Special Reports

Only outsiders can cleanse Tacoma's police force

If the City of Tacoma commissions an investigation of the internal workings of its Police Department and no one believes it, why do the investigation at all?

I thought one of the primary goals was to give citizens confidence that problems in the city and the Police Department had been investigated and eliminated. Only then can we begin to move on after the scandal that was revealed - but not created - when David Brame fatally shot his wife and then killed himself.

But if the investigation itself becomes entangled in the same internal politics, the same labor-management squabbling, the same lack of accountability that allowed wrongdoing to fester in the first place, then what's the point?

If no one trusts the result, why bother?

Yet that's what could be happening as two unions - one representing rank-and-file cops and the other captains and lieutenants - challenge the way the investigation of union members is being done. First, both unions say their contract insists that internal affairs investigations are "contract labor," that is, work that must be done by members of the bargaining unit.

Second, the union representing lieutenants and captains is challenging a State Patrol promise to publicly release all documents resulting from its investigation - including documents regarding allegations that prove untrue or unverifiable.

The union leaders might want to portray what they're doing in the language of bargaining rights and member protections. But here's what it looks like: It looks like more of the same from a department that says it wants transparency but does all it can to prevent it. It looks like a cover-up.

On the first issue, it may be that the contract calls for Tacoma cops to conduct Tacoma internal affairs investigations. But that's a contract requirement that must be waived if any union member wants a credible investigation and a professional department. The very basis of the Brame scandal is a department that allowed bad stuff to go unchallenged. As State Patrol investigator Brian Ursino pointed out after his criminal investigation of the city and the department: "What we find shocking, they don't."

So how can such a department now be counted on to root out bad stuff?

The second issue over disclosure of investigation documents is really out of the hands of the unions, the city and the State Patrol. It is covered under state public record disclosure law. Nothing the unions bargain for or the city agrees to can supersede state law. Current case law on unsustained allegations sides with the unions, anyway.

As the details of David Brame's pathology came out, the rank-and-file cops and their supporters claimed it wasn't their fault. The bosses in the police force created a corrupt culture, and those who tried to expose it were punished.

"They see corruption running rampant, and they just lay low," State Patrol Chief Ronal Serpas said in November.

"It's top management," Attorney General Christine Gregoire added. "The culture that is disturbing starts at the top."

I wasn't so sure. It seemed too much to believe that only when cops became supervisors were they enveloped by the corrupt culture. Isn't a willingness to look the other way a form of corruption?

Now is the chance for the average cop to prove us doubters wrong. Now is their chance to do what the union leadership won't do - set aside some contract rights for a greater goal: a real investigation that clears the air and cleanses the department.

Only that - not grievances and lawsuits - can produce for Tacoma's cops a uniform and a badge they can be proud to wear once again.

Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657