The cost of Seattle police reform
by Bill Lucia
Headed in the right direction. Credit: smohundro/Flickr
Reforming the Seattle Police Department is getting pricey.
The city has already spent at least $5.4 million on reform-related expenses and Merrick Bobb, the monitor overseeing the federally mandated process, is recommending technology upgrades that could cost the city almost $12 million.
The police department has already shelled out about $4 million on budget items tied to reforms, including new staff, overtime and training, according to the City Budget Office and Bobb's team has billed Seattle $860,663 for a 13-month period that ended in November 2013. The highest monthly invoice the team has submitted so far was for last October: $99,255. And the city dropped another $473,268 on the community police commission working with the monitor on reform.
Meanwhile, in a report issued last December, the monitoring team recommended that Seattle purchase a custom-designed system to store, manage and analyze police department data. The projected pricetag: about $11.87 million. The beefed-up technology, known as a "business intelligence system," would likely cost an additional $904,880 a year to maintain, according to the report. All the numbers in the report are estimates and developing the system would require more analysis.
The 2014 city budget shows $3 million in a reserve fund for police department "business intelligence and overtime." The money is included in “Finance General,” a section of the budget where the city can set aside general fund dollars. The budget says: “The City will hold the funding in Finance General until it determines final costs of the new system.”
Guiding the reform process is a settlement agreement, which was forged between Seattle and the federal government in 2012 after a 2011 Department of Justice investigation found patterns of excessive force violations within the city's police department.
Bruce Harrell, who heads the City Council’s Public Safety, Civil Rights and Technology Committee, Tim Burgess, who chairs the Budget Committee and Mayor Ed Murray's office did not respond to requests for comments about the city’s police reform expenditures. The monitoring team would not comment on the business intelligence system, or on whether the upgrades would definitely be required in order for the city to meet the terms of the settlement agreement.
The business intelligence system, said the team's report, would allow the department to better track officer activities and performance. It would specifically gather information related to use-of-force, administrative investigations, complaints, car crashes, pursuits and lawsuits.
The report says that the department’s current data management regime relies too heavily on paper documents, and contains unreliable and out-of-date information scattered across multiple, uncoordinated computer systems. The department currently spends about $15.8 million each year on information technology, including desktop computers, radio networks, software and staff. By tracking departmental data more closely, police supervisors would presumably be able to intervene early if an officer is having performance problems.
"The Monitor has identified a number of deficiencies with the Seattle Police Department’s (SPD) current business processes and systems that may hinder compliance with the Settlement Agreement," the report says.
The settlement agreement does say that the department should have an “early intervention system,” that can be used to “assist officers in avoiding potentially troubling behavior,” and that the department should also be able to “collect, maintain and retrieve information” about use of force, administrative complaints and officer reviews.
A July 2013 report issued by the Police Executive Forum, a nonprofit professional organization for law enforcement chief executives, suggests that strong early intervention systems, can improve departments. New Jersey's former Attorney General said in the report that during an effort to reform the state's police the early intervention system "was very expensive and difficult to develop, but it was the critical component."
The City Budget Office began tracking reform costs in October 2012, the same month that a federal judge approved Bobb as Seattle’s monitor. The budget office reports the costs to the City Council each month. The latest report was filed on Dec. 20 and showed expenses through November 2013.
The figures in the cost reports include some 2012 expenditures that were not directly linked to the settlement agreement, including money spent on the city's Race and Social Justice Initiative and the police department's "20/20 Vision Plan." In July 2013, the city changed the way it tracked reform-related costs to zero-in on expenses associated with the settlement agreement and monitoring plan.
The monitoring team's latest report notes that in terms of capturing expenses resulting from the settlement agreement itself, some of the city's early cost estimates were not "well-supported" and that, "as result of previously used methods, forecasts and summaries of costs associated with compliance prior to August 2013 cannot be considered accurate."
Members of the team, which include lawyers, policy experts and current and former law enforcement professionals, are paid from $80 to $250 per hour. The Seattle Police Monitor website lists 14 team members. Between $25,750 and $43,750 of the monthly monitoring team expenditures have gone to the Police Assessment Resource Center, a nonprofit founded by Bobb, who serves as the organization's president and executive director.
For now, Seattle's reforms seem to have a lower price tag than those in some other cities. New Orleans is currently engaged in a similar settlement agreement with the federal government. Estimates for the city's annual reform-related expenses range from $7 million and $22 million.
Among eight cities examined in the Police Executive Forum report, the shortest reform process lasted five years. Other cities are engaged in processes that have lasted more than 10 years and are ongoing.
Mayor Murray, who on Wednesday replaced Seattle’s interim chief of police Jim Pugel with former assistant chief Harry Bailey, has said that he would like to see the reform process conclude as quickly as possible. He declined to offer specifics when asked about his preferred timeframe.
Seattle's monitoring team declined to comment on how much longer the process would take, and how much more it is likely to cost.