SEATTLE — When the Department of Justice came down hard on the Seattle Police Department, it cited as one problem the internal investigations process.
The DOJ said the way that the SPD polices its own police officers needs to change.
Pierce Murphy is now heading up investigations of officer misconduct in the SPD, a position he’s held for a few months. It’s his job to take complaints from the community – everything from general rudeness to excessive force – and determine whether they are justified and what the punishment should be.
“The only way I can fail is if I’m concerned about what other people are going to think of me,” said Murphy.
Murphy vows to bring much more independence and transparency to the process, and is actually encouraging citizens to come forward if they have any bad interactions with officers.
“Nobody likes to hear negative things, but it’s the only way you improve,” he said. “If all you hear is people patting you on the back and saying you’re doing a good job, you’re missing a lot.”
One clear way that Murphy is working to restore trust in the complaint process is to very publicly move his office out of SPD headquarters.
“I’m not a police officer and I’m not here representing the police department,” Murphy said. “I’m here representing the community that has a legitimate need to hold the police accountable and provide them with the support they need when they are.”
Whenever a misconduct complaint against an officer is filed, Murphy reviews the allegation and decides whether a full investigation is warranted. If so, his Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) interviews all witnesses, including the officer or officers involved, and comes to a conclusion, with a punishment if warranted.
But Murphy admits that even with a more transparent system there will always be incidents on the street that people aren’t happy with.
“Let’s face it, policing sometimes is a messy business,” Murphy said, “even if officers are doing everything right and using all the skills and tools at their command in the right way. Sometimes, bad things happen, and sometimes it’s messy and people sometimes unfortunately get hurt.”
In the past, some community groups have argued that the OPA was too soft when it came to officer discipline. Murphy says he will work hard to change that impression, including writing a full, public report to accompany each case his office handles.
“Every day I have to remind myself, I’m not here to please somebody, I’m not here to be popular,” Murphy said. “I have to ask myself, am I really basing this on the facts or am I basing it on a bias of some sort, either towards the complainant or towards the officer.”
Murphy agrees, people will have to trust him.
“Absolutely, that’s true,” he said. “It boils down to trust.”