How Seattle City Council can fix broken Seattle Police oversight

Dear Councilmembers,

We, your constituents, respectfully request that you change your oversight strategy toward the Seattle Police Department in response to the events of 2013, as described below.

Traditionally, the record suggests, Council has treated SPD requests for funding and for entrance into partnerships with other governmental bodies and private companies as innocuous, as business as usual, as more of the same.

This seems an inadequate approach, particularly given the following:

  • Seattle Police Monitor Merrick Bobb’s findings on the willful foot-dragging and noncompliance of SPD leadership
  • The unacceptable state of the SPD’s Information Technology Unit as described in the monitor’s second semiannual report
  • The evident inability or unwillingness of large subsections of the United States Department of Homeland Security, a major granting agency to SPD, to comply with the letter, much less with the spirit, of US law
  • The stealth deployment of DHS-funded drones and surveillance cameras in our city and the farcical show of gathering public feedback that followed
  • Council’s explicit acknowledgement of the need to protect privacy and anonymity via enactment of Ordinance 124142

In light of these developments, we ask that you, our elected representatives, step up the level of scrutiny that you bring to all SPD initiatives.

  • We ask that you adopt a skeptical approach to claims made by SPD staff; that you make it a standard practice to challenge, not to cheer-lead, when engaging in oversight of SPD.
  • We ask that you demand greater detail in the semi-annual reports of the Police Intelligence Auditor, and that you direct the auditor to adopt a more skeptical stance. After reviewing SPD records, he should describe, not simply enumerate, operations involving collection of restricted information, if not while those operations are active, then after their conclusions.
  • We ask that you thoroughly evaluate all proposals emanating from SPD for any potential infringement upon human rights and for noncompliance with Ordinance 124142. Please envision the effects of such proposals as implemented not by those SPD staff whom you know to have the best of intentions, but as implemented by future staff who may have less respect for the policies with which they are expected to comply.

We hope that you will send to SPD a message similar to the following:

Our constituents no longer have the trust in your organization that many of them once had. We have watched with surprise and dismay as your staff are repeatedly found to have acted with disregard for individual privacy and with resistance to institutional transparency. Those days are over. We now intend to oversee your department’s actions with even greater rigor than that with which we oversee other city departments. We will not treat reviews of audits as perfunctory. We will insist on systems that prevent inappropriate use by design, not simply by policy.  We will not authorize the acceptance of federal grants that allow you to operate outside of our oversight.  We will look upon every proposal for new SPD policies or equipment with skepticism.  Our constituents demand it.