Cuffing the Cops

by Kevin Taylor & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he woman hired to help Spokane adopt a better model of police oversight has had to fight off a suit by police officers to open her own office in Seattle, hire a mediator to get staff to work with her and routinely has her recommendations overturned by Seattle's police chief.

Just goes to show what a volatile topic police oversight can be, say others involved in similar efforts.

Seattle attorney Sam Pailca has essentially created the Seattle Police Department's Office of Professional Accountability from scratch since its inception in 2001. She's been its director for the maximum term of six years and is leaving this month for a job with Microsoft.

Pailca has recently been hired by Spokane to help the city find a more effective oversight entity than its moribund citizen review board. The current board of volunteers was shown, in an incident last summer, to be restricted by its own ordinances from tackling meaningful review of citizen complaints.

The Inlander was unable to reach Pailca, but her office's struggle for acceptance, as chronicled in recent media accounts, is not unusual.

Any civilian oversight agency "is not particularly welcomed" by police, says Pierce Murphy, who runs Boise's Community Ombudsman office. "It's completely understandable, and I don't take it personally."

It would be rare in any profession, Murphy says, for people to take kindly to an outsider poking around and telling them if they are doing their jobs correctly. Murphy has been in charge of police oversight in Boise since his office was created in 1999. He is also president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. Pailca is on the board.

The Boise and Seattle oversight models offer a glimpse of the wide range available. Pailca's OPA is part of the police force -- she is nominally a deputy chief -- and is essentially a second, civilian, layer of internal affairs. "Sam's position is structured such that her level of independence is very, very small," Murphy says. On the other hand, the Boise ombudsman's office is part of City Hall.

Murphy cites three key ingredients for a successful oversight entity: independence, professionalism and a meaningful budget.

Seattle's oversight grew from complaints by minorities that police used excessive force; Boise went through a terrible stretch in the late 1990s with seven officer-involved shootings resulting in eight deaths. Spokane in the last year has had high-profile in-custody deaths, complaints about evidence handling and cases of questionable conduct.

In an atmosphere of distrust, oversight must be independent, Murphy argues, to be effective. Spokane Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick, who inherited recent turmoil when she was hired last year, agrees and is one of the driving forces behind finding a new oversight system.

Kirkpatrick, however, says she would prefer a system that does not have investigative powers. Murphy, agreeing the chief should have final say on discipline, says independent investigation is crucial, especially when it's done by a professional staff who are better versed than civilian volunteers in labor and privacy laws and who have the authority to compel police officers to answer questions.

This leads to another tough issue facing Spokane: money. Murphy's office has a budget of $269,000 this year, he says. "Around the country there are models that look great on paper," but that don't have the money to be effective.

Kirkpatrick says she will move swiftly to put an oversight agency in place.

The city is holding a forum on police oversight Feb. 13 at 6 pm at the Northeast Community Center, 4001 N. Cook; The Center for Justice is sponsoring a forum Feb. 21, 6 pm at Gonzaga University Law School, 721 N. Cincinnati.