A surveillance video contradicted the police officers who made the drug bust. The tape led prosecutors to drop the charges and alert other defense lawyers that the two Seattle officers had credibility issues. And the police department’s civilian auditor says the officers lied.
On June 22, after a leaked report from the department’s civilian oversight board said the police chief jumped the gun in exonerating the officers involved in the Jan. 2 arrest of Troy Patterson. Seattle NAACP chief James Bible held a press conference to repeat the civil rights organization’s call for Chief Gil Kerlikowske to step down.
Hours later, the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle held a press conference of its own in which its director, James Kelly, along with Carl Mack, Seattle’s former NAACP president, defended the police chief and called the report an unsubstantiated “draft.”
For African-American and other civil rights activists in Seattle, it was a turn of events that some call odd. Others say privately that Carl Mack must have lost his political bearings. Questioning the review board, they say, turned the tables on them, creating a sense of division within a Black community that has long demanded police accountability in Seattle.
Kelly disagrees, saying it was just a difference of opinion. “The Urban League’s position is not to say anything that the NAACP is doing is wrong,” he says. “I think that they have brought up an important issue of which we are looking into the facts.”
But with the report now official – the review board of the police department’s Office of Professional Accountability presented its final report on July 2 to the Seattle City Council – many activists question the Urban League’s action and whether the city funding it receives makes it beholden to Mayor Greg Nickels.
Last week, Nickels defended Chief Kerlikowske. But in the wake of City Council President Nick Licata’s call for a task force and an NAACP protest rally at City Hall, the mayor announced on June 29 that he had formed a citizen’s committee to examine Seattle’s system of police oversight. The police review system includes the Office of Professional Accountability and its civilian director, a civilian case auditor, and an OPA Review Board of three citizens.
On July 2, review board member Peter Holmes defended the board’s report, telling the City Council that Chief Kerlikowske had prematurely exonerated officers Greg Neubert and Mike Tietjen, who Patterson claims roughed him up and planted drugs on him. Holmes said the April 9 press conference in which the chief cleared the officers came more than a month before the incoming director of the OPA signed off on the internal investigation.
The board’s report – which covers a total 11 cases in which the chief overruled findings of officer misconduct made by previous OPA Director Sam Pailca – also asserts that Kerlikowske interceded in the investigation of Patterson’s arrest by releasing a female witness from jail in exchange for a statement against Patterson.
Though her account conflicts with that of another witness at the scene, Kerlikowske cited the statement on April 9 as proof the two officers had done nothing wrong. Neubert and Tietjen have since taken off-street assignments with SPD’s Harbor Patrol.
The Urban League’s defense of the chief “struck me as odd,” says Ed Prince, a Seattle Works program director formerly with the Central Area Motivation Program. “Maybe legitimately they have different points of view,” he says of NAACP and the Urban League, “but you would have hoped they could have handled that in-house.”
“The bigger issue,” Prince says, “is the conduct of the chief and what he’s done with these officers and how he’s not listening to the OPA. To try to offhandedly dismiss [the report] doesn’t do anything but to weaken it.”
“For me, as a citizen, it’s kind of disconcerting,” he says. “Why have something [the OPA Review Board] that’s supposed to be a fresh set of eyes look at something and then not take their finding seriously?”
Civil rights activists also question the statements made on June 22 by former NAACP President Carl Mack, who was in Seattle for a conference. Citing the good relationship that he helped build with the police department, and Kerlikowske in particular, Mack called the NAACP’s demand for the chief’s resignation “absolutely asinine,” according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
The comments “clearly demonstrate the need for civil rights organizations to stand at arm’s length from those they are seeking to address,” says current NAACP chief James Bible.
Ronnie Payton, a Plymouth Housing worker who attended the protest rally at City Hall, has harder words for Mack and Kelly.
“What relationship? We’ve got no relationship with the police,” Payton says. “They kill and beat at-will.”