Police Accountability: Sacrificing the Rule of Law on the Altar of Ideology
By Eric K. Ward
Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability made national headlines last week when they released their report on the six unnamed Seattle police officers who were alleged to “have engaged in criminal acts and unprofessional conduct” at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 where more than 150 of their fellow law enforcement officers were injured and two people were killed.
The investigation was triggered by a Facebook photo one of the officers posted of herself and another officer at the insurrection.
Recommending the firing of two of the six members of the Seattle Police Department [SPD] who had traveled to D.C. for the event, the report emphasizes the damage these officers did to the rule of law:
“While they smiled and looked at the Capitol Building, as captured by the video stills, rioters defiled the seat of American democracy and assaulted numerous fellow officers. That they, as SPD officers, were direct witnesses to the acts that were going on around them, including the scaling of the Capitol Building walls, but did and said nothing, compounds this.”
~ Seattle Office of Police Accountability, Allegations of Misconduct & Director’s Findings
The Fraying of “The Thin Blue Line”
The full Seattle report is a fascinating and disturbing read, detailing the evidence that these officers broke the law and then lied about it.
As I tweeted in response to the report, attending a Trump rally does not disqualify a person from serving the public, but participating in an attack on our government and then lying about it certainly does.
Let’s be clear: The January 6 attack on the Capitol was not a protest or rally. It was an attempted overthrow of American democracy. Law enforcement officers who participated engaged in dereliction of duty, if not worse. Inclusive democracy requires a government that works for everyone. We grant vast powers to law enforcement, and with that comes vast responsibilities. The behavior of the police officers who were captured on video in an off-limits area, smiling as they watched the storming of the Capitol, and then lied about their actions, is clearly incompatible with serving in law enforcement.
The question is, will these findings matter? There’s far more at stake than the employment status of these individual officers. If police officers and members of the military refuse to uphold the rule of law, inclusive democracy does not stand a chance.
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan continues to call for the SPD to fire officers who acted unlawfully. Police Chief Adrian Diaz said he would make a disciplinary decision within 30 days. No criminal charges have been filed against these officers, yet. (At least a dozen current or former police officers and 56 current or former military members are among the 535 defendants arrested to date in conjunction with the January 6 insurrection.)
The rule of law appears to be low on the list of priorities for the Seattle police union, which attempted to block the Office of Police Accountability’s report. In a bold display of the rotten-at-the-top culture in the Seattle Police Officers Guild, Mike Nolan (union president since 2013) tweeted out conspiracy theories shortly after the storming of the Capitol, blaming Black Lives Matter and “antifa” for the attack.
Even if the two officers found to have broken the law and violated police department policy are disciplined, there’s still the matter of the culture in the force as a whole. This is why what does or doesn’t happen to ensure accountability in the Seattle police force matters to the country as a whole.
The “thin blue line” originally referred to the idea that blue-uniformed police were the line that kept society from descending into chaos. It’s come to be understood as the us-versus-them protection cops offer their own, excusing and even defending police brutality. Officers of color have been telling us for a generation that it’s a false premise that doesn’t make anyone safer.
The Seattle Office of Police Accountability report and the behavior of the police union leadership shows that officers are willing to prioritize ideology over the rule of law, endangering other law enforcement officers and democracy itself.
Meanwhile, In Portland…
Meanwhile, in Portland, Willamette Week continues to publish a day-count measure of the enormous accountability gap in the Portland Police Bureau. It was on March 16 that Officer Brian Hunzeker abruptly resigned as president of the Portland Police Association. A union statement tied his resignation to the investigation into a falsely alleged hit-and-run by City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, a longtime leader for police reform and accountability. It’s now 121 days later and, as Willamette Week notes, “We still don’t know what he did. The mayor’s office says it doesn’t know what he did.”
The paper further documents: It’s been 132 days “since the Police Bureau opened an internal affairs investigation into the leak of information that wrongly implicated Commissioner Hardesty in a March 3 hit-and-run crash. It has released no results of its inquiry.” And 120 days since the city signed a contract with an outside firm to investigate the leak.
During this radio silence on the Hunzeker investigation, news broke of the latest example of an officer appearing to be above the law they are sworn to uphold. The Portland Police Bureau has been ordered by an arbitrator to reinstate Officer Andrew Caspar who was fired last August for the way he had responded to a mental health call in 2019, telling neighbors he “couldn’t go chase the known suspect because of Obama.” (Obama hadn’t been president for three years.)
This isn’t the first time that an arbitrator has overturned the termination of a Portland police officer. This problem is such a pervasive barrier to accountability, it required action by the Oregon legislature. House Bill 2930, passed in the final hours of the session, will limit the ability of arbitrators to overturn disciplinary decisions.
Police union resistance to holding their members accountable is so strong that additional state legislative action was required to clear the way for the new Portland police oversight board. Approved by 80% of Portland voters last November, the board was described by one lawmaker as “a culmination of 30-plus years of work by a large and diverse coalition of community members and leaders who have envisioned a better way for the Portland Police Bureau and community to work together”. Two days after the election, the police union filed a grievance to block it.
And when the District Attorney filed charges against Officer Corey Budworth for fourth degree assault of a woman during a racial justice protest, the entire 50-member crowd control unit resigned their Rapid Response Team assignment. Given their propensity towards excessive use of force and newly-exposed disregard for training, the mass resignation may be the best thing they could have done for the city.
Civilian Control is Fundamental to Democratic Governance, Right?
Civilian control of law enforcement, from local police bureaus to the military, is fundamental to the American system of democratic governance. It’s essential if we are to achieve our vision of a truly inclusive democracy.
But it’s hard to tell, in Portland as in many cities: who is in charge of the police? To whom do they answer? At what point should we clean house and start over?
What do you do when you lose perspective, when you lose sight of your mission? When you’ve allowed the culture of law enforcement to be so steeped in ideological bias that crowd control is treated as beating or defeating “the other side”?
~ Eric K. Ward, The Racialization of Crowd Control Has No Place in 21st Century Policing
I posed these questions in my essay for The Oregon Way last November — months before six members of the Seattle police force were present at the sacking of the U.S. Capitol and the president of the Portland police union apparently participated in a smear campaign against a City Commissioner and the entire crowd control unit resigned rather than see a member held accountable.
My conclusion from nine months ago is doubly true now: The lack of accountability in the Portland Police Bureau has gone too far. The damage to community confidence cannot be undone.
Last fall Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran floated the idea of dissolving the deeply troubled Portland Police Bureau, saying, “In the context of deep community safety systems reform, it’s time to seriously consider dissolving PPB and potentially bringing the work of law enforcement to the county, which has a much broader, integrated, upstream and holistic approach toward public health, safety and justice.”
I’d like to hear from law enforcement — what are their solutions to the problems with their internal culture? What we keep hearing from them are the reasons why nothing can be done — except maintaining the status quo.
I long for a day when law enforcement begins to articulate solutions to the disproportionate killing of unarmed Black community members.
I long for a day when law enforcement can see itself in relationship with all parts of the community, not just those flying a “Blue Lives Matter” flag.
I long for a day when law enforcement comes to terms with the radical, anti-democratic threat posed by paramilitary and militia formations which seek to take the law into their own hands. A day when law enforcement decides that the rule of law is more important than their own political ideology.
While I dream of that day, the lines protecting democratic practice continue to fray.
Republican governors in Idaho, South Dakota, Arkansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Ohio, and Florida are sending armed personnel to the southern border. It’s hard not to see it as a politically motivated stunt to fire up their base for next year’s mid-term elections — a dangerous stunt, at a hefty cost to the taxpayers of their states, that sets precedent for a governor to dispatch troops to another state or territory without the consent of federal laws.
Idaho Governor Brad Little — who will face challengers from the far-right of his party if he seeks reelection next year — says he expects the Idaho State Troopers joining the militia-style action on the Mexican border thousands of miles away “to gain valuable hands-on training that they can use to serve the people of Idaho even better.”
Eric K. Ward is a Senior Fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center and Race Forward and Executive Director of Western States Center.
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