Murky meaning and motives shroud SPD report

The Mayor says his office got short notice about a public report showing steep declines in low-level enforcement. A U.S. Attorney calls the report sub-par.
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Are Seattle cops taking a laissez faire attitude toward low-level crime?

The Mayor says his office got short notice about a public report showing steep declines in low-level enforcement. A U.S. Attorney calls the report sub-par.

When Seattle Police officials unexpectedly dumped a pile of raw data about low level crime enforcement into a recent report, some of the trends sparked concerns among city lawmakers. But the report seems to have raised more questions than it answered; among them, what motivated police officials to share the information.

A U.S. Attorney said on Thursday that the report served no purpose and looked at the wrong data. And while Mayor Ed Murray has called the report's statistics "deeply concerning," he also found it curious that the report was made public with very little advance notice — either to his office or to interim Chief of Police, Harry Bailey.

"Why does information suddenly appear, and then other times you can't find information," the mayor asked, rhetorically, during a recent interview with Crosscut. "It raises questions."

There are also questions about the quality of the report. U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan found it deeply flawed, saying the report drew conclusions based on unrelated datasets, which should not have been combined. "That report is not anything anyone who knew anything about law enforcement would rely upon," said Durkan. "It shows us and tells us absolutely nothing." 

"I was so surprised anyone would hand it out," she said.

Some of the report's data shows a decline in the number of "on-views," which refers to when police officers decide on their own to stop and investigate suspicious activity.

The report looked at on-view data for the first quarter of 2010-2014. (See chart below.) Compared to 2011, on-views in 2014 were down 44 percent. Calls for police service during that time increased 9 percent. The decline in on-views begins in 2012 and continues into 2013 and 2014. This time period coincides with Seattle's federally-mandated police reform process, which began in 2012 and is still underway. The report also shows drops in the number of court filings and citations issued for low level crimes and infractions. But those decreases began before the reforms were underway.

Bob Scales, a police department official who helps oversee reform compliance, initially presented the report during a May 14 meeting of the Community Police Commission. The commission is a community board that provides input on the police reforms. The purpose of the presentation was to provide information for a "disparate impact analysis." A requirement under the department's bias-free policing policy, the analysis is designed to help ensure that stops, citations and arrests do not disproportionally affect people of certain races or ethnicities. But the information pertaining directly to racial disparity did not begin until page 25 of the 49-page report. It is not clear why the report's authors included so many more general statistics.

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A 44-percent drop in police officer "on-views" coincides with Seattle's federally-mandated police reforms. Whether the two are related remains unclear. Source: SPD

Mayor Murray offered one possible explanation: "In some ways," he said, the report "could have been interpreted as 'see what you're doing, federal government.'" In short, pushback from individuals inside the police department against the federal reform process.

Some patrol officers in the department have voiced concerns about reform-related policies. Last week about 120 officers filed suit — against Seattle and a number of federal and local officials, including the mayor — over the department's new use-of-force policies. The policies, which went into effect Jan. 1, 2014, provide guidelines for when and how officers should use force. The suit claims the guidelines are unclear and overly complicated, which makes it difficult for officers to do their jobs without risks to themselves and others.

Officers not involved in the suit agree that some of the new policies are changing the way cops patrol the streets. "We're seeing a culture where there's a resistance to act," said one officer, who asked not to be identified.

City Council member Bruce Harrell, who chairs the committee that handles public safety, has heard this type of feedback from city police. "What they're saying is, 'I may see someone walking with an open container, who's probably underage as well, and if I get out and this conversation goes a little sideways, and a complaint is filed against me, and we're being scrutinized to that extent, it's easier for me to just say nothing to that person.'"

"By their own admission they're not being as aggressive, or as assertive as possible," he said.

Ron Smith, President of the Seattle Police Officers Guild, offered a similar assessment. Smith said that since a 2011 Justice Department investigation, which led to the current reform process, patrol officers have changed the way they approach low-level crime. They might not chase a suspect who steals a six-pack of beer, because they do not want to create a situation where the suspect might fall and get hurt. “Officers are working smarter," he said.

What is driving the enforcement trends in the report is far from clear, according to U.S. Attorney Durkan. Police are stopping and arresting far fewer people in Seattle for marijuana-related infractions, she notes. But "we can't tell from these datasets how many of those stops that are not happening now are due to the policy change and not policing change."

Nobody at the Seattle Police Department was available to comment on the report on Friday.

Asked about the report a few days after it was presented, Lisa Daugaard, a public defender who co-chairs the Community Police Commission, seemed to echo some of the views that Durkan would later express. "I'm confident," said Daugaard, "that there are multiple causes underlying those numbers."

To make her point, Daugaard referred to a 2010 incident that occurred near Franklin High School. During that incident, a shoving match broke out after an officer stopped a teenage girl for jaywalking. When another girl jumped in, the officer punched the second girl in the face. After that, said Daugaard, city officials questioned whether jaywalking citations should be a priority. Officers began taking a gentler approach, simply engaging in friendly conversations with pedestrians who were not using crosswalks. As a result, she said, "far fewer jaywalking citations are being issued in recent years. It doesn't mean officers are lazy, and it doesn't mean officers are mad at the Justice Department."

According to Mayor Murray, the report came somewhat unexpectedly. The chief of police knew of its existence only "shortly before" it was presented to the Community Police Commission. His office, said the mayor, found out the day before. While the mayor does not plan to devote much time to figuring out why the data was released the way it was, his office is continuing to dig into the information.

In the meantime, Murray has his eye on bigger data-related issues in the department. "I am going to figure out how we make a police department function that collects data that actually matters in reducing crime and or deals with police who are not being good players," Murray said. "That's what we're going to focus on."


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