Out of great adversity often comes opportunity. So it could be at this moment in the history of the Seattle Police Department.
After years of rancor following the fumbled search for a new police chief in 2010, Mayor-elect Ed Murray has the opportunity to create change at SPD. While his predecessor, Mike McGinn, missed or failed to learn from the experiences of sister cities that chose to cooperate with the Department of Justice (DOJ), Murray can accomplish much by reviewing this same landscape. A brief review of what happened in some of those cities could help resolve Seattle's DOJ investigation and uncover many other innovative reforms that can serve as the basis for a new, improved Seattle police force.
Most importantly, Murray should realize that this hire, for better or worse, will set the tone for his first years in office.
So when the new Mayor looks at the experiences of other cities, what will he learn?
Las Vegas, like Seattle, needed to reform the way it reviewed use-of-force by its officers, and better prepare them for policing an urban landscape. In Vegas, instead of dragging their feet after they were made aware of these issues following a series of damning newspaper stories, civic leaders, primarily Las Vegas police chief Douglas Gillespie, reached out to the DOJ to help create change. Thus began an eight-month-long departmental review by Justice, culminating in a 154-page report and scores of recommendations. In less than a year after the report was published, the department had adopted or was in the process of adopting 90 percent of the DOJ reforms. Officer-involved shootings plummeted to almost half their previous levels. All this occurred without a consent decree.
In Cincinnati and Los Angeles, DOJ was also a force for good, collaborating with local law enforcement and city government to create a better police force with a consent decree. In LA, it took only six months for city leaders (including the mayor, police chief and members of the city council) to agree to DOJ’s restrictions. The city created a new data system that tracked the performance of every officer and new management procedures for anti-gang and other problematic “special” units. The city also upped the number of citizen surveys about the quality and fairness of the city’s police force. Through speed and cooperation, officials in LA revolutionized the department.
In Cincinnati, not only did city leaders and the DOJ come to an agreement, they included several community groups in reforms and engaged in a separate settlement with the city and police department that outlined change. In what was later deemed the “Collaborative Approach,” Cincinnati showed that bringing more parties to the table actually fostered success. The city and groups including the Cincinnati Black United Front and the American Civil Liberties Union eventually agreed to over 100 accountability-related management reforms for the police department. Today, experts such as Professor Sam Walker from the University of Nebraska Omaha believe that the Cincinnati example is a model for the country.
And, innovation doesn't need to stop with DOJ.
Across U.S. cities, data-driven programs such as CompStat have firmly established that metrics matter in managing crime. CompStat (an amalgamation of Computer or Comparative and Statistics) is both a management and metric system that tracks crime rates in various jurisdictions to assess local problems and determine where resources should be deployed. First pioneered by the New York City Police Department, and later adopted by LA and Chicago, CompStat was popularized by HBO’s “The Wire” series. It typically features police leadership questioning command staff about the use and deployment of resources (SPD has yet to fully adopt the system). Further, innovations such as focused deterrence, “hot spot policing” and predictive analytics have become national standards, because they lower crime rates.
Other cities are breaking new and exciting ground. New York City’s police department is experimenting with behavioral economics as a way to reduce crime before it happens. In addition to varying 911 response times and patterns for maximum effect, the department is testing whether the language on publicly-owned spaces in hot spots influences the decisions of potential criminals. Research has shown that if residents (especially juveniles) can be encouraged to consider the long-term consequences of their actions, they make better decisions. If police know where many of these questionable decisions happen, perhaps altering the environnment that influences the decisionmakers can help deter crime.
In Chicago, the police department has tested acoustic systems that detect and report shootings before they are reported to 911. Before leaving for New Orleans, Nashville Police Department Chief Ron Serpas considered delving into arrest and crime rate data to determine (using complex algorithms) what constituted “the effective police officer.” Even at home in Seattle, some captains are using micro-targeting techniques that may eventually bear fruit. The Seattle work employs the “Koper curve” concept, which argues for focusing beat patrols for a maximum of 12-16 minutes in particular hotspots, positing that such focus will deter more crime than more random or longer-duration patrols. While the jury is still out on this technique, and SPD is far from creating a culture of change, at least there is some innovation is happening on the ground.
Perhaps the most promising reforms are in the area of “procedural justice,” a concept championed from Australia to the United Kingdom. Conceived of in the U.S. by Yale professors Tom Tyler and Tracey Meares, procedural justice theory argues that our entire criminal justice system relies on the cooperation of communities to keep the peace and build “legitimacy” for the law. But large numbers of the urban poor distrust law enforcement officials. Every interaction between an officer and a member of the community — even arrestees — is a teachable moment that can either build trust or break it down. An embrace of “procedural justice” is a reform measure Seattle could sorely use.
The hiring of a new Seattle police chief will set the stage for the next four years and give a clear insight into Mayor-elect Ed Murray’s vision of leadership and of the city. Murray must review the landscape and hire a change agent who is willing to collaborate with DOJ and create a culture of innovation within SPD. And he should lean on others who are familiar with the national law enforcement landscape to make this call. Councilmembers Tim Burgess and Bruce Harrell come to mind, along with Murray's new consultant Bernard Melekin.
If he nails the police chief search by listening to experts, casting a wide net and making a bold hire, the city may finally enjoy a professional, cutting edge peace force that can heal heal the wounds of the recent past.