Council debates key issues in police accountability ordinance

This morning, eight of the nine Council members met in committee to continue debating the finer points of the proposed police accountability legislation working its was through the system.

In today’s meeting the Council members reviewed amendments based on previous discussion, and began the debate on the next set of topics: job qualifications, CPC membership, and how to construct the budget for the three entities in the accountability system.

The Council’s staff had prepared an “omnibus” amendment that incorporated 81 individual changes to the Mayor’s proposed legislation: 20 minor technical changes, and 61 more substantive ones based on the committee’s earlier feedback. Few items drew further discussion.

Five additional amendments were offered that aimed to resolve more difficult issues:

  1. the relationship between the OPA Director and the CPC when the OPA Director is conducting community outreach. Since the CPC is intended to represent the community, the Council wants it to be at least consulted on how outreach is performed by the OPA — if not engaged directly in the process of outreach.
  2. the composition of the search committee for the selection of the OPA Director, and
  3. the composition of the search committee for the selection of the Inspector General (IG). The original text states that “a representative of the CPC shall be a co-chair of each of the two search committees, though it doesn’t specify who would count as a “representative.” Council members Gonzalez and Burgess offered an amendment that would change it to “a CPC Commissioner.” Council member Herbold raised the further concern that having a single CPC member on a large search committee (in 2014 the search committee for Chief of Police had 12 members) gives it very little say, and offered her own amendment that says CPC members must constitute at least 25% of the search committee.
  4. who conducts the performance evaluation of the OPA Director and/or OPA, and
  5. who conducts the performance evaluation of the Inspector General and or OIG. There are two competing philosophies here. The first, espoused by Gonzalez and Burgess, that the person or group responsible for the hiring or firing  of an individual should be responsible for the performance evaluation; they thus suggest that the Mayor should evaluate the OPA Director, and the City Council should evaluate the Inspector General. Both are required to seek input from the CPC into the evaluations. The second philosophy, by Herbold, argues that it’s important for the overall credibility and public trust of the system that the CPC have a meaningful role, and she doesn’t see “providing input” — even if mandatory — as meaningful enough. She argues that the Inspector General should evaluate the OPA Director (with input from the CPC) and the CPC should evaluate the Inspector General. The appointing authority then receives and acts on the CPC’s evaluation report.

This last issue is perhaps the toughest one tackled today, and goes to the heart of the accountability system being established. The Gonzalez/Burgess model maximizes the independence of each of the three entities: the OPA, the IG, and the CPC. The Herbold model concentrates the power in the CPC, emphasizing the community oversight aspect of the system.

Council member Juarez criticized the Herbold model, expressing her discomfort with a hierarchical system; she said that all three entities need to work together without concentrated power in any one and the conflict that causes. Burgess agreed, pointing out the similarities to the system they saw in place in Los Angeles that many believed had been co-opted by political forces. Council member O’Brien said he needed to think about it more, and the other Council members kept silent (Bagshaw was not present).

It did, however, relate back to an earlier aside that Council member Sawant had made: her belief that the system eventually needed to move to a democratically-elected board directly overseeing the Police Department. That’s far from the system currently being discussed, in which the Chief of Police reports to the Mayor, and the CPC is appointed, not elected. But it suggests that she is looking for a more hierarchical system of police accountability. Notably, however, that is even closer to the system that Los Angeles uses that most agree is not successful.

The Council members didn’t vote on any amendments today, nor did they intend to. They did, however, clarify the points of disagreement so that they can have further discussions before the next committee hearing.

Turning to new issues, the first topic of discussion was a review of the stated job requirements for the OPA Director and the Inspector General. The list of “desired” qualifications for each position is long, which might prove challenging in finding qualified people. The National Association of Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (yes, that’s a thing) suggests even more items, including a bachelor’s degree and some subject matter expertise.

The second topic was a similar discussion for CPC Commissioners. It was pointed out that CPC members wear two hats: policy/oversight, and community engagement. That leads to two sets of qualifications, and might make the positions difficult to fill. Some Council members questioned why subject matter expertise in public defense and civil liberties were called out; CPC member Lisa Daugaard responded that these areas of technical expertise have been very important to give the CPC credibility in conversations, both to win arguments and to persuade others.

The third topic has been a major point of contention, and one discussed by Judge Robart in his review of the legislation: whether sworn law enforcement officers should be members of the CPC.  For starters, the signed and approved consent decree mandates that the CPC must include police officers; Robart didn’t find that it was necessarily critical to the CPC achieving its goal, but noted that changing that rule would require amending the consent decree. While some of the Council members are deeply troubled by the loss of independence by having police officers on the CPC and it might make it more difficult to get community members to engage with the CPC, both the DOJ and the CPC strongly support it. In fact, Daugaard pointed out that not only would the DOJ oppose removing police officers, but including them was something the Obama DOJ championed. The theory is that at some point the police and civilians need to talk to each other, and the CPC is as good a place as any. The CPC was originally skeptical of the idea, but over time has reached a consensus that it works and now strongly supports it. As two of the 15 members, they often are outvoted, but they are still treated as peer members of the CPC. She said that partnership allowed them to make important recommendations, including to the department’s use of force policy. She believes the CPC would be “hobbled” without the officers. In the end, the Council members arrived at a consensus to follow the CPC’s recommendation and keep the officers on the commission.

The fourth topic was one repeatedly raised by Council member Juarez: geographic representation of CPC members, and specifically how they map to Council districts. The CPC doesn’t favor mandatory district representation; they argue that when a CPC member gets replaced it forces them to choose a candidate from a particular region and possibly overlook an ideal candidate from another part of the city. Juarez countered that this is a false narrative, assuming that there aren’t fully qualified candidates in every district. One CPC member recognized that, but also argued that the commission needs to represent diverse communities that may stretch across geographic boundaries, and as demographics continue to shift in the city they need the flexibility to appoint people to represent those groups too independent of geographical ties. Nevertheless, Juarez intends to bring an amendment forward at a future meeting; there was no sense from the other Council members as to whether they will support it.

The last issue discussed today was how to construct budgets for the OPA, the OIG, and the CPC. There are two potential strategies:

  1. give each entity an opportunity to lobby for their budget up the line;
  2. tie budgets to a fixed percentage of the operating budget.

Option 1 ensures that budgets can be adjusted as needs and workload changes over time, but opens up the possibility that the budget can be used to punish or constrain the abilities of one or more of the entities for political reasons.  Option 2 minimizes political interference, but lacks the ability to adjust for unanticipated changes.

The Mayor’s proposal set a base budget for each of the three entities, then grows them each year in proportion to the growth in SPD officers over the same time period. Burgess, the Council’s budget chair, argued that the end goal must be to ensure that the budget is always adequate for the groups’ needs. He said that he was hesitant to adopt a formulaic approach to setting the budget without giving the heads of the three agencies an opportunity to speak directly to the Council (which ultimately has budget authority). He also noted that the Mayor’s proposed base budget for the OIG and CPC are far too low. Daugaard noted that giving an entity head the authority to talk directly to the Council about budget needs is not the same as actually exercising that authority, and they won’t do it if they think it will be too politically costly to do so. — thus the need for a buffer from the appointing authority in order to have true independence.

Today’s meeting wasn’t intended to drive decisions, and largely it didn’t. It did succeed, however, in surfacing the different perspectives on several of the key issues the Council is facing as it shapes the police accountability legislation.

At the next meeting, they will take up two issues skipped today for the sake of time:  the size of the CPC, and reporting requirements. They may also address two other areas of discussion: investigation procedures and disciplinary processes.