No Cop is Above the Law

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Reflections on Police Accountability in Seattle

In January of this year, six Seattle police officers were involved in a deadly coup on the nation’s capital, making Seattle home to the largest known contingent of police officers in attendance. The names of those officers have still not been released, nor have they been charged with violating any legal protocol.

The siege, or otherwise so-called “Stop The Steal” rally on January 6 staged in protest of the 2020 presidential election results led to the deaths of five people, including a federal police officer, and prompted lawmakers to flee for their safety while the Capitol was ransacked. Scores of extremist white supremacist nationalists including the Seattle Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, and Patriot Prayer were arrested and charged. As the wait continues for results from the OPA led investigation into the conduct of the six SPD officers involved in the Stop The Steal rally, questions of police accountability and the systemic unequal treatment of BIPOC (Black Indigenous and people of color) percolate.

Seattle Office of Police Accountability (OPA) director Andrew Wyerman, asserted that the police officers that attended were protected under the First Amendment’s practice of free speech, but had they been directly linked to the insurrection, they would have been fired. But would they have been? King County Superior Court Commissioner Bradford Moore halted the city’s planned release of investigation and personnel information in response to legal pleadings sought by the officers with a temporary restraining order lasting until March 10. Had the officers not obtained the order by 5pm on Thursday, Assistant City Attorney Carloyn Boies said the city was prepared to release the names on Friday in response to requests for records under the state’s Public Records Acts.

When reflecting back to last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, there is no shortage of media coverage actively dismissing the nation’s collective trauma over the countless killings of black people in America. Many conversations came up in public discourse focusing on the destructive looting of businesses and writing off the entire Black Lives Matter movement based on the actions of a few individuals who decided to engage in vandalizing private property. The double standard rears its ugly head when considering the “not all cops” rationalization, typically held by conservative folks. The theory of not all cops is founded on the belief that a few bad apples in the police force do not make all cops complicit in racist behaviors. However, if that were true, then police officers would report misconduct of their colleagues within their ranks. The sad history is that officers that have reported other officers have often been stripped of any chance at upward mobility and even have outright been terminated from the police force.

Matters become more complicated when considering that police forces are publicly funded through taxes. According to a Seattle Times analysis, SPD’s median gross pay last year was about $153,000, with at least 374 of those employees grossing at least $200,000. With salaries in those ranges, one could only hope that significant training and preparation are at the core of training those that hold the title of maintaining public order and safety. On the contrary, the duration of training in the US Police Academy is averaged around 15 weeks, and could last up to 6 months, while the highest required level of education is a high school diploma. This equation posits a moral and ethical dilemma when comparing the power and money earned by those with such minimal preparation, and has led to many cities across the country to reevaluate how resources are allocated to better serve their communities.

During this era of shifting public opinion on whether the police force should be defunded, abolished, or retrained, one thing that is made certainly clear; there are two justice systems in America. One which incarcerates African Americans at five times the rate of white people. Throws flash grenades, tear gas, and rubber bullets at those peacefully protesting. Shows up to demonstrations with the National Guard and hundreds of officers, military tanks, outfitted in full protective riot gear while using excessive force. One that won’t release the names of officers confirmed attending the insurrection on the nation’s capitol.

And then there’s the other justice system that asks for police accountability, demands the release of officer names who self-reported their presence at the pro-trump rally in January. The same one that is still waiting for justice for the killings of unarmed black victims including George Floyd, Brionna Taylor, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Alton Sterling; the list is overwhelmingly long… The difference of treatment of those affiliated with supporting former president Trump’s white nationalist agenda versus the treatment of those affiliated with supporting Black Lives Matter is clearly far from being equal and until it is, the fight for justice continues. If the names of those six SPD officers involved in storming Washington DC are to forever be kept secret, how will we ever make progress towards police accountability?

Seattle’s biggest labor council, Martin Luther King Jr County Labor Council (MLKCLC) made it clear that the time had come to address racism not only in our city, but within the police force itself. In June of 2020 MLKCLC warned the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) that they would be expelled from the union if they didn’t implement certain changes to amend contracts that enforce racial hierarchies and justify economic inequality. Many other unions within the MLK Labor Council voiced their concerns about SPOG’s history of resisting accountability measures. The majority vote to go forward and expel SPOG from MLKCLC is certainly one step in the right direction away from supporting any more tragedies of police brutality.

To continue along the path towards a justice system that works for ALL, and holds officers accountable, citizens must be steadfast and forthright in increasing pressure on our elected officials to pass legislation and form new contracts which change the current landscape of “qualified immunity” first set into place in the 1970s by the U.S. Supreme Court. The doctrine holds that the police and other government employees are immune from civil rights lawsuits if the illegality of their actions was not “clearly established” at the time of the incident.

Over the years, this doctrine has been read by the courts to virtually exempt police from liability for civil rights abuses. Even when officers commit what seems to be an obvious constitutional violation, it is hard to hold them accountable through a civil rights lawsuit. When a civil rights lawsuit fails, it is much less likely that the officer will face disciplinary action. All too often, no arrests are made and no charges are brought. This could lead a reasonable officer to assume that their actions were lawful when they were not — or at least that they can act with impunity. This means that incidents like the 6 police officers in attendance at the Jan 6. “Stop the Steal” rally in DC needs to be taken very seriously. While they did attend a public gathering on their off-duty hours, does this perhaps open up a vulnerability in the system that neglects to take the appropriate action in investigating potential misconduct. After all, NO COP is above the law!