Pampering the SPD
May 8, 2002

Maria Tomchick

It's becoming a habit: Seattle City Council members sitting quietly, listening (or pretending to), while activists line up to give testimony about the latest police riot.

I'm describing last week's meeting of the city council's Police, Fire, Courts, and Technology Committee--commonly referred to as the public safety committee--which is oh-so-conveniently composed of three conservative, pro-police, and pro-business council members: Jim Compton, Margaret Pageler, and Jan Drago. The testimony was familiar: Seattle police attacked what remained of the April 20th Reclaim the Streets crowd, as the crowd was already breaking up. Further, cops gave no warning before they tackled and maced people.

The Seattle Police Department explained that they weren't trying to clear the intersection at Broadway and Thomas, but were trying to arrest people who had erected a 20-ft. tripod. By the time the arrests happened, however, the tripod was long gone. A total of 19 people were arrested, but there were far fewer than 19 people involved with putting up the tripod and disassembling it. And most of those folks escaped arrest.

Cops fell back on the argument that, when they attacked the crowd, people fought back, and were accordingly arrested for resisting arrest. A spurious argument, which, if anything, reveals the SPD's motive: to provoke a riot, if possible. But videotape shown at the meeting, which aired on at least one TV news program last week, shows that it was the police who were responsible for all the pushing, shoving, tackling, macing, dragging, etc. Demonstrators refrained from physical violence. Some folks did yell at police--which is natural, I suppose, when you get pepper-sprayed without warning.

There were several green-clad legal observers on the spot that day to document the SPD's actions. As a consequence, the Seattle Human Rights Commission has filed a complaint with the new Office of Professional Accountability, claiming that police violated their own internal department policies on April 20th.

This complaint will be a test for the new OPA, whose mandate is limited to gently scolding the police department through missives sent to the City Council. The OPA only has the power to issue recommendations for changes in SPD policies; it doesn't have the power to sanction the SPD or individual officers in any meaningful way. It doesn't have the power to subpoena documents, evidence, or testimony, either. With a minimal budget and Margaret Pageler's efforts to assign it only a part-time staffperson, the OPA will not be able to adequately review the 900 complaints each year that are filed against the SPD.

And then there's the make-up of the OPA board. At last week's public safety committee meeting, Compton, Drago, and Pageler recommended three candidates to sit on the board. Only one of them, Lynn Iglitzin, can be termed a "civilian." She's a former member of the Seattle Human Rights Commission and the ACLU. The other two candidates--Peter Holmes, a former judge and block watch captain, and John Ross, a security consultant and former agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms--are likely to give police the benefit of the doubt, which will negate the OPA's oversight function.

In addition, Compton, Drago, and Pageler announced that the city would abandon a racial profiling study within the police department. Instead, the money set aside for the study would be used to buy around 20 video cameras to put in police cars.

This is a bad trade-off. The racial profiling study would have required all police to log traffic stops, tickets, and arrests by the race of the officer involved and the race of the suspect. It would have been a basic, simple performance measure no different from the sort of self-tracking measures that most white collar workers are required to do in most private sector jobs. But the police union balked, particularly over whether officers would have to give their names when logging stops. Without names, the study would be useless.

Instead of taking a tough stand with the police union, Compton et al. chose to do away with the study and divert the funds. Cameras in police cars are a good idea, but 20 cameras cannot cover 223 police cars.

It's become clear why Compton fought so hard to keep his seat as chairman of the public safety committee and why Pageler and Drago were so eager to join him there. The conservative, pro-business elements of the city and their representatives on the City Council see the issue of police reform as a key power struggle. Instead of addressing the problems that have led to 900 complaints every year and long lines of people complaining at City Council meetings, they're busy resisting reform with all their might. In their minds, no one should be allowed to police the police.

But citizens are speaking out, pushing for some kind of police accountability. If Greg Nickels can find the money to appoint a board to oversee City Light, he can scrape together the money for a civilian review board--one that has some power to sanction the SPD and individual cops.

And the city council--particularly the members of the Police, Fire, Courts, and Technology Committee--can start doing the jobs they were elected to do: address the concerns of citizens, instead of caving into the police union.


City Council meetings and committee meetings are open to the public. Check out the council's web page at and click on "Meeting Calendar" to find out the dates and times. You can also use the web page to send e-mail to council members or call the council message center at 684-8888 to leave a message for one or all of the council members.