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March 3, 2024

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Seattle Police Department brass recommend officer’s firing or suspension over ‘horrific’ comments

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Seattle Police Department commanders have recommended possible termination for a union official who downplayed the death of a young woman struck and killed by a fellow officer last January, agreeing with the department’s civilian watchdog that the union leader acted unprofessionally.

The commanders issued a blistering disciplinary recommendation to police Chief Adrian Diaz on Friday, sweeping aside excuses that Officer Daniel Auderer’s comments about the death of 23-year-old graduate student Jaahnavi Kandula were private or police union business.

“Even crediting your explanation as true, that does not excuse the callousness of your comments,” the commanders wrote to Auderer in a memo The Seattle Times obtained from the Police Department. “Nor does it explain your full-bellied laughter” while discussing Kandula’s death in a South Lake Union crosswalk only hours earlier, the night of Jan. 23, 2023.

The leaders recommended Diaz punish Auderer with a minimum of 30 days off without pay — the most severe SPD discipline short of termination — or fire him.

Diaz is scheduled to hold a disciplinary hearing, where Auderer will be given a last chance to explain himself, on March 4.

“The person whose death caused you such apparent glee is mourned by many who knew her, loved her and were rooting for her to make good here,” the commanders wrote of Kandula, who grew up in India and was a graduate student at Northeastern University’s Seattle campus.

They continued: “The disgrace you have brought to the department on a global scale will undoubtedly stain SPD’s reputation for years, and your insensitivity tarnished some observers’ perceptions of all SPD officers” and put them at risk.

The department leaders disagreed with a finding from the Office of Police Accountability, however, that Auderer’s comments showed bias on the basis of Kandula’s age. They urged Diaz to dismiss that conclusion, arguing it’s poorly supported and could increase the chance of a successful appeal of any final discipline the chief hands down.

Auderer, an SPD traffic officer, had responded from home last January to the East Precinct to determine whether Kevin Dave, the officer who struck Kandula, was impaired, ultimately concluding he was not. Afterward, unaware his body camera was still recording, Auderer called Seattle Police Officers Guild President Mike Solan.

Auderer, the union’s vice president, laughed after stating Kandula was dead, incorrectly said she was “just 26,” and reasoned her young life had “limited value” and that the city should “just write a check.” Solan’s end of the two-minute conversation isn’t heard in the footage.

Solan and Auderer have said their call was private, mostly union-related and never intended to be made public. The conversation went undiscovered until an SPD public-disclosure employee flagged it in September for agency attorney Rebecca Boatright, who referred it to OPA for investigation.

The union officials explained the conversation was born from the “absurdity” of the sudden death of a young person, saying officers often resort to gallows humor to relieve stress.

When Auderer discovered the audio existed and was being sought by the media, he asked OPA Director Gino Betts Jr. for a “rapid adjudication,” admitting the potential policy violation and stating in a letter that he recognized his statements, taken out of context, might be considered “horrifying and crude.”

Betts declined and opened a full-scale investigation.

Solan, the elected president of the roughly 900-member police union, has said that decision amounted to union-bashing during a time when the city and SPOG have been mired in negotiations and working without a contract for nearly three years.

The union didn’t respond to an email seeking comment Saturday.

Betts concluded Auderer’s comments violated SPD policies prohibiting “behavior that undermines public trust,” including “any language that is derogatory, contemptuous, or disrespectful toward any person.”

OPA has not publicly released its full findings in the case, nor has Betts said what discipline he recommended Diaz impose.

The commanders’ disciplinary memo further says that because Auderer was “essentially caught on a ‘hot mic,'” his comments gave many observers what the department officials found to be “an unwitting peek into SPD culture.”

SPD policy also prohibits prejudicial or derogatory language about “someone’s discernible personal characteristics,” such as age, constituting the basis for Betts’ finding that Auderer also engaged in biased policing.

In a memo, SPD Chief Operating Officer Brian Maxey and assistant chiefs Tom Mahaffey and Dan Nelson urged Diaz to dismiss that finding, concluding Auderer’s comments “were not an expression of age-based prejudice.”

The commanders said they worry that if Diaz sustains the bias finding, it could hamper the department’s ability to make Auderer’s discipline stick — distracting from the more serious professionalism finding, should the case wind up in arbitration.

“Rather than augmenting the severity of [Auderer’s] actions, the addition of bias would be a distraction and we believe would ultimately weaken the overall strength of the professionalism finding,” they wrote.

They also pointed to what they called “procedural irregularities” in Betts’ decision to add the bias determination at the last minute after consulting with the Office of Inspector General and the City Attorney’s Office.

“At best, it is a technical violation of the Bias-Free Policing Policy” the commanders wrote. “As such, we submit you overturn the distracting sustained finding of bias and proceed to impose serious discipline, up to and including termination, focusing on the core matter: overwhelmingly destructive unprofessionalism.”

While the commanders acknowledged some won’t welcome their recommendation not to sustain the bias finding, they wrote that they’re “compelled to recommend a course … that is both principled and will serve to make the strongest case for sustainable accountability moving forward.”

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The sustained finding of unprofessional conduct is Auderer’s third during his 14-year SPD career, according to the OPA investigation.

In 2021, for instance, he was disciplined for unprofessional conduct after he wrote in a police report that he had spent half of a 13-hour shift “managing the weekly DSA, Antifa, and various other groups that the city has allowed to grow and flourish by not using the authority of government to keep order and marginalize political violence.”

The most recent OPA investigation also notes that the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission will consider taking action against Auderer’s police certification over his 2023 comments.

Additionally, Auderer’s involvement in the initial investigation into the crash that killed Kandula raised questions about a possible conflict of investigatory interest, prompting the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office to hire an outside firm to review SPD’s work.

A decision about whether Dave, the involved officer, will be charged is expected within the next few weeks.

Auderer, meanwhile, has been pulled off the streets because of widespread outrage over his comments.

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