What would real reform of Seattle police practices look like?

Faced with widening citizen anger, the city needs to seize control of police accountability and oversight.

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Seattle and Portland police have been more aggressive than many departments in addressing juvenile prostitution cases.

Faced with widening citizen anger, the city needs to seize control of police accountability and oversight.

The Seattle Police Department’s problems don’t seem to be getting any better.  A recent public meeting intended to calm the public and smooth public relations ended in a shouting match.  It will take more than words to quell the anger.

Videos of various police actions, culminating in the shooting of John T. Williams, the Native American wood carver, by officer Ian Birk, have caused widespread public disapproval. The unfortunate death of Williams at the hands of Birk has angered the Indian community, and other incidents against minorities has raised anger as well. What’s new is that the minority communities are being joined by the general population.

The police have had their own problems.  In Lakewood south of Tacoma, four officers were executed as they were having morning coffee and a Seattle officer was intentionally shot and killed while sitting in his patrol car.  Officers in Pierce and King County have suffered losses, as has the Washington State Patrol. The cops have every reason to be on edge.  If normal police work weren’t dangerous enough, they now appear to be targeted for assassination.

Aside from the violence, Seattle needs some serious work to change the image and behavior of the police department. When Gil Kerlikowske left his post running the SPD, Mayor McGinn needed to find a new chief.  From a nationwide call, not all that many names had sufficient experience to step into a chief’s job in a major city.  McGinn chose chief Diaz, already a veteran of SPD.  Among the finalists was Rick Braziel, an outstanding candidate from Sacramento. Braziel, after an interview with the mayor and the Seattle Police Guild, withdrew his name.  There has been speculation why he suddenly changed his mind after reaching the finals in the selection process.

We don’t know what Rick Braziel may have sensed in the Seattle Police Department or city administration, but his decision to withdraw suggests the problems may be a bigger challenge that we realize.  Police departments in general are hampered by a violent culture, complex administrations, and a public that forms many of its opinions about policing by television.  In the last three decades television has made cop shows and crime and justice a major part of their programming.  So much so, the public begins to believe they know all about crime and cops.  But, reality and television scripts aren’t the same.  Real cops working with real situations face challenges the public rarely sees.

Part of our dilemma as a society is determining how we want our police to protect us.  The perfect blend of how a civil society should operate has always been divided.  America's birth as a nation was a blend of people from very different cultures and experiences with law and order.  America’s western movement portrayed in our history, literature and film accepted shortcuts to justice.  “Hang em high,” was more than a slogan. The frontier, the Indian wars, the violence of survival brought a very different mindset as to what justice really was.  Even today debate over the death penalty is prominent.

As a culture we have made the choice to transfer the responsibility of controlling crime to the police and the justice system.   We have said to our police, in effect, take care of the crime, we can’t be bothered and besides it’s dangerous.

Because they deal with danger, cops have formed unions or associations to deal with the cities that have hired them.  Aside from working hours, pay, retirement, and health care, police unions have written into their contracts a whole host of other provisions.  These include how they are supervised and how the city will deal with an officer who is accused of unprofessional conduct.  In Seattle, the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) was formed to be an independent group chosen to look at officer conduct.  However, the Seattle police guild's contract with the city gives the officers a say in what powers the OPA has. The agreement mandates that the OPA may not assign punishment if an officer is found guilty of misconduct.

Likely because of the dangers in law enforcement, police have become a band of brothers, a brotherhood that supports one another.  Loyalty supports them in dangerous situations, but it can also cause officers to look the other way when their brothers might step away from accepted policy, use too much force, or deviate from prescribed procedure. Called the thin blue line, this characterizes the great divide between officers who stick together to create the law-and-order we expect and those who choose crime.

Guilds can become incredibly powerful.  They can intimidate labor negotiators, city council members, mayors, and even the police chiefs hired to run their departments.  It’s a common belief that police chiefs in Seattle serve at the pleasure of the guild.  A vote of “no confidence” can end a chief’s career. Guilds can use funds for political purposes or to massage media and establish public relations campaigns to shape the image of police culture.  In other cities, the police have used their ultimate weapon, slowing or withholding service.  In practice, the tactic involves slowing response to calls and sometimes crimes are watched but aren’t pursued.  It’s a technique that seems to work.  Mayors, city council members and city managers across the country usually fold at the bargaining table facing a hostile union.

A cop’s job is to serve and protect.  It’s often an unpleasant job and dangerous as well.  Many believe being a cop is our nation’s most dangerous job.  While very high on the list it isn’t the most dangerous job in the nation, according to the Department of Labor and statistics.  More construction workers die doing their job than police, but it isn’t a fair comparison.  We don’t ask construction workers to confront armed criminals.  Nonetheless any officer killed in the line of duty receives enormous public concern because we care for the men and women who protect us.  Likewise, we don’t like bullies in blue uniforms.

Occasionally however, a citizen dies at the had of an officer where the circumstances cause people to question if the officer made the right decision.  It doesn’t happen often, but often enough to suggest that either some officers either don’t follow their training, misinterpret the level of threat, or even, in rarer cases, might have taken justice into their own hands.  It’s very likely most police officers have never fired their weapon except in practice at the shooting range.  Also most good police forces in the US. go out of their way to select officers who are emotionally stable, well-trained and qualified to do their job.  More than 99 percent of the time, the policies and training work.  But, when training fails or guidelines are unclear, something can go wrong and someone can die.

The public seldom appreciates how incredibly difficult it is for any officer to make split second judgments that determine whether deadly force is justified.  It is for that reason that the police community has steadfastly asserted that they and only they should make the polices regarding deadly or lethal force.  They write the training manuals, and the handbook of rules that establish procedures to cover almost any possible scenario before or after a shot is fired.  They also establish in training what constitutes a threat.  Therein lies the rub.

Seattle, like most departments, has a manual of prescribed policies and behavior. What is not covered in the manual, however, often defines the problem of judgement.  The missing factor is what are officers trained to do.  Police spokespersons quoted after an incident say that the officers have followed their training.  If that training, however, misrepresents or is vague on what consists of a life threatening gesture by a person, then it justifies the officer shooting to kill.

In the recent John Williams shooting, the pocket knife held by Williams was deemed deadly by officer Birk.  Obviously a knife can kill, but at what distance?  If the knife is in the hand of someone within striking distance most would consider that a serious threat.  The farther away the danger diminishes.  If the weapon were a gun that’s a very different threat.

While the rules concerning the use of lethal force and the training officers receive are of obvious critical importance, we can easily overlook the fact that much of the hostility over  police misconduct stems from the perception that the chief, his command staff, and the guild will defend to the bitter end those they know full well were excessively violent or made mistakes that ended in death.  It’s the defense of the very few bullies in blue that makes people so angry.

The vast majority of Seattle officers are amazing well trained individuals who deal on a daily basis with some of the worst people in our culture.  And they do it with civility, sometimes even humor.   They are the professionals who deserve our respect and who are endangered themselves by those in their ranks who clearly aren’t qualified to wear a badge.  Yet sometimes these same fine officers are themselves intimidated by the bullies and racists.   The problem is that our city lacks the courage to exercise civilian control over our police force.  Seattle has administratively forfeited oversight of police accountability.

Four changes might help:

  1. Insure that the Seattle Police department hire a person experienced, accredited, and trained in human behavior, preferably in the mental health profession, to be given the sole responsibility to pass on all new hires and to evaluate all existing force members to qualify them for the right to carry lethal weapons. This person must utilize the most reliable testing and available background information.
  2. The policies regarding the use of lethal force must be removed from the purview of the police force and placed in the hands of new review panel appointed by the mayor and approved by the city council.  Particularly needed is a review of the appropriate responses to deal with the display of different types of weapons. The Guild may not be given the authority to select, recommend, or influence the selection of panel members.
  3. The city must respond by no longer approving or incorporating into a union contract policies or decisions that go beyond pay scales, retirement, sick leave, or any other provision that differs from any other union contract for a clerical or administrative worker. Performance or behavior related decisions or the right to determine who sits on the OPA panel must rest with the chief of police and the OPA, but not become part of the union contract.
  4. Lastly, the police chief may no longer be the only enforcer of unprofessional conduct. The OPA must now gain and share that power to determine guilt and assign the penalty for misconduct.

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