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With Police Reform's Future in Jeopardy, Seattle Proves Its Positive Impact on Use-of-Force

Five years after the U.S. Justice Department found Seattle police officers too often resorted to excessive force, the federal monitor overseeing court-ordered reforms issued a glowing report Thursday concluding the department has carried out a dramatic turnaround.


By Steve Miletich

Five years after the U.S. Justice Department found Seattle police officers too often resorted to excessive force, the federal monitor overseeing court-ordered reforms issued a glowing report Thursday concluding the department has carried out a dramatic turnaround.

Crediting Mayor Ed Murray, Police Chief Kathleen O'Toole and, most of all, the Seattle Police Department's men and women, the monitor, Merrick Bobb, found overall use of force is down and, when officers do use it, it is largely handled in a reasonable way consistent with department policies.

As a result, Bobb found the department to be in substantial compliance -- formally known as initial compliance -- with core provisions of a 2012 consent decree that required the city to adopt new policies and training to address excessive force.

"The significance and importance of this finding cannot be understated, as this report makes clear," Bobb wrote in the 102-page assessment. "It represents a singular and foundational milestone on SPD's road to full and effective compliance -- and represents Seattle crystallizing into a model of policing for the 21st century."

Moreover, use of force has dropped even as officer injuries have not gone up and crime, by most measures, has not increased, Bobb and his monitoring team write in the report.

O'Toole shared the results in a departmentwide email Monday afternoon, saying, "In short, the Monitor's assessment confirms the data that SPD reported on earlier this year: of the hundreds of thousands of unique incidents to which SPD officers respond every year, only a small fraction of one percent result in any use of force."

The report, which has been in the works for some time, comes days after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered Justice Department officials to conduct a review of reform agreements with more than a dozen police agencies nationwide to determine whether they, among other things, undermine officer safety and crime fighting.

While the order could undercut newer agreements reached under the civil-rights emphasis during the Obama administration, officials have said it is unlikely to affect Seattle's pact because it is under the firm control of a federal judge.

The judge, James Robart, has shown an unwavering commitment to Seattle's consent decree, even declaring "black lives matter" during a court hearing, and earlier this year halted the Trump administration's first travel ban.

In a statement Tuesday, Murray said, "Our progress under the Consent Decree cannot be undone by empty bureaucratic threats. Our police department is well into the process of reform and will continue this work. We are too far along for President Trump to pull us away from justice."

O'Toole, in her email, said the monitor's "remarkable results are not the result of de-policing, as some have charged, nor do they correlate to an increase in crime, as some predicted would occur."

Rather, dispatch data show the productivity of officers on 911 calls or active patrols is increasing and that crime is down by 10 percent over last year, her email said.

At the same time, the rate of injuries to officers has not increased, the chief added.

"In other words, this reduction in the use of force cannot be attributed to anything other than what can now be statistically shown: officers in the field are de-escalating volatile situations with regularity and skill, putting in practice the training that has established Seattle as a national leader in policing reform," O'Toole wrote.

Bobb's report is the most significant so far in a series of ongoing assessments he has been conducting on the department's progress.

"This positive assessment is a credit to the men and women of SPD, from line officers to command staff. They have embraced reform, made it their own, and fundamentally changed what is happening on the streets of Seattle," Annette L. Hayes, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington, said in a statement.

The report, for the first time, examines how officers are using force under new policies and training. Previously, Bobb has found the department to be in initial compliance with other parts of the consent decree, including procedures for crisis intervention, identifying problem officers and investigating and reviewing use of force.

Robart has suggested the department could be found in full compliance with the consent decree next year, but Bobb must complete key reviews regarding discriminatory policing and how people are stopped and detained.

Bobb's report notes that just a few years ago, force often went unreported or, when documented, it was "on paper stuffed, unreviewed, in file cabinets." If investigated, inquiries were typically incomplete or inadequate, the report says.

But with the department now reporting and examining use of force "as never before," it can be analyzed by quantity and quality, Bobb concludes.

Citing data and case samples over a 28-month period, the monitor found overall use of force dropped both across time under the consent decree and when compared to the period that led to the Justice Department's findings in 2011.

In contrast to the 2011 numbers, there has been what appears to be a net decrease of 743 incidents -- a 60 percent drop -- in the use of moderate and high-level use of force. Of 2,385 incidents, 39, or 1.6 percent, stemmed from the most serious type of force, including 15 officer-involved shootings.

The report also notes the use of batons has dramatically declined, as has the use of Tasers.

While the lowest levels of force generally grew over time, the monitoring team surmised that is at least partly due to better reporting that didn't occur before the consent decree and less use of higher-level force.

"Even with expanded or increased reporting, the use of force is an unusual event," the report says.

Of officers who used force, about one-third were involved in one incident and the vast majority of the remaining officers in one to three incidents, Bobb found.

The monitor found some racial disparity in the use of force, but no statistically significant difference in the type or severity. Officers are more likely to point their gun at minorities but are more likely to go "hands-on" with whites, according to the report. The firearm issue deserves more study by the department and others, the report says.

Bobb attributes the overall statistical decrease in the frequency and type of force to the fundamental changes in the use of de-escalation and crisis-intervention techniques, in contrast to the 2011 Justice Department finding that officers would escalate even minor offenses, particularly with people in crisis.

Injuries to officers were flat or went down slightly, prompting the monitoring team to conclude the "decreased use of force has not placed officers at any higher risk or made officers less able or willing to use force to defend themselves from threats or harm."

During the most recent half of the study period, officers used force consistent with policy 99.27 percent of the time, the report found.

Many issues identified in the Justice Department investigation have been eliminated or substantially so, it says, with none touching on prohibitions on using force against people who solely engage in verbal confrontations with officers.

In every case where the monitoring team believed officers acted outside policy, the department's Force Review Board independently reached the same conclusion, Bobb found.

"As this report ... makes clear, police officers in Seattle are frequently tasked with addressing individuals and situations that the rest of the social service fabric has failed, left out, or left behind," Bobb writes. "Their ability to innovate, change approaches, and change the course of the Department while addressing these fundamental duties is commended."

Seattle City Councilmember M. Lorena González, who chairs the council committee that oversees police matters, said in a statement: "Today's report proves the efficacy and importance of consent decrees."

Councilmember Tim Burgess, a leader on police reform who hailed the report as "great news," said in a statement: "Changing culture is slow-going and hard work, but our city's efforts are bearing real, positive results. The officers who are on the street every day deserve all the credit."

(c)2017 The Seattle Times

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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