A case involving Asian-American teenagers detained by a Seattle police officer for jaywalking sounds routine enough, but the July 2001 incident soon unfolded into highly publicized accusations of racial profiling. The issue landed in the lap of attorney Sandra “Sam” Pailca, the first director of the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) within the Seattle Police Department.
Pailca found that while the officer was rude to the group, his actions did not amount to inappropriate treatment because of race. The police chief agreed with Pailca’s call for minor discipline for the officer, a decision unpopular both in the Asian community and with many in uniform, leading to a police guild no-confidence vote against the chief.
Such is an example of the challenging decisions Pailca makes. She was appointed to the post by the mayor and confirmed by the city council in January 2001. Seattle takes an unusual approach to professional oversight by having a civilian such as Pailca give advice to the chief, mayor, and city council on police accountability issues.
“The structure that Seattle chose is unique; there is no other structure like it in the country,” she says. “This is the first time a city has brought in a civilian to oversee the internal investigation process from the inside.”
A specialist in labor and employment law, Pailca oversees the police department’s complaint process and reviews internal investigations, focuses on community outreach and suggests methods to improve professional standards.
Pailca, 38, graduated from WSU in 1986 with a degree in political science.
The office that Pailca now directs took shape in 1999 after accusations of inadequate management of misconduct complaints, particularly in the alleged theft by a detective of $10,000 from a crime scene. A citizen’s review panel called for the OPA’s creation to restore public confidence. Further attention came with allegations of police brutality during the November 1999 World Trade Organization demonstrations.
Formerly a King County senior deputy prosecuting attorney and briefly the county’s labor relations manager, Pailca said her first OPA priorities were streamlining the public complaint process and taking a customer-service approach.
Pailca adds that the citizen’s panel review of the police department didn’t find significant corruption or brutality problems. “They found a clean department that needed a more modern approach that was more responsive to the community.
“Still, the office can be more effective if it takes a proactive role, such as seeking to improve standards and police/community involvement,” she explains.
Among her work accomplishments, Pailca cites creating an OPA Website for users to register suggestions or complaints and to keep the public better informed. She also has sponsored community forums, explaining the office’s new procedures, and speaks to numerous civic organizations.
Her three-year appointment is subject to renewal in January 2004 for another three-year term.