On July 27, the city took a significant step toward reform of the Seattle Police Department and improving public safety when the mayor agreed to a settlement and related companion agreement with the Department of Justice after seven months of negotiations.
But what kind of reform do we want? Who will decide? How will we know when we achieve it? These are important questions that are not answered with any precision in the settlement documents. The answers are left to a federal monitor (appointed in the next couple of months), city policymakers, police commanders, and a new citizen commission (also appointed in the next couple of months).
The reform I’m eager to achieve will celebrate police excellence, reward officers who exercise effective leadership, embrace constitutional principles, and prompt active praise of our officers and deep appreciation from the people of Seattle. This is the reform that is essential and long overdue.
Achieving and sustaining this type of reform means far more than new policies, more training, and better supervision. It means deep shifts in culture and practice that both improve police effectiveness and restore public trust.
Effectiveness and trust takes on added urgency in light of new crime statistics released this week. The four major violent crimes tracked by police — homicide, rape, aggravated assault, and robbery — increased 9 percent in the first six months of the year compared to the same period last year. Property-related crimes — burglary, theft, and vehicle theft — rose 1 percent.
My council colleagues and I receive a steady stream of complaints about crime and disorder, everything from open-air drug dealing to gun assaults, smash-and-grab thefts, and residential burglaries. These complaints are as persistent as the crimes themselves and they come from Belltown, the central waterfront, Pioneer Square, Rainier Valley, the Chinatown/International District, Lake City, the University District, and other areas.
A New Yorker who recently relocated here wrote in The Seattle Times about his experience with Seattle street crime. He wasn’t complimentary. While his diagnosis might not be totally correct, his frustration is not at all unique. Many Seattleites think we’ve given up and allowed the drug traffickers, muggers, and thieves to take over our streets and sidewalks and do as they please.
No matter your opinion about the Justice Department’s investigation or the terms of the settlement, we can all agree on this core premise: Seattle needs a police force that is effective in preventing crime, apprehending those who commit crimes and making all of Seattle’s neighborhoods safe.
Preventing crime and maintaining safe neighborhoods is the Police Department’s primary mission. But, how our officers accomplish this task is equally important.
Concerns about use of force, racially biased policing, training, and de-escalation skills have lingered for many, many years. The proliferation of smart phones and other video recording devices has turned some incidents into media mega-events that hammer home a perception that our officers are engaged in widespread misconduct. The Justice Department’s finding in their December report that up to 20 percent of use of force incidents involve unconstitutional practices certainly fueled these concerns.
Frankly, we shouldn’t be surprised by the outcry over some police practices. We’ve seen documentation dating back to the early 1990s that affirms the questions and concerns.
Former King County Superior Court Judge Terry Carroll was appointed as the first civilian auditor of the Police Department’s Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) in 1992. He identified early on and then wrote about improper use of force, minor incidents becoming major incidents, lack of de-escalation training, and insufficient internal controls. His successor, the former United States Attorney for Western Washington, Kate Pflaumer, issued similar findings, as did Washington State Court of Appeals Judge Michael Spearman, who followed Pflaumer. So has the current OPA Auditor, former Judge Anne Levinson.
Carroll, Pflaumer, Spearman, and Levinson have been consistent and clear in their findings and admonitions over the years — the Police Department has a serious problem with some officers who use excessive force, some who allow minor incidents to escalate out of control, and insufficient training in de-escalation. (Read OPA Auditor reports here.)
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!