Seattle police had a chance to prove abolitionists wrong. They didn’t.

The department's inability to change over the past year has shown that its problems are hardwired into policing, and reform is not working.

Four Seattle police officers wearing gas masks on a street

A Seattle Police Department officer stands on a protester while attempting to disperse others in Seattle's Cal Anderson Park in Capitol Hill on July 25, 2020. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Both detractors and defenders of the Seattle Police Department must reckon with this fact: since renewed calls for police accountability began after the murder of George Floyd last year, Seattle cops have been on their best behavior — at least, the best that they can manage. 

Already under a federal probe that began in 2012 when President Obama’s Department of Justice found the Seattle Police Department repeatedly used force unconstitutionally, Seattle police have been the center of much attention and scrutiny for the past year. In the glare of last summer’s spotlight, Seattle police did not rise to the occasion, but rather reverted to the level of their training, exposing their institutional raison d’être by responding to criticism the only way they know how. 

After Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd on May 25, 2020, mass protests of police violence broke out in Seattle on May 30, 2020 — a widely documented public funeral both serious and surreal, with incinerated police vehicles and looted cheesecakes punctuating charged speeches and emotional marches. Since then, Seattle police have sustained tens of thousands of formal complaints of misconduct and unprofessional behavior, much of it ironically stemming from actions they took at protests of police misconduct and unprofessional behavior. The Seattle Police Department is a defendant in not one, but two, class action lawsuits for targeting journalists, medics, legal observers and demonstrators at the protests. Four of every 10 Seattle Police Department employees ended 2020 with a grievance file at the Seattle Office of Police Accountability.

The spark of civil unrest was lit in the powder keg of a presidential election year, and some members of the Seattle police force did their best to keep the desperate last embers of the Trump administration alive. At least six Seattle cops participated in the seditious “Stop The Steal” rally that fueled the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 — the largest delegation of any municipal police department in the country.

In the aftermath of the attack on the U.S. Capitol, Seattle Police Officers Guild President Michael Solan equated the attempted neo-Confederate coup with Black Lives Matter protests, portraying police as the thin blue line between two sides of extremists. In a rare episode of unanimous civic agreement, all 11 of Seattle’s elected officials condemned Solan’s remarks. In March 2021, the city’s Office of Civil Rights referred to racism in the ranks of Seattle police as “cyanide in the drink” of progressive Seattle.

The events of last summer took place at a time when Seattle police had much to lose from the perception of wrongdoing. The Seattle Police Department’s union contract with the city expired late in 2020. In that context, they could ill afford to lose political capital if they were to hold the line at existing levels of funding, let alone secure the generous budgetary increases to which they have grown accustomed. In the past five years, funding to the Seattle Police Department has increased by 36%

If Seattle police could not maintain at least the appearance of neutrality in a contest between civil liberties and political repression when it most benefited them to do so, what hope is there really for police reform?

By now, the case made by abolitionists in Seattle is boilerplate. Years of racist policing rained criminalization and pain on the city’s most vulnerable communities, segregated and economically redlined as they were. To correct disparities that have been decades in the making, the argument goes, the Seattle Police Department must be defunded by at least half, with the resulting funds reinvested in social housing, child care and other civic amenities whose budgets are regularly dwarfed by the hundreds of millions of dollars spent every year on police. 

In point of fact, cops don’t prevent as many crimes as we think: Nationally, only 60% of homicide investigations end in arrest — for rape the figure is 33%, and for property crime it dips to 17%. Abolitionists maintain that other “crimes,” as society defines them — particularly misdemeanors and drug-related offenses — are symptomatic of systemic neglect. Their proposed solution calls for upstream investments in human services to create healthier communities that obviate the need for policing as we know it. In 2020, the abolitionist line of argument emerged in a city that had budgeted more annual spending for policing ($407 million) than on affordable housing, child care, libraries, the arts, parks, zoos and aquariums combined.

Abolition is often framed as a scary and unreasonable unknown, the position having met even more skepticism than police have endured in the past year. But reformists — who are convinced that the police as currently constructed are a necessity and can be fixed through incrementalists measures — have many questions of their own to answer about how their approach will prevent police from replicating the mistakes of the past.

 

Sordid history, problematic present

The institution of policing in Seattle is 150 years old. Each generation in the city has had its public epiphany about scandalous police conduct, police corruption, police murder. And yet the problem of police unaccountability remains, despite the requisite reformist refrains.

Egregious police killings of Black Seattleites occur in every era. In 1995, Seattle cops testified that they “accidentally” shot a disabled man named Antonio Dunsmore in the back of the head, then repeated the excuse months later in 1996 when they executed Edward Anderson at point-blank range as he lay on his back. Seattle cops were heard using racial slurs shortly before exterminating Robert Reese at a Chinatown restaurant in 1964. In 1938, Seattle officers murdered a waiter named Berry Lawson, accusing him of loitering — a crime not punishable by death — in his own place of employment. In none of these instances did a Seattle officer face disciplinary action.

Less familiar than police killings of civilians, however, are deeper historical examples of Seattle police pathology, examples that illustrate a pattern of unaccountability and racism in Seattle law enforcement at it roots — bad apples, branches, trunk and all. 

Almost a century apart from one another, two different Seattle police chiefs wrote memoirs that speak to the futility of police reform. In his 1926 autobiography Confessions of a Chief of Police, William Severyns relays how Seattle cops would torture suspects by hanging an iron ball and chain around their necks, threatening to drop them into Lake Washington in exchange for forced confessions of doubtful validity. The 1920s were a decade in which somebody in the United States was lynched roughly every 10 days. Seattle police replicated the tactics of illegal mob violence, ostensibly in pursuit of law and order. To be sure, torturous practices may be ended — but what is the reformist solution to the institutional mindset that led to their use in the first place?

Decades after Severyn pulled the veil back on violent policing in 1926, former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper asserted in his 2005 book Breaking Rank: A Top Cop’s Exposé of the Dark Side of American Policing that “this nation’s approach to public safety is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” 

During his tenure as head of the Seattle Police Department, the American Civil Liberties Union condemned Stamper’s cops for illegally surveilling civil rights activists in the city. Shortly thereafter, Stamper himself resigned in disgrace after Seattle police abused protesters during the city’s 1999 WTO demonstrations. Nonetheless, he endorsed core tenants of the argument advanced by many abolitionists: In his book, Stamper begged city officials to “use the money being squandered on drug enforcement to finance a new public policy that educates and rehabilitates.”

Stamper was less interested in police reform than in a more material, less abstract solution. “Where do we find the money to treat addiction and other problems?” he asked. “Law enforcement knows the answer and it scares them: take it from the cops.”

Seattle police clear an intersection of World Trade Organization protesters
In this Nov. 30 1999 file photo, Seattle police clear an intersection of World Trade Organization protesters at Sixth Avenue and University Street in Seattle. (Stevan Morgain/AP)

 

‘Corrupted everybody it touched’

For most of its history, the police budget in Seattle was secured through patent corruption. From the foundation of the Seattle Police Department in 1869 until a century later in the 1960s, Seattle cops raised revenue for themselves by operating as a crooked protection racket. In exchange for payoffs, Seattle police left select bars and brothels alone. Establishment owners who didn’t pay were subject to police harassment and violent police raids. Chris Bayley, former King County prosecuting attorney, condemned the corruption, writing in his 2015 book Seattle Justice: The Rise and Fall of the Police Payoff System In Seattle that “Seattle police’s hundred-year experiment in hypocrisy and selective enforcement corrupted everybody it touched.” 

The payoff system came to an end in Seattle with a wave of reform in the early 1970s that was intended to clamp down on Seattle police corruption. But shortly thereafter, the advent of federal and state asset forfeiture laws allowed police to simply take what they wanted from those they policed.

Asset forfeiture laws originated in the 1970 Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act. Helping to kickstart President Richard Nixon’s “war on drugs,” the act gave law enforcement the ability to seize classified narcotics and drug paraphernalia. The laws were reiterated and strengthened by city and state governments over the next generation and they persist into the present. In place of the old payoff system, Seattle cops can now abscond with assets only tangentially connected to alleged crimes: cash payments made to suspects (drug dealers or sex workers, for example), but also their vehicles, consumer electronics, real estate, investments and bank accounts. 

Princeton scholar Michelle Alexander asserts in her landmark book, The New Jim Crow, that forfeiture laws “gave police an enormous stake in the War on Drugs — not in its success, but in its perpetual existence.” Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes announced in 2018 that the city’s Police Department would be “increasing efforts to seek forfeitures of property in civil forfeiture cases,” adding that “forfeiture cases provide revenue to the Seattle Police Department.” 

In 2015, Seattle cops seized $43,697 from a homeless woman merely suspected of violating the state’s Uniform Controlled Substance Act. A 2020 report by Policing For Profit ranked Washington state’s civil forfeiture laws as among the most repressive in the country, citing that 90% of forfeiture proceeds seized by law enforcement are kept by law enforcement, as well as the senseless reality that one need not ever be convicted of a crime in Washington to have one’s assets seized by police. 

In the past, Seattle police took payoffs to protect the “guilty”; in the present, they are allowed to seize the assets of those never convicted. With respect to curtailing police wrongdoing, perhaps the problem is not that police reform has failed. Perhaps the problem is that it succeeded.

 

What is the ‘reformist’ argument?

The corrupt payoff system of the 20th century successfully reformed into the unjust seizure of property by police in the 21st. And a century after the literal police lynchings of the 1920s, we’ve reformed into “officer-involved shootings” that claimed the lives of Seattleites like John T. Williams and Charleena Lyles. With each reformist metamorphosis, Seattle police have usually emerged from public crises with even more resources and civic goodwill than before.

It was not until the request for reform gave way to the movement for abolition that the path ironically advocated by former Chief Stamper was finally pursued — namely, taking money back from cops who had been taking it from the city for over a century. After much public pressure to do so, enough of Seattle’s politicians came to terms with the argument advanced by abolitionists to exact an 18% cut to the Seattle Police Department’s budget in 2020 — the first time in many years that the city’s cops didn’t see a budget increase.

At the state level in Washington, civic outrage over police violence spurred reformist solutions that were less of a priority before widespread calls to defund local police departments. State House Bill 1054 prohibits law enforcement in the state from using the kinds of neck restraints that killed George Floyd; state Senate Bills 5021 and 5055 established new mechanisms for disciplining and decertifying officers who abuse their power. These measures may cause less harm and are to be celebrated as hard-won wins a long time in the making. Nonetheless, Washington state spends many times more biennially on its state patrol ($758 million) and Department of Corrections ($2.4 billion) than on cash welfare payments ($142 million per year). 

In calls to decrease funding to traditional models of public safety and invest those funds into neglected communities, abolitionists may ask what good it is to save a few lives with police reform if we’ll end up losing them anyway to poverty, to underfunded schools and social services, to disparities in health care. 

A consequence of the uprisings for racial justice that began last year is that urbanites in liberal areas have discovered their respective cities to be racist in the exact same way. From Minneapolis to Seattle, Los Angeles to New York, the cookie-cutter history is nearly identical. Policing began in the 18th and 19th centuries and was steeped in racism from its inception. Many municipal police departments grew out of patrols designed to capture African Americans who escaped enslavement, and one of the first legal statutes Seattle ever passed, in 1865,  criminalized the very presence of Indigenous people within city limits. Into the 20th century, redlining and segregated zoning created neighborhoods earmarked for economic exploitation and criminalization. Decades of unchecked police abuse met a brief reckoning during the civil rights movement of the ’60s, which resulted in an era of reform. But this was reversed immediately in subsequent decades by police militarization and mass incarceration that continues to this day. 

In this period, police reform has not prevented, but rather enabled, familiar displays of police violence. When police “accountability” agencies are constructed, citizens may believe that the problem has been solved, even when such offices have no real disciplinary power. And when police abuse happens anyway, it can seem inevitable. Between the Office of Police Accountability, the Office of Inspector General for Public Safety and the Community Police Commission, Seattle has three separate police oversight offices. Yet, when Seattle’s OPA recently found that officer John Brooks was legally in the wrong last summer for forcefully dispersing a crowd with pepper spray, Seattle interim Police Chief Adrian Diaz declined to pursue disciplinary action

At this stage, what exactly is the police reformist argument? Calls for “reform” seem loudest at the precise moment when an incident occurs that reform failed to prevent. Indeed, the tired theater of police abuse prompting outrage and calls to “do better” is mirrored in the tragic procession of mass shootings in the United States. As spectacles, both are similarly consumed: a tragic event leads to civic outcry, an outpouring of thoughts and prayers sent to victims via digital ether, followed closely by a great collective forgetting — until a new outrage restarts the cycle and reamplifies calls for “reform.” 

In both police killings and mass shootings, the bankruptcy of liberal inaction has been laid bare.
Just as politicians who do the bidding of the National Rifle Association are frequently the first to offer “thoughts and prayers” after mass shootings, the work of police reform is often entrusted to the dozens of state and local lawmakers who have accepted campaign contributions from powerful police unions and foundations. Eyebrows were raised recently when a whistleblower revealed that Jenny Durkan — as pro-police a mayor as the city has had in many years — deleted evidence of her correspondence with former Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best at the height of last summer’s protests. 

The true test of character is what one does when nobody is looking; it’s also what one does when the whole world is watching. At the precise moment that it would have benefited them most to do so — under a federal consent decree, with their city contract set to expire and during a new civil rights movement — Seattle police couldn’t depart from their sordid past. 

What has become clear in the past year — as clear as in the preceding century — is that Seattle police function less as a neutral institution set up for the public welfare, and more as an autonomous force that enjoys near-total political impunity, more gang than government.

Abolitionists argue there’s another way: With fewer resources, perhaps cops would do less harm. But for the city’s police reformers, it doesn’t get any better than this.