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Seattle police reform: Finally moving briskly forward

Headed in the right direction. Credit: smohundro/Flickr

Seattle’s police department reforms are entering a new phase. As key reform-related policies are cemented, the focus will shift toward training programs and technology upgrades, Mayor Ed Murray and others involved in the process said on Monday.

The Mayor discussed progress on the federally mandated reforms with law enforcement and U.S. Department of Justice heavyweights during morning meeting at City Hall. Among those on hand were Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, Jocelyn Samuels, U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan, interim Chief of Police Harry Bailey and federal police monitor Merrick Bobb. 

“This marks an end as well as a beginning,” Murray said. “We are making significant progress toward reforming the Seattle Police Department.”

The city, the police department, the Department of Justice, the monitor’s team and the Community Police Commission have worked together to draft new policies that meet reform requirements. A federal judge approved new use of force policies last December. The department also recently adopted new policies related to biased-free policing and “Terry stops,” which occur when an officer stops, or briefly detains, a person who is acting suspiciously.

The reform process stems from a 2011 Department of Justice investigation that found patterns of excessive force and inconclusive evidence of biased policing within the Seattle Police Department.

The challenge now, is putting what’s on paper into practice. Some of that responsibility will fall on Assistant Chief Tag Gleason, who was tapped last week to lead the Bureau of Compliance and Professional Standards. The bureau contains the department’s education and training section, which houses units devoted to firearms and field training.

The policies need to be translated, Gleason said, so that officers can apply them “on the street, in an alley, in the middle of the night, under difficult circumstances.”

Bobb’s monitoring team, the Department of Justice and former city councilmember Tina Podlodowski, who is overseeing police reform issues for the Mayor’s Office, will collaborate with the police department to develop new training procedures and manuals.

Seattle’s police recruits are trained with other rookie officers from around the state at an academy in Burien, run by the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission. Executive director Sue Rahr, a former King County Sheriff, has gained attention in policing circles for her focus on training cops to be “guardians” rather than “warriors” and has changed academy procedures to be less “boot camp” oriented.

But for now, Rahr said in an email, it seems that the Seattle Police Department "is doing all their training related to the settlement agreement 'in house.'" The Settlement Agreement is one of the legal documents guiding the reforms.

Rahr is on a committee that the department consults about crisis intervention training. The training is designed to help officers divert people with mental health and drug dependency problems away from the criminal justice system, toward the appropriate care. 

As a part of the reform process, the department is creating a new crisis intervention policy. A draft version says that, "All SPD officers will receive basic training on crisis intervention." This entails a 40-hour initial course and an eight hour refresher each year thereafter. The department, as far as Rahr knows, has not decided how to provide the training.

There are funds available to the state training commission, she said, through the King County Mental Illness and Drug Dependency levy, to provide crisis intervention training to all law enforcement personnel in King County, including the Seattle police.

"We are willing and available to assist in any way we can," she said.

Murray said on Tuesday that he thinks Seattle recruits should train in an urban setting. While he continues to support the idea of a Seattle Police Academy, he admits “there are huge hurdles for that,” and he does not “know if that’s going to be the answer.” 

Computer upgrades are also in the works. The monitor’s team has said in past reports that the police department will not be able to meet the requirements outlined in the Settlement Agreement without better tech tools.

The agreement says that the department needs a reliable “early intervention system” that can help to identify officers exhibiting troubling behavior. The department, the agreement says, should be able to “collect, maintain and retrieve information” about use of force, administrative complaints and officer reviews.

A December report, prepared by Price Waterhouse Coopers, said the department was relying too heavily on uncoordinated and paper-based systems to store and manage data needed for the early intervention system.

The report recommended a custom built, “business intelligence system,” with an estimated upfront cost of $11.87 million. That figure could change once the department actually bids-out the project. For now, Murray said, there is not a timeline in place for developing and implementing the custom system. There is $3 million set aside in a reserve fund in the 2014 City Budget for “business intelligence and overtime.” 

In the near term, the city has purchased off-the-shelf “IAPro Blue Team” software, which the department will use to collect and analyze data on use of force incidents, Terry stops and misconduct cases. The software and training cost $40,000 and servers to run the system cost an additional $61,000.

Monday’s meeting came on the heels of leadership and bureau-structure changes at the police department. Bailey announced last week that he was restoring Nick Metz, an assistant chief demoted to the rank of captain last November, to his former post. Bailey also moved most reform-related functions at the department into the Bureau of Compliance and Professional Standards, led by Gleason. Homeland security-related units, meanwhile, were separated from Special Operations into their own bureau.

Remarks during a press conference after the meeting provided a contrast to a critical monitor’s report issued last November, which said the department’s top brass were moving too slowly to implement reforms.

“Despite, sometimes, the bumps in the road over the last 18 months, we’ve made tremendous progress,” U.S. Attorney Durkan said. “Everyone that is essential for reform is moving in the same direction, in the right direction.”

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