In what many news outlets are characterizing as a "rare move", Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O'Toole has reversed findings of misconduct against three police officers who, after hearing gunshots, returned fire on the car they mistakenly believed to be the source of the gunfire. No one was injured by the officers' shots.
New Years Eve Night 2014 was dubbed in social media as "Kill the PIG Night" in Seattle. The officers involved in the shooting were investigating reported domestic violence in South Seattle. In addition to the current domestic situation for which they were dispatched, officers were also aware that a fatal drive-by shooting had occurred earlier in the night in the same neighborhood and the shooter was still at large. As they approached the residence, the officers came under gunfire. They believed that a car traveling towards the patrol car in the opposite lane was the source of the gunfire, and returned shots. After the shooting, it was revealed that the shots had come from a different car, driving behind the car the officers first suspected.
The Office of Police Accountability (OPA) is an independent office within the Seattle Police Department which investigates complaints of police misconduct made by members of the community and complaints made internally by members of the Seattle Police Department. When police conduct, such as an officer-involved shooting, is reviewed by the OPA, the findings are submitted to the Seattle Police Chief (currently O'Toole), who has the ability to uphold or overturn the findings. In cases where the Chief overturns OPA findings, such as the New Years Eve Incident, the Chief must submit a letter detailing the reason for this decision and submit it to the Mayor and the City Council President.
In her letter overturning the December 2014 shootings, Chief O'Toole stated that officer-involved shootings are of significant concern to the community and the department, and that careful review of them is taken “extremely seriously.” In a candid comment, O'Toole wrote that she would have done the same thing as the officers given the circumstances.
O'Toole has received support for her decision from the Seattle Police Officers' Guild as well as from Pierce Murphy, the OPA's civilian director, who said the outcome of the shooting investigation “speaks highly” of a careful oversight process in which the conduct was closely reviewed, with differing viewpoints.
Police oversight and accountability is an issue that city officials have been taking seriously in Seattle and across the state of Washington, with a new bodycam initiative designed to add transparency and crack down on police misconduct. The footage of the December 2014 shooting was captured on patrol car video and aided the OPA in investigating the conduct of the officers involved.