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November 14, 2013 at 6:00 AM

Why OPA director Pierce Murphy could help reform Seattle police

If Seattle police really want to restore public trust, Pierce Murphy is a good guy to help them get there.

Pierce Murphy, director of the Seattle Police Department's Office of Professional Accountability (Greg Gilbert/The Seattle Times)

Pierce Murphy, director of the Seattle Police Department’s Office of Professional Accountability (Greg Gilbert/The Seattle Times)

Murphy, the new director of the Office of Professional Accountability, is acting swiftly to assert his division’s independence from the Seattle Police Department. His office investigates complaints about police misconduct.

The former community ombudsman for Boise relocated just four months ago. Already, he has moved OPA’s operations outside of SPD headquarters and created a more welcome environment for visitors, according to this Seattle Times news story by Mike Carter and Steve Miletich. He also plans to hold regular public office hours and separate his division’s website from the police department’s.

During a meeting this week with the editorial board, Murphy said he wants to strengthen the division’s independence in order to provide better oversight, improve accessibility for citizens and promote transparency in the process. All good things considering the department is under federal supervision because of its past use of excessive force.

Fortunately for Seattle, he’s not all talk.

I saw Murphy in action during my combined five years as a broadcast journalist in Boise, Idaho, and interviewed him on numerous occasions. A former human resources consultant with experience as a law enforcement officer and master’s degrees in counseling psychology and pastoral studies, Murphy appeared destined to become a mediator. He became Boise’s first ombudsman in 1999 following a period of unrest between the community and police.

Jon Hanian, my former managing editor at KBCI (now KBOI), says Murphy set a new tone for police oversight despite some early skepticism from city and police officials who were nervous about public criticism.

“Once Pierce got going and people saw the methodical approach he took — he laid everything out like a forensics auditor and would do his own investigations — he delivered clinical, unemotional findings. And then he’d make recommendations on what the department could do process-wise to fix an oversight,” Hanian, now press secretary to Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, said in a phone interview. “It wasn’t long after they hired him that a lot of those stories (about potential or substantiated police misconduct) started to go away.”

Since the ombudsman’s office opened, complaints against the Boise Police Department have decreased by more than half, from 365 complaints in 2000 to 149 in 2012. Boise City Councilwoman Mary Ann Jordan credits Murphy for also working cooperatively and proactively with the city’s police chief, Mike Masterson, to spot trends and recommend improved training policies to avoid the use of force. They developed strategies to limit taser usage and shooting at moving vehicles.

“It did help, to not only calm the community, but also to give some focus within the department and to get everybody on the right path,” she says.

When Masterson first took over as Boise Police Chief in January 2005, he admits many officers felt defensive and wanted to keep Murphy at arm’s length. Over weekly meetings, the two learned to set aside their differences and to focus on their overall goal of improving quality of service and public safety.

Here’s his sage advice for Seattle police officers wary of Murphy’s oversight role:

“Because of our egos as leaders of a police organization, we think it’s our responsibility to police ourselves and we’re doing a good job. Sometimes having that extra set of eyes that are not as close to the issue as we are helps give us a perspective that takes us to new levels of service and policing. The guy is genuine. He’s genuine in his desire to protect officers. He’s genuine in his desire to make sure citizens who have complaints are heard and fairly investigated. I never saw him as a threat. I saw him as another opportunity out there to make sure that what I wanted to see done in terms of quality service was delivered to the citizens that I serve, and that was met.”

What sticks out in my mind is his nuanced investigation into the December 2004 death of Matthew Jones, a 16-year-old who was shot four times by a police officer in front of his father. As the Idaho Statesman reported in this news story on Murphy’s departure to Seattle, he exonerated the officer. Bruce Jones, the father, didn’t agree with all the findings that lead to his son’s killing, but he praised Murphy’s approach.

“His tone and the thoughtfulness of the report were pretty remarkable. You don’t see that very often,” Jones told the Statesman.

During Murphy’s confirmation hearing on June 19, City Councilmember Nick Licata questioned how the nominee would treat concerns by the police unions. Murphy responded that he listens to all perspectives before rendering his opinions. A 2008 survey of Boise police and the community, for instance, led Murphy to recognize he needed to complete investigations faster. He rearranged his investigators’ schedules so that findings would be completed in about 60 days rather than the standard 180 days.

The same Statesman story also has this telling quote from former Boise City Councilman and Judge Mike Wetherell.

“(Pierce Murphy) didn’t have a problem either telling the police when he felt they had overstepped, and he didn’t have a problem telling someone who was complaining that, ‘Hey, they didn’t do anything wrong.’ And that’s important,” Wetherell said. “If an ombudsman gets the reputation for always being on the side of the police department or always being against the police department, clearly, they’re not going to have credibility.”

Though Murphy’s term as director of OPA expires in three years, he says it will take much more time for the department to regain the community’s confidence.

“We didn’t get here overnight, and we won’t get out of it overnight,” Murphy says bluntly.

I’d love to see his success as a guiding light for Boise replicated in Seattle. Granted, the challenges the Seattle Police department faces are arguably bigger than what the Boise Police department faced while Murphy was ombudsman. But Murphy, who has been watching Seattle Police for years and consulted with police oversight agencies nationwide, brings a much-needed outsider’s perspective to the table.

Watch video from the June 19 confirmation hearing below to get a sense of Murphy’s philosophy on police oversight.

At the 25-minute mark, there’s a powerful exchange with City Councilmember Bruce Harrell, who asks Murphy whether he believes racial bias exists in Seattle’s police department. Here is Murphy’s poignant and honest response, which reflected an understanding of Seattle’s culturally and ethnically diverse population:

I think bias exists in every facet of our lives, in every institution that we have as a society… I think people who come from a privileged background, we have to look deep into our hearts — and certainly I have. And certainly more recently, because of this process, I’ve asked what biases are operating? Am I honest enough to say I have biases based on my education, my privilege? What I have to work at every day is to be aware of those and not allow them to guide my behavior, control my actions. So do I think there are police officers here in Seattle with biases? I would assume there are biases in every police department everywhere. The challenge is how to help them to be aware of those, and to be honest about those, and to then in their law enforcement decisions and in their actions, to modify or control their actions or decisions. That’s the reality that all of us as humans have to face.

Comments | Topics: boise, office of performance accountability, pierce murphy


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