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Police reform in Seattle is long overdue

Seattle police at a 2010 event, Hempfest. Credit: Joe Mabel/Flickr

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.)

A year-and-a-half ago, in February 2011, I wrote that a fundamental culture shift in the Police Department was necessary to create the lasting reform we desire.

All organizations resist change. We see it in the private sector and inside government. Change is particularly hard in a police subculture where systems, procedures, rules, and hierarchy of command combine with the power and authority we give police officers and the dangers and threats they face.  It’s a volatile mix of ingredients that is both necessary and challenging.

And that’s why the appointment of a federal monitor to oversee implementation of the changes we must adopt to achieve effective and constitutional policing is such a promising step. An experienced, external monitor with direct hands-on police oversight and community engagement experience, a demonstrated ability to create lasting change, and a specific work plan will change the internal dynamics of the Police Department for the better.

It's important that this monitor be someone who can provide strong leadership to craft specific and meaningful policies and procedures, not simply a technician who completes a checklist and announces accomplishments. The monitor must have the legal and policing wisdom to garner the respect and trust of the employees of the Police Department and the people of Seattle. He or she must be a leader who inspires confidence, understands the importance of effective policing and the power of police legitimacy from the public’s perspective.

Selecting the right monitor is the fundamental linchpin in achieving success with this endeavor. Get the wrong monitor and we will likely once again find ourselves in the familiar cycle of reform followed by crisis followed by more reform that we’ve experienced since the early ‘90s.

Federal monitoring of the Los Angeles Police Department led to more effective policing and renewed public trust and confidence in law enforcement. Three Harvard University researchers summarized these findings in a 2009 report:

We found the LAPD much changed from eight years ago, and even more so in the last four or five years. Public satisfaction is up, with 83 percent of residents saying the LAPD is doing a good or excellent job; the frequency of the use of serious force has fallen each year since 2004. Despite the views of some officers that the consent decree inhibits them, there is no objective sign of so-called “de-policing” since 2002; indeed, we found that both the quantity and quality of enforcement activity have risen substantially over that period. The greater quantity is evident in the doubling of both pedestrian stops and motor vehicle stops since 2002, and in the rise in arrests over that same period. The greater quality of stops is evident in the higher proportion resulting in an arrest, and the quality of arrests is evident in the higher proportion in which the District Attorney files felony charges…Indeed, recorded crime is down in every police division in the city.

The federal settlement and the appointment of an oversight monitor allow us to shift our focus to the important work at hand: successfully addressing the concerns the OPA Auditors have raised for two decades and getting on with the business of improving public safety. The people of Seattle deserve this and so do the women and men of the Police Department.

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