrated," he told me. "I have a clear vision of how I want it to be, and it's not there yet." One part of that vision became reality last week, when Murphy added a real-time log of completed OPA investigations to his office's website in an attempt to improve transparency and allow the public to track his work more closely. The log doesn't include employee names. But he wants to make the log sortable by date, allegation, and OPA finding. Next month, he said, the OPA will implement a complaint-tracking system, similar to a UPS or FedEx package tracker, that will notify citizens and the SPD employees involved about the status of an OPA investigation as it proceeds.
Of course, there's even more that could be done on this score. Public defenders in New York have developed a database on thousands of officers and their disciplinary records. We should aim for something similar.
2. Get the SPD and other branches of city government to communicate better with the OPA
The OPA is supposed to be informed whenever someone files a legal claim with the city alleging police misconduct, Murphy says. That system, which came into effect this year, has already "failed" once, he said, "because the Wingate claim never came to me." (Wingate's lawyers filed a discrimination claim in November seeking $750,000 in damages.)
Chief O'Toole, for her part, said records of OPA's decision-making and SPD's supervisory choices will be entered into one system, called IAPro, and "all of that information will eventually migrate into our data analytics platform." More like this, please.
3. Give OPA more civilian staff and make it easier for the public to interact with the OPA
The OPA finally extricated itself from police headquarters in October and moved into the 18th floor of a downtown building, above Top Pot Doughnuts. But Murphy would like to go further and open up a street-level office to encourage walk-in complaints and enhance accessibility.
Once someone comes in with a complaint, Murphy hopes for that person to be greeted and interviewed by a civilian, not a police officer. Murphy is working with a staff of seven police sergeants, who rotate in and out of his office. But, he said, "I totally get the perception of 'Why should the police be trusted to investigate themselves?'" He believes a balance of insiders and outsiders would make for a stronger investigative office. His dream is a hybrid system of civilian and police investigators—something he had at the Boise, Idaho, police department, where he's been credited with leading a successful drive for reform.
4. Expand the OPA budget and get serious in negotiations with the police union
Murphy is hampered in achieving all of his goals by two things: his $2.5 million budget—less than 1 percent of SPD's overall budget—and the city's ongoing contract negotiations with the Seattle Police Officers' Guild, the influential police union that represents rank-and-file officers. In a budget request last year, Murphy requested two more police investigators, a civilian to handle intake of new complaints, and a clerical staffer. Mayor Ed Murray's budget proposal, later approved by the city council, filled two out of those four positions—the civilian intake person and one additional police investigator.
"But I haven't been able to fill the intake position," he lamented, "even though I have the budget now, because I'm insistent that it needs to be a civilian... I can't do that until the negotiations with SPOG are completed."
5. Keep changing the SPD's culture
Murphy also insists he's investigating more thoroughly than his predecessor, Kathryn Olson, who resigned in 2012 with a dismal record of failing to hold police accountable, just as SPD was placed under a federal consent decree to force reform. In contrast to the previous leadership, Murphy said, "I get a lot of negative feedback from inside SPD, that the OPA is investigating too many things."
In the end, Murphy argues—and he's got a point—that even if Kathleen O'Toole is "the best chief and I'm the best OPA director... two people can't make that happen." By "that," he was referring to creating the culture of public service, reform, and accountability that the city has wanted from the SPD for decades.
There are about 1,300 sworn officers, and O'Toole is expected to soon finish hiring a brand-new group of assistant chiefs to help her lead them. The Wingate case represents a serious failure on the part of virtually everyone in charge of fixing the department. Now we'll see whether they've learned from it.
This article has been updated since its original publication.