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Don’t let mayoral maneuvering muck up SPD reform

Seattle Police vehicles (in Belltown, 2008). Credit: Dmitri Fedortchenko/Flickr

 

Reforming a large and complex department like SPD is a difficult task in an average year. With hundreds of thousands of interactions with the public, police officers are by far the most visible government employees. And – because we give them the authority to arrest and even use deadly force when necessary – one of the most highly scrutinized.

But 2013 will be no average year. We are embarking on what can only be characterized as a mayoral lottery election. The filing deadline is still months away and eight candidates have already declared. It’s getting hard to keep track of them all. In such a crowded field, being recognized for a signature issue is critical to establishing yourself as a candidate. This is where SPD and reform efforts are in real danger of being held hostage: Political posturing and competitive press releases are struggling to be heard above the din.

Already, in response to Councilman Bruce Harrell’s announcement that he’s joining the fray, Councilman Tim Burgess has called for the removal of the police chief. Harrell, who has been a critic of the SPD, has advocated things like body cameras for officers. Burgess, who does not want to surrender his place as law enforcement expert to Harrell, seems to be guarding his flank in much the same way he captured the arena issue from the mayor. (Following the announcement of the Sacramento Kings ‘sort of deal’, it was Burgess who called press to Key Arena, capitalizing on the mayor’s absence in D.C.)

SPD will undoubtedly be a signature issue in the campaign. I predict that the annoying “yes/no” paddle games at the various interest group meetings will feature a question on whether or not to fire the chief. It’s hard to see how Chief Diaz could remain in place when all is said and done, but it’s also hard not to feel for him. It’s very uncomfortable having your name called out every day in the news.

That brings us to the new citizen panel convened by the mayor and council, the Community Police Commission. These 13 people, plus one each from the Seattle Police Management Association and the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, will help implement the reforms laid out in the agreement reached between the city and the Department of Justice.

The majority of panel members are social justice activists and non-profit leaders. The absence of neighborhood representation or neighborhood business districts on the commission is hard to miss. Perhaps this is an intentional move on the part of the mayor to shore up a part of his base that has moved away from him.

Co-Chairs Lisa Daugaard, deputy director of the Defender Association, and Diane Narasaki, the Executive Director of the Asian Counseling & Referral Service, are both well-acquainted with local politics and understand how City Hall works. Ms. Daugaard has been at the center of many of these debates around law enforcement for years.

Not surprisingly, some committee members are a part of the coalition that urged the Department of Justice to investigate the SPD for racially biased policing. Jennifer Shaw, with the ACLU of Washington, has been a strong critic of Seattle’s law enforcement practices and often quotes data from a study conducted by UW professor Katherine Beckett (more on that later). Others on the committee have been involved in issues of racial disparities in crime and law enforcement as well.

The committee also has a share of expertise in mental health, addiction and homelessness. Bill Hobson, with the Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC), will not be shy about his opinions. This is not his first rodeo. Kate Joncas with the Downtown Seattle Association has a strong understanding of the need for treatment and housing as a component of safe streets and has forged strong relationships with service providers like the DESC. She has a strong collaborative instinct and will help keep things moving. (Crosscut contributor and former City Council member Tina Podlodowski is also a member.)

The two cops on the committee, Captain Joe Kessler and police Guild representative Kevin Stuckey, will provide great benefit to the group’s work as well. Captain Kessler is just coming off a tour as Commander of the West Precinct (downtown, Belltown, Pioneer Square and the International District). This is the busiest precinct in the city and his insights will be important to the group’s deliberations. Officer Stuckey is a longtime board member of the Guild.

Overall, the makeup of the group probably causes some concern within the ranks of SPD. The past few years have been full of tumult and uncertainty for the average patrol officer. Will this reform effort provide some stability and improve relations between officers and the public? We’ll see, but the real challenge facing the committee will be to do their work without being influenced by the political winds blowing so hard this year.

The most important way for the council to hold politics at bay and inspire confidence among both community members and police officers is to make sure the committee is operating from a broad and shared set of facts.

So far, UW Professor Katherine Beckett’s is the only study that seems to be quoted (Beckett et al., 2005, 2006). Beckett’s study found that racial disparities in drug arrests in Seattle could not be explained by race-neutral factors such as crime rates or community complaints. The ACLU and others have used this study to argue to the DOJ that the SPD is involved in biased policing. The DOJ stopped short of endorsing this finding, but asserted that it may be taking place and needs more study.

Luckily, more data has since emerged that can help us understand these issues even further. A November 2012 study published in “Criminology and Public Policy” examined Professor Beckett’s findings and comes to some very different conclusions. The Robin Engel study finds that police deployment to specific crime hotspots – as identified through calls for service from citizens – leads to a racial disproportionality in arrests.

In fact, the targeted deployment of police to crime hotspots such as downtown’s 3rd Avenue is an official city policy. The disproportionate arrest rate will continue as long as this policy remains in place.

Deploying police officers more evenly to provide enforcement without regard to crime rates or calls from citizens would likely reduce arrests, but the people in the neighborhoods most affected will still fall victim to crimes disproportionately and will continue to demand more police services. The committee should examine both studies in order to fully inform their thinking.

Additionally, the committee should take another look at the DOJ report on SPD’s use of force. Seattle University Professor Matthew Hickman recently released his review of the DOJ report using the same SPD data. Professor Hickman early on pointed out problems in the report and has now released his full findings.

Where the DOJ alleged that police used excessive force 20 percent of the time force was used, Professor Hickman found that only 3.5 percent of instances were potentially excessive. Still, he cautions that more analysis is needed. “Public outrage and calls for a DOJ investigation cannot be ignored,” he writes, “…When a law enforcement officer uses force against a citizen it is disturbing.”

To be sure, there are problems to be solved and hard questions to ask. The public should watch how the work of the committee proceeds and what information and briefings are requested. The committee’s openness to new information and different points of view will be proof that this process is not bound by politics, but takes a longer view.

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