Pierce Murphy isn’t a police chief, but he’s been listening to complaints about law enforcement for more than 15 years. After a long stint as community ombudsman for Boise, Idaho — where, according to this Seattle Times op-ed, he “developed strategies to limit taser usage and shooting at moving vehicles” — Murphy headed to Seattle to become director of the city’s professional accountability office in 2013. (He was a police officer in California in the ’70s before switching to human resources consulting.)
Arriving in the wake of a 2011 federal civil rights investigation that found the Seattle Police Department were regularly engaging in excessive use of force — a finding that has resulted in federal oversight — Murphy’s job has been challenging from the start. (Just in the past couple of weeks, there’s been a controversy over cops leaving racist messages over social media.)
Policing controversies over the last year have raised the profile of offices like Murphy’s. Cities need people working in civilian oversight to arbitrate between police departments and the public, as well as clarify the role and the rights of both. I spoke to Murphy about his priorities for the future, the lessons he’s learned and the role of police during times of civil unrest.
Has this been as momentous of a year for you as it seems it would be, because of the events in Ferguson and New York?
It is a momentous year for anyone in civilian oversight of law enforcement or police accountability because of that. Particularly here in Seattle because we are now in the third year of [having the U.S. Department of Justice oversee us]. That makes it particularly challenging and a great opportunity here in Seattle to make some real headway in police reform.
Pierce Murphy (Source: Seattle Office of Professional Accountability)
What were some of your priorities after coming into office?
My first priority was — and still is, since it is a work in progress — was to restore public trust in the police accountability system that’s in place. That’s really the highest priority, and it’s something I think I’ve made some headway on, but there’s still a lot to do. The next priority, which is high up there too, is to be part of an effort to strengthen the accountability and community oversight system here in Seattle. That’s something we’ve already done some work on in terms of drafting proposals and getting community and law enforcement input into it, but now we are in the process of getting that package of changes through both legislation and bargaining with the police officers’ guild.
What are some of the accountability strategies that you think might work in Seattle, but maybe in some other cities across the country too?
It’s very difficult to build public trust in any sort of accountability or reform system of law enforcement if there’s a lack of transparency. And that means that the old ways that law enforcement has been so used to for many decades of telling the public, ‘We’ll take care of the problem. Thank you for letting us know you had a bad interaction. Please trust us to police ourselves.’
Any profession would like to feel their constituents trust them to hold themselves accountable. I don’t believe that’s possible in this environment and at this time in American policing history. There has to be a continuous move towards transparency and public involvement in some way in that process.
What do you think the role of the police should be when there’s protest and civil unrest?
That’s a very difficult position that police are put in. … Obviously they need to protect and facilitate the right of individuals or groups to protest and exercise their first amendment right not only to freedom of speech, but — particularly in this context — to address the government for redress of wrongs and to assemble together. The police are put in a position of really needing to protect those rights and facilitate the exercise of those rights, but at the same time, do it in a way that injury to lives and property is prevented as much as possible. Trying to keep those competing interests in the right tension is extremely difficult.
What is an important lesson that you’ve learned over the years?
I suppose the most important lesson I’ve learned in the more than 15 years I’ve been involved in the civilian oversight of the police, has been to never jump to conclusions or take anything at face value. Be persistent and curious about what else might be out there. Keep an open mind. Let the evidence and the facts draw you where they take you. The best answer when someone either complains about the police or the police give an explanation about something that’s happened, the best first initial answer is, ‘Well, maybe.’
The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Alexis Stephens was Next City’s 2014-2015 equitable cities fellow. She’s written about housing, pop culture, global music subcultures, and more for publications like Shelterforce, Rolling Stone, SPIN, and MTV Iggy. She has a B.A. in urban studies from Barnard College and an M.S. in historic preservation from the University of Pennsylvania.