Three misconduct complaints against former Seattle police Chief Carmen Best from the tumultuous summer of 2020 sat in limbo and are still pending two years after the events in question. Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office sent the cases earlier this year to an investigator outside the city.
Police watchdogs and Harrell’s office say the cases stalled because former Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office didn’t agree to send them to an outside investigator, though she disputes that characterization.
The specifics of the complaints haven’t been made public. They involve Best’s handling of tear gas during Black Lives Matter demonstrations and statements about the Capitol Hill protest zone known as the CHOP.
There’s been no detailed public accounting of what happened to the Office of Police Accountability complaints over the past two years, and there’s no hard deadline for the cases to be completed.
But the issue, also covered by PubliCola last week, could spur legislative action. City Councilmember Lisa Herbold is working on a bill that would establish a clearer process for complaints against chiefs.
Thousands of complaints were filed against the Police Department during the summer of 2020. OPA consolidated those into 145 investigations, most of which have been completed.
“I was alarmed to find out in the beginning of 2022 that there were three un-investigated complaints,” Herbold said in an interview, arguing the issue has exposed “a gap in our accountability system.”
Two agencies were involved: OPA, which investigates misconduct complaints against Police Department employees, and the Office of Inspector General, which provides systemic oversight for the department and OPA.
When the complaints against Best were filed, OPA’s operations manual didn’t allow the agency to investigate the chief, according to Harrell’s office. Harrell’s public safety adviser, Andrew Myerberg, was then OPA’s director.
Myerberg, Inspector General Lisa Judge and Harrell’s office say Durkan’s office didn’t agree to outsource the cases and asked OIG to take them instead. OIG declined, citing jurisdictional concerns and potential conflicts. OPA conducted preliminary investigations only, with no findings.
Harrell agreed to send the cases out after taking over from Durkan as mayor in January, and an outside investigator began work in April, according to Harrell’s office.
“OPA is not releasing the investigator’s name or associated company to facilitate the investigative process fairly” and to “prevent undue influence,” Harrell spokesperson Jamie Housen said.
Durkan wasn’t responsible for the cases sitting in limbo, said Chelsea Kellogg, a spokesperson for the ex-mayor. Though Durkan’s office initially supported in-house options, OPA was an independent agency and could have subsequently outsourced the cases, Kellogg said.
According to Harrell’s office, the complaints were filed before Best retired in September 2020. Neither Harrell’s office nor OPA nor Durkan has provided a detailed timeline for what happened next. Best didn’t return emails requesting comment. OPA declined to comment on the cases.
Though the specifics haven’t been released, the titles given to the cases by OPA allude to the allegations:
- “Tear gas used after 30-day ban”
- “Sharing misinformation about crime in CHAZ/CHOP”
- “Chief lied about dispatch error during CHOP shooting”
The first complaint apparently refers to a controversy from June 2020, in which Durkan and Best announced that Best was banning the use of tear gas against protest crowds, only for police to deploy tear gas at a demonstration two days later. Best cited an exception to the ban, allowing SWAT officers to use tear gas “to protect life and to end standoff situations.” Neither she nor Durkan had clearly articulated that the exception could apply to protests.
The second complaint may refer, at least partly, to statements by an assistant chief in June 2020 about business owners being extorted in the CHOP. Best repeated the extortion allegations in a video, and they appeared in the news, including The Seattle Times, before the Police Department walked them back. The South Seattle Emerald recently reported that Best received an email from a city leader debunking the allegations before her video was released.
The third complaint may refer to the fatal shooting of 19-year-old Horace Lorenzo Anderson in the CHOP in June 2020. Best and the Police Department said police officers were blocked from immediately reaching Anderson by protesters. KUOW later reported that what slowed emergency responders from reaching Anderson was a miscommunication between police officers and firefighters.
At the time the OPA complaints were filed, the agency’s manual said the OPA director should, for complaints against the chief, consult with the mayor’s office “to identify an appropriate city authority outside OPA or an independent investigator who will conduct any investigation necessary.”
OPA recommended that the complaints be outsourced, but Durkan’s office “did not agree to send these cases to an outside investigator,” said Housen, the Harrell spokesperson.
After OIG declined the cases, OPA was asked to conduct preliminary investigations and then revisit the issue, Myerberg wrote in a February email to Herbold. The agency conducted preliminary investigations of varying degrees and sent the three cases to OIG for review, Myerberg wrote.
OPA’s preliminary investigation of the misinformation complaint was reviewed by OIG in November 2020, and its preliminary investigation of the complaint related to the CHOP shooting was reviewed by OIG in September 2021. It’s unclear whether OIG reviewed OPA’s preliminary investigation of the tear gas complaint. Each of the three cases sat incomplete.
OPA’s manual required consultation with Durkan’s office but didn’t give her the authority to approve or disapprove an outside investigation, said Kellogg, the Durkan spokesperson.
“The mayor was always supportive of OPA doing whatever it concluded was necessary on any complaint, including retaining outside investigators,” Kellogg added, suggesting the onus was on OPA to act independently or return to consult again after the agency’s preliminary investigations.
OPA could not act independently, Housen said. In January, the agency’s manual was changed. It now allows OPA to investigate complaints against a chief, hand them off to another city agency or outsource them.
The updated manual still directs OPA to consult with the mayor, but it gives OPA the ultimate authority to make a decision. It also gives OPA explicit authority to investigate complaints against ex-chiefs.
Durkan supports any necessary clarifications “to the law or OPA manual to ensure all complaints against a former or current chief are thoroughly and expeditiously investigated,” Kellogg said.
Herbold’s bill would establish a new process for handling OPA complaints against police chiefs, authorizing the agency to decide whether to investigate a complaint, refer it to the city’s human resources department or outsource it, with a review role for OIG and requirements for notifying of various officials.
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