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Seattle police oversight agency struggles to handle avalanche of complaints

Police stand in a line on the streets of downtown Seattle during protests in May.
Parker Miles Blohm
KNKX (file)
Police stand in a line on the streets of downtown Seattle during protests in May.

The Seattle agency that investigates complaints against police is struggling to keep up with the volume of filings. Andrew Myerberg, director of the Office of Police Accountability or OPA, said there are 87 active investigations related to this summer’s protests. 


He said 80 to 90 percent of the complaints allege excessive use of force by police. Meanwhile, he said investigators are still handling their regular caseloads.

Initially, Myerberg promised to resolve protest-related complaints within 60 days, but he said that hasn’t been possible given the high number of complaints and their complexity. He said in a typical non-protest related complaint, someone reports a single incident related to a specific officer. Allegations of police misconduct during demonstrations are usually more complicated.

For example, someone will say they were hit by a blast ball but the person doesn’t know which officer shot it. He said sometimes viral videos don’t tell the whole story.

“It may be the case that we can identify misconduct and make a finding based on that 20 seconds of video on Twitter," he said. "But in most cases there’s a substantial amount of body-worn video and recordings by community members we need to also review before we can reach a conclusion.”

Myerberg said his job is to review all the evidence. The Office of Police Accountability has to determine if use of the less lethal tool, such as pepper spray or blast balls, was “reasonable, necessary and proportional to the threat faced by officers.”

While he’s still in the middle of processing complaints, Myerberg said he’s confident some will result in officers being disciplined, although ultimately it’s not up to him. He can recommend disciplinary action, but the police chief is the final arbiter.

One result of things playing out on social media is that when an incident goes viral, complaints pour in. Of the 19,000 individual complaints the Office of Police Accountability has received, 14,000 are related to a single case, that of a young child being pepper sprayed during a protest on Seattle’s Capitol Hill on May 30. Myerberg said 99 percent of people who lodged the complaints didn’t directly witness it, but saw the viral video. Myerberg said the oversight agency used to require that people be a direct witness to file a complaint, but that rule has changed.

“We wanted to make sure that we were able to act if we saw evidence of police misconduct on a video posted to Twitter,” he said.

Myerberg said he is empathetic to people who want complaints to be resolved quickly. In order to keep people apprised of what’s happening, the OPA has set up a dashboard that tracks the progress of investigations. The next update to the dashboard will be Sept. 4, according to the agency.

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