City attorney gives Council an earful on police accountability legislation

On Friday, City Attorney Pete Holmes sent a letter to the City Council expressing his views on the proposed police accountability and the changes that the Council has been making to it as they deliberate.

Holmes certainly has relevant experience with police accountability, as he chaired the Office of Police Accountability Review Board, the predecessor to the current CPC. In his letter, he sings the praises of the Mayor’s proposed legislation as originally submitted, calling it a “compromise among competing interests” and noting that those same interests, including the current CPC, are heavily lobbying the Council for changes to the legislation. The CPC has indeed been heavily involved in shaping the Council’s work, winning some battles and losing others. As I wrote last week, within the Council there are competing views on how much power to give the CPC. While the CPC itself is pushing for more, Holmes argues for a smaller, streamlined commission focused on being a “megaphone” for the community’s own voice.

Specifically, Holmes weighs in on several issues the Council has been debating:

  • Whether the Chief of Police is the final word on discipline for officers and can unilaterally accept, reject or modify recommendations from the OPA and Inspector General. This is a topic of discussion for the next Council committee meeting on the legislation.
  • What the lines of reporting and accountability are for the OPA Director and the Inspector General. The CPC wants to write their performance reviews, but a majority of the Council (and clearly Holmes) prefer that the reviews be done by the authorities the appoint them (the Mayor for the OPA Director, and the Council for the Inspector General).
  • While there is general agreement that inputs and recommendations on police polices, practices and training from OPA, OIG and CPC should be centrally collected, maintained and tracked, Holmes believes the OIG should do that work while the Council prefers the CPC to do it.
  • Holmes observes that the Council’s amendments make the CPC larger, less focused and more expensive, which he believes could undercut its effectiveness and thereby the whole police reform process. Further, he wants to see the CPC be a “megaphone” for community views rather than an interpreter or a decision-making body. He notes the current issue with police body-cams, which the CPC opposes despite overwhelming public support for them.
  • He also found fault with many of the CPC’s and Council’s changes to the composition of the commission. He believes all CPC members should live within the city, though he agrees with Council member Juarez that positions should be apportioned across the city by Council district. He stresses that all the CPC members should be appointed by either the Mayor or Council (or both), but the sitting CPC should not have the ability to appoint additional members (as the current Council draft allows). Holmes also objects to sworn officers or union reps serving on the CPC — though the current consent decree requires sworn officer representation.
  • Finally, Holmes objects to a request by the CPC for it to have its own legal representation. He wants SPD, OPA, OIG, and the CPC all to be represented by his department, arguing that his staff of attorneys already provide legal support to various city departments even when they have diverging views. Holmes suggests that allowing CPC to have its own legal representation would require a city-wide vote to amend the City Charter. The Council hasn’t addressed this issue yet.

This is a bold move by Holmes to influence the direction of the police accountability legislation. He argues for a much more circumscribed and less powerful CPC.  To date, the Council has agreed with him in some areas and disagreed in others as they have debated the fine points of the balance of authority and responsibilities across the OPA, OIG and CPC — and the extent to which SPD is accountable directly to the citizens of Seattle.

Holmes is unlikely to sway the Council on the makeup of the CPC; they have already debated it to death among themselves, and short of some compelling legal constraint I can’t see them reopening those conversations. In fact, it’s unlikely that he can convince them to revisit any of the issues they’ve already tackled in committee. That means the only issues he has a chance of influencing are the two remaining ones: the discipline process and investigation procedures.

It’s also awkward that on one hand Holmes is lobbying for limits on the CPC, and on the other hand he wants to be their legal counsel. If the Council ends up giving them more power than Holmes likes, than his letter might undermine his relationship with an important client.

Holmes is running for re-election this year, and that context is front and center: he closes his letter by suggesting “It would be easier for me to remain silent and let legislative and litigation processes unfold without comment — especially in an election year — but I must speak up for an accountability system focused, effective and responsive to the people of Seattle.” So police accountability is now front-and-center in his campaign, and he’s on the record as opposed to granting additional authority to the oversight body most directly accountable to the people. Fortunately for him, at this point he only has one competitor: Scott Lindsay, who until recently was the Mayor’s special assistant for public safety and homelessness issues.