The Broken System of Police Oversight with Amy Sundberg and Dr. Shannon Cheng

The Broken System of Police Oversight with Amy Sundberg and Dr. Shannon Cheng

Today Crystal is joined by Amy Sundberg, author of Notes from the Emerald City, and Dr. Shannon Cheng, Chair of People Power Washington to talk about public safety policy in Seattle and King County. Amy gets into the serious issues present in Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability (OPA), failing so spectacularly that the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) said that the process “cannot be remedied.” Shannon follows up with updates about King County’s appointment of a new Director of the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO), the continued wait by the families of police shooting victims for inquests into their deaths. They also discuss the People Power Washington Voter Guide that details where Seattle and King County candidates stand on public safety issues.

About the Guest

Subscribe to Notes from the Emerald City here, and follow Amy on Twitter/X at @amysundberg. Read People Power Washington’s voter guide here, and find Shannon at @drbestturtle on Twitter/X.

Podcast Transcript

Crystal Fincher: [00:00:00] Welcome to Hacks & Wonks. I'm your host, Crystal Fincher. On this show, we talk to political hacks and policy wonks to gather insight into local politics and policy through the lens of those doing the work and provide behind-the-scenes perspectives on politics in our state. Full transcripts and resources referenced in the show are always available at and in our episode notes.

So today I'm excited to have two people who are not new to Hacks & Wonks joining me - Amy Sundberg, who is an activist with People Power Washington, she writes Notes From the Emerald City - excellent newsletter - you should subscribe. And she has always done just extremely useful live-tweet threads of Seattle City meetings and hearings. So if you want to know what is happening in the City of Seattle that oftentimes gets lost in the filter of reporting - you can only say so much in a story - and really figure out where every Councilmember is at, what everyone has said, and what is happening in the City, Amy Sundberg is an essential follow on Twitter and an essential newsletter subscription.

And also with us is Dr. Shannon Cheng, Chair of People Power Washington, and works with me at Fincher Consulting - who is just a powerhouse when it comes to everything public safety and accountability. And definitely wanted to talk with you both about what is happening in the world of public safety in Seattle and King County, because we're getting close to an election where a number of the candidates have different stances on different issues. I want to make sure that we can review where everyone is at, understand what's happening, and what's going to be on the agenda for people facing election, and just understand how we can interact with the process. So thank you both, Amy and Shannon, for joining me.

Amy Sundberg: [00:02:28] It's great to be here.

Crystal Fincher: [00:02:29] So there is a lot that has happened since we spoke to you both last, and I guess we can kind of cover it all. I suppose I'll start with the findings on the insurrection and where that stands. We've talked a little bit about that on the show, but can you recap what was found with regard to Seattle Police Department officers found to be in DC at the insurrection, and what Councilmembers and electeds have said about it?

Amy Sundberg: [00:03:01] Sure. So as far as we know, there were six SPD officers who were present in Washington DC on the day of the insurrection. That's as far as we know - so there could be more, but six we know of. And so they were the subject of the OPA's investigation. And what the OPA found was that two of those six officers definitely trespassed and definitely witnessed illegal activities. And they discovered that through shared video from the FBI. My understanding is that Director Myerberg hasn't yet seen the video, but he's seen stills from the video that firmly place these two officers at a place and time where it was clear that they couldn't have not known what was happening.

Three officers were exonerated - it looks like they attended the rally and then left and didn't participate in the insurrection. And then one officer - there's inconclusive evidence. Basically they don't have solid evidence that places him in a place where he would have been doing something illegal, but we're not really sure what was happening with him. So, it also appears that the two officers who were definitely involved in illegal activity lied about it during the OPA investigation, which by itself is an offense that can lead to termination of employment. But right now we're waiting for - there's a hearing with Interim Chief Diaz on August 5th, when he'll decide what to do about the case. Termination has been suggested by the OPA, I will say.

Crystal Fincher: [00:04:59] Well, and the Chief had previously said that he would fire anyone who was found to be participating in the insurrection. So certainly would expect to see his decision to be consistent with that. They do have the opportunity to basically appeal and go to arbitration - is that correct - if they are fired?

Amy Sundberg: [00:05:19] Yes, that is correct. Director Myerberg has said that he is confident he has a strong case that would hold up under an appeal, but of course we'll have to wait and see what happens.

Crystal Fincher: [00:05:32] We'll have to wait and see what happens. That process doesn't always turn out as it seems it should. What have Councilmembers said about it, and where do they stand on the issue of whether the officers should be fired or not?

Amy Sundberg: [00:05:46] Well, Council President and mayoral candidate, Lorena González - she has said that the two officers should definitely be terminated. And then she thinks that all six of them should be disciplined in some way, although she doesn't go into details about that. Councilmember Herbold, who is the Chair of Public Safety, has a little bit of a stronger take. She thinks they should all be fired - potentially, at least. Her take on it is interesting. She wants to try to look and see if the officers knew before they were traveling to DC that this insurrection was going to take place - if they were aware of the threats of violence and overthrow that were kind of flying around the internet around that time. Because if they were aware, that's a different matter than if they just went to a rally. So there's a lot of question as to what is protected speech and what isn't, especially in the case of a police officer.

Crystal Fincher: [00:06:58] That certainly is curious. We've talked about it here on this program before - to me, just the fact that you are attending an event - flying across the country to attend an event called Stop the Steal, whose premise is that the election has been stolen from predominantly people of color in predominantly areas with large Black populations, when the rest of us could see that there was violent talk leading up to the insurrection. Seems curious that just attending that doesn't seem to be a glaring, concerning piece of conduct in and of itself that would make me question if those officers are treating members of the public fairly and what feedback from their interactions has been. So we will see what happens with that. There's a lot to be talked about in terms of discipline and accountability investigations and there has been a lot that has been uncovered about that process. Can you brief us on what happened with the OIG and OPA?

Amy Sundberg: [00:08:14] Yeah, sure. So the OIG certifies each of the OPA's investigations, and then they sometimes do partial certifications. And in that case, there's a memo attached that the public can access and read. And I will say that 96% of OPA cases, the OIG gives a full certification and they say this is fine, this is great. And 4% of the cases they disagree with something that happened with an investigation. But we're, I think, very lucky in that we have a journalist Carolyn Bick working at the South Seattle Emerald, and they have been really digging in to some of these partial certifications of the OIG for these OPA investigations, some of which have to do with protest cases from the last year. And that really gives us insight into where these investigations can go wrong and how the accountability system in Seattle is working in practice. 

So I think one great example of this is the SPOG headquarters protest, which happened on September 7th of last year, 2020. So the OIG certifies based on timeliness, objectiveness, and thoroughness. And so if it's a partial certification, that means that not all three of those will be certified. So in this particular case, the investigation was found to be neither objective nor thorough. So there's two out of three that they did not hit the mark on. 

So I don't know if you remember this protest, but it was when a bunch of protesters went to the SPOG headquarters. It was a peaceful protest. And then, from a lot of bystanders' accounts, suddenly some police on bicycles arrived and things got hairy - there were blast balls, pepper spray, a lot of people got arrested. And there were a lot of complaints about this made to the OPA, because it seemed like it was a peaceful protest and that there was no need for that kind of escalation.

So this investigation of the OPA was problematic because, I mean, the OIG said, and I'm quoting directly here, "No further investigation is being directed at this time because OIG finds the deficiencies of the investigation with respect to thoroughness and objectivity cannot be remedied," meaning it's such a mess of a case that nothing can be done. So I went through and read through the article enumerating what went on with this investigation. And I made a list of all the issues that the OIG called out about this investigation. And there were eight separate issues. It wasn't like one or two little minor problems - like the entire investigation was kind of flawed from its heart.

Basically it looked like the OPA was crafting a case to support a certain narrative - the narrative of the SPD - that they were attempting a targeted arrest of someone who had an incendiary device and that is why the protest got so out of control. However, there was a lot of additional evidence that showed that fairly early on, it became clear that there was in fact no incendiary device. That it was a trash bag. And at a certain point when they were arresting the man with the trash bag, he dropped it or they took it from him or something, but you could see trash falling from the trash bag. So it was very clear at a certain point what it was. But for example, in the investigation, evidence about the fact that the suspect was potentially carrying a trash bag, that there was trash that you could see falling - that was all omitted from the investigation, which is extremely sloppy if nothing else. Like that's the kindest thing you can say -

Crystal Fincher: [00:12:56] That's the most generous interpretation, but given the context that this is happening in, I doubt that was an accident.

Amy Sundberg: [00:13:03] But also things so egregious - that the sergeant who made that arrest of that man who was maybe holding an incendiary device but wasn't - they didn't interview that sergeant at all during this investigation. There was another named officer who was present and he was also not interviewed. There was no probable cause analysis done to figure out how likely it was trash bag versus incendiary device. There was body camera footage of the man holding the garbage bag and the report said there was no such footage. So the list goes on and on - it doesn't take an experienced investigator to see that this investigation was very deeply flawed.

Crystal Fincher: [00:14:04] In fact, it's almost farcical to call it an investigation. This by all accounts appears - and from Seattle's own internal and investigative arm, or from the OIG - that this due diligence that you would find in an investigation was not done, as you just detailed, part of the problem. And it was all helpful to the narrative of the officers. 

And the question is really - when we have evidence of so many things that have gone wrong, when the department for things that we've seen with our own eyes on video and other things has admitted, "Yes, there was wrongdoing here," that there actually is not a disagreement on whether things were problematic and have said, "Yeah, there's been issues before." So when there's reason to question different accounts of things that happen and someone makes a complaint where there's lots of independent witnesses and in fact complaints made to spur an investigation that this didn't appear to be right, the body that is supposed to be the arm of accountability that is set up to say, "We're going to be the ones investigating whether something wrong happened or not," just seemed to be there to rubber stamp whatever the officers say - just seems like it continues to reinforce - this is actually something that we can't reform, that tinkering around the edges is not going to fix this.

As we hear a siren going on outside at the same time - that nothing, that we can't fix this. We actually have to completely rebuild, reframe, and reconstitute this in a completely different construction - that we can't rehab this. That investigation was so mixed up and so messed up, it couldn't be fixed. What else is going on in all of the other investigations? What shot do we have at actually addressing these issues if we don't get to the root of this?

Amy Sundberg: [00:16:18] Yeah. It definitely undermines the credibility of our accountability arm - that, I think, the City of Seattle has kind of patted it itself on the back for having this model of accountability and I've heard Director Myerberg pat us on the back for that as well. But it has some pretty deep flaws. 

Crystal Fincher: [00:16:43] Irreparable flaws, it would seem, in my opinion. We will certainly see what the response is. The City, like with so many things, seems to be either taking issue or ignoring it from what I've seen. Have you seen any other response from the City on this report and what needs to be done to fix this?

Amy Sundberg: [00:17:06] No, I haven't seen anything official, or unofficial for that matter. I don't think enough people are talking about it. So, it's good that we're talking about it now.

Crystal Fincher: [00:17:18] Yes. Well, I also want to talk about King County and what is happening with the Sheriff's department - including in this process of going from and implementing the changes that were voted on with the changes in Charter Amendments, including finding some new personnel and moving forward with the appointment of a Sheriff and no longer electing a Sheriff. So where does this whole process stand now? 

Shannon Cheng: [00:17:50] Yeah, thanks Crystal, for bringing up King County, because I think sometimes there's so much happening in Seattle that we can kind of overlook that we also have a County level Sheriff's office that has also had its own problems with accountability and transparency. So as you mentioned, last year in November, the County overwhelmingly supported Charter Amendments 1, 4, 5, and 6, which were about public safety and policing. Charter Amendment 5 was changing the Sheriff's position from elected to appointed and so they are currently in the process. They put together an advisory committee with representation from across the County and from different groups - to put together a set of values that they should be looking for in the next Sheriff. So that committee is currently meeting and I think they're trying to set up ways to gather community input. It sounds like the County Council is also doing their own process of figuring out how to get community input, as well as the County Executive, who is doing his own third branch of getting community input. So it's not clear yet that they are ready and prepared to take all the community input, but when they get around to it, it sounds like there should be a lot of different avenues because there's at least three different branches of people trying to work on that. 

And so initially they were trying to rush the appointment and try to do it, I think, before the end of the year, but the timeline has just been super tight. And so in order to get back everybody's input into what we should be looking for in the next Sheriff, and then be able to do a nationwide search - it doesn't look like it's going to happen before the end of the year. So this will probably happen sometime in 2022, which will also be potentially when we might have a new County Executive and new County Councilmembers who would have input into that situation.

Crystal Fincher: [00:19:55] And what have the stances of the County Councilmembers been in terms of what they're looking for and what this process is going to be?

Shannon Cheng: [00:20:04] I don't know if that's entirely clear yet. I think a lot of focus has been being put into setting up the process and not so much yet talking about the end result of the process. So Councilmember Zahilay chairs the Law and Justice Committee, and so they put together the ordinance that established this community committee that is going to be informing the process. And so I don't know yet that there has been statements from them of what they are looking for.

Crystal Fincher: [00:20:40] Okay, so in addition to a new Sheriff, we're also going to be, at the County level, hiring a new Office of Law Enforcement Oversight head. Where is that process? And, I guess, how is that playing out?

Shannon Cheng: [00:20:56] Yeah. So this is happening right now. So what happened is last year the previous director of the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight did not get reconfirmed by the County Council, so they started a search for a new one. And what happened is they are now at the point where they've chosen two finalists. And last - well, so we're recording this on July 21st - by the time this airs, it will have been two weeks since they held some community meetings where the community had an opportunity to come out and meet both finalists, ask them questions, learn kind of what their history is, where they stand, what kind of vision they have for what they would do if they were chosen to be the new director. And so, County Council was supposed to select the finalist on July 20th, a Tuesday, but then something happened in that meeting and they decided to punt the decision for a week and put it to the Full Council. Which was kind of confusing to me because all of the Council is on the committee that was trying to make that decision, so basically they were just trying to buy themselves more time.

So now I think that the day that this episode is planned to air is the day that the County Council will be voting and selecting one of the two finalists. And so this is important - because at the Seattle level, we just heard from Amy just how dysfunctional our supposed model accountability system is. And we've had similar issues at the County level. So the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight - its goal is to represent the interests of the public in its efforts to hold the King County Sheriff's Office accountable for providing fair and just police services.

And many listeners may have heard of cases such as Tommy Le, who was killed in Burien, and then there appeared to be somewhat of a coverup around that. And so the role of OLEO is to do independent investigations into these egregious things that happen within the Sheriff's office. But similar to Seattle, the OLEO doesn't necessarily have the right powers, or teeth, or authority to be able to actually hold officers accountable. So for example, they don't have full subpoena power. They can make recommendations but there's nothing that says that those recommendations need to be acted upon or followed through on. And so this is something that with the Charter Amendment last year and then earlier in 2015, we've been trying to give OLEO more power, but there's been a huge pushback from the Sheriff's office to give it to them.

Crystal Fincher: [00:23:51] So I guess, are we walking into another situation with this, where regardless of who the head is, if they don't have any teeth, what is it going to accomplish? And I guess looking at different levers of accountability, whether it's OLEO or even the inquest process, what shot do we have? Where does the inquest process stand?

Shannon Cheng: [00:24:18] Yeah, so the inquest process is another one of these places where it sounds like a place where we would be able to achieve accountability, but then when you dig deeper you find out that the whole process has been undermined to the point that it's just kind of in name only. So the King County inquest process is meant - so this covers any officer-involved shooting in King County, whether it's by the King County Sheriff's Office, or within a contract city that the King County Sheriff's Office runs, or within Seattle Police Department, or any other municipal police department such as Auburn, Kent, Federal Way - these cities all have their own police department. So whenever any death occurs at the hands of officers within King County, then there is supposed to be an inquest process. And so the inquest is a fact-finding hearing where we learn sort of what happened in that case, but it has no - again, similar to OLEO - anything that comes out of the inquest, there isn't an official process by which any recommendations need to be implemented.

And so what happened was a couple years ago, Executive Constantine, kind of at the request of some families who felt like the process was very unfair, tried to implement some reforms. So some of these were things like - trying to make it not as lopsided towards the officer. For example, it was trying to provide the families legal representation that was paid for by the County. The County pays for the officers to have legal representation, but they weren't supporting the families of the loved ones. So things like that. So what happened is he established these reforms with the Executive Order, and then the King County Sheriff's Office, the City of Seattle, Cities of Renton, Federal Way, Auburn, I believe - they all sued to say that these reforms were not allowable and they didn't like them. And then at the same time, families of loved ones who had died also sued because they felt like the inquest reforms had not gone far enough.

And so what this caused was just this stalemate where there's, I think, now a backlog of 40 cases. These are 40 individuals who have died at the hands of law enforcement in King County and their families have not had the opportunity to have an inquest, to kind of get any kind of closure as to what happened to their loved one. And because this is all held up in court, or was held up in court, none of those could proceed.

But so, an amazing thing did happen, which is that the Washington State Supreme Court issued a decision that not only allowed the inquest reforms to move forward, but it actually added something that makes them stronger. So initially what the inquest is trying to find out is kind of more about like the facts of what happened, that kind of thing. But what the Supreme Court said was that they should also look into whether the act of the officer killing the person was criminal in nature. And so this is important because if this finding came out - again, the inquest process on its own doesn't force any kind of accountability to happen, but you could see that if a finding came out about a case where they said, "Yes, the officer acted criminally," then that would pave the way for a prosecutor - perhaps the King County Prosecutor, perhaps the Attorney General of Washington - to file criminal charges against the officers and hopefully achieve accountability in that way.

Crystal Fincher: [00:28:02] Well, it seems like we just have a continuing mountain to climb when it comes to accountability - and we get good news, and some legislation gets passed, and there's a new process or office. And then we get news like we did from the Office of the Inspector General saying that OPA is toothless and just rubber stamping was happening. So we will continue to keep our eyes on this. 

I especially wanted to talk about this now because there's a lot going on in the world of public safety in Seattle and King County. We have the city-wide elections for everything from the Seattle City Attorney, which is critical in these types of decisions and what is defended and not defended - just the stance on public safety and accountability is for people and SPD - in addition to the mayor and the Council who are setting policy at a City level. You are with People Power Washington, and you actually are trying to inform voters because of this also. What have you guys put together?

Shannon Cheng: [00:29:21] Yeah. So if you have felt frustrated listening to the first part of this show - at how either incompetent or inept everything sounds - you should be angry, and then you should realize that you have power to do something about it. So we have local elections happening this year that are critical to how we move forward in the next four years. The people who we elect are going to get to do things such as select new heads of law enforcement. So in Seattle, we're going to get a new police chief. In King County, we're getting a new sheriff. 

They are also going to be influencing the process by which we negotiate the collective bargaining agreements with our law enforcement guilds and associations. So much of what has stood in the way of accountability - the OPA not having the teeth to be able to do anything, or OLEO not being actually respected as an independent oversight body - is because of the collective bargaining agreements that we have with either the Seattle Police Officers Guild, SPOG, or the King County Police Officers Guild. And so both of these contracts, I think SPOG's is already expired and up for renegotiation and I think the King County Guild's contract is expiring soon. So how the next set of agreements with those guilds gets negotiated will determine whether we are able to oversight bodies that can actually give us true accountability, by which I mean something that is robust, transparent, and that the community can actually trust. It's not just going through an exercise of we did something and then it turns out that Amy can find out there were eight different things wrong with what was done, right? That does not foster trust in the system and so that's what we need. 

And the last thing is just - all these electeds are going to get a say in what our budgets and what our priorities and values are in our communities. We're going to be tackling the economic recovery from the pandemic, trying to address systemic racism in all of our public safety solutions and the criminal legal system. How are we going to deal with homelessness and the climate crisis? Are we going to pick people who are going to act in ways that are equitable to everybody and reduce harm? Or are we going to stick with people who just want to do status quo and like incrementalism? The clock is ticking and we need to act decisively. So I just really encourage -

So to finally answer your question, Crystal, is that our group has put together a voter guide about these issues that surround specifically policing and public safety. So we drafted questionnaires about these issues that matter at the City of Seattle and the King County levels. We also did one for the City of Burien. And we sent them to everybody who's in the primary and got answers back, and so we've put together a guide. You can see it on our website - it's, and then it should be pretty easy to find the voter guide from there. And yeah, you can see the full answers of what candidates said about the questions we asked about these issues, such as the accountability ordinance, the inquests - all of that is up there. I encourage people to look at them and read the answers that people actually wrote back. They're in long form and I think, yeah, we can hopefully get a more nuanced view of how candidates would approach these problems.

Crystal Fincher: [00:32:57] Absolutely helpful. Sometimes it's hard to get a lot of that information all in one place. There has been so much that's happened over such a long period of time, and some of the stuff that candidates have done have been very visible. Some of them are elected and we can see what they've done. Other things, even for the electeds, have not been very visible and some people may not know where candidates stand and what their, I guess, long form takes on issues are. Sometimes in forums there's only time to give a yes or no answer - it's in the middle of a lightning round - when really understanding their perspective and where they're coming from and how they would answer a question in longer than 30 seconds, especially questions as important as how do we keep our community safe and how do we hold accountable people who really hold people's civil liberties in their hands and should be held to a very high standard. So I appreciate both of you taking the time to come onto the program. Again, this is critical. Again, where can people go to find that information on the People Power website?

Shannon Cheng: [00:34:11] Yeah. So our website is And I would also like to add that in addition to the candidate questionnaires, we've also written up issue explainers. If you hear the term Consent Decree, or police accountability ordinance, and you don't know what that necessarily means, we've tried to write up easier-to-understand explanations of what those are, so that when you do read about what the candidate said, you hopefully have a little more context for what they're talking about.

And the final plug is just - please send us feedback about the guide - we are trying to make this to be helpful for you, the voter, to understand the differences between your candidates, because these decisions are really important. So anything that you think would be more helpful to include, or if the explanation doesn't make sense to you - too short, too long - we would love to hear it. And then the other thing we would love to do is try to expand to other jurisdictions for the general election. So if you live somewhere that's not represented in our voter guide and you passionately care about these issues in your local community, reach out to us and we would love to work with you to try to include it and educate constituents in your own community.

Crystal Fincher: [00:35:17] Okay, so if people want to get in contact with you with feedback, or just find out more about you on other platforms, how can they do that?

Amy Sundberg: [00:35:26] Well, in addition to our website, you can also reach us on Twitter - it's @PeoplePowerWA.

Crystal Fincher: [00:35:32] Thank you very much. I appreciate you spending the time with us today.

Thank you for listening to Hacks & Wonks. Our chief audio engineer at KVRU is Maurice Jones Jr. The producer of Hacks & Wonks is Lisl Stadler. You can find me on Twitter @finchfrii, spelled F-I-N-C-H-F-R-I-I, and now you can follow Hacks & Wonks on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Just type in "Hacks and Wonks" into the search bar, be sure to subscribe to get our Friday almost-live shows and our midweek show delivered to your podcast feed. You can also get a full text transcript of this episode and links to the resources referenced during the show at and in the podcast episode notes. 

Thanks for tuning in. Talk to you next time.