Police Accountability

There have been more studies and reports on the issue of police accountability than you can shake a stick at. Every publication recommends some sort of citizen review board for the sake of inhibiting objectionable police practices and just as importantly to bridge the cleft that can exist between the citizens of a city and its police force. The central significance of a citizen review board to a well functioning community is highlighted in studies ranging from the Department of Justice, to the University of California and from human rights groups world wide to the City of Milwaukee. Most other democracies in the world have greater, and better functioning, citizen review of police activity than those in the United States and Seattle certainly is not among the leading cities in this country on this issue.

Seattle, viewed by many in Eastern Washington as the burning torch of liberal thought, seems to have a great deal of difficulty implementing meaningful citizen oversight of its police force. Ironically, the police union — which owes its strength to the view that the City owes accountability to the police officers it employs and that the City ought not to wield unchecked authority over these individuals, no matter how well intentioned we view City government — is fighting hammer and tong to minimize the accountability of its members to the citizens it serves.

City council member Nick Lacata has championed ordinances to enhance police accountability to the citizenry; the union generally takes the view that this is an illicit impingement on the union’s right to collective bargaining and is not within the power of the City to implement, other times it, and the Chief of Police, takes the position that citizen oversight reduces the efficiency of the police force. (This of course begs the question as the issue is not what is most efficient but what maximizes the good to the community.) Recently the union filed a complaint with the state administrative agency that oversees such things for state employees about an ordinance permitting a very limited right on the part of Seattle’s citizen review board to see the names of officers who were the subject of previous complaints. (A generally recognized key to meaningful citizen review is the ability to track the few officers who seem to collect complaints.) The ordinance was overturned by the administrative agency and the council is considering whether it should appeal.

The big picture, I believe, is this. The Chief of Police and the union recognize that police accountability is a strong national trend as the United States moves to get up to speed with other industrial nations in this regard. They want to hold the citizens’ right to police accountability hostage for wage demands. If they can thwart accountability ordinances and wrap as much as possible into collective bargaining, then, as pressure mounts for accountability, they can parlay that into higher wages. This of course is hard ball unionism, where a recognized community need is used as a bargaining chip. On the other hand apparently police salaries here are appreciably lower than those of other countries.

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