A representative from the U.S. Department of Justice and East Precinct police officers provided the East Precinct Advisory Council with an update on police reforms that have taken place as a result of a DOJ consent decree entered in 2012.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Diaz covered the decree’s origin, and the improvements new policies have created within the Seattle Police Department.
The DOJ received a letter from 34 community organizations in 2010, asking to investigate the SPD based on a series of high-profile events involving excessive force by officers in the last few years. After further investigation, the DOJ found there was a pattern of excessive force used by the SPD, and in violation of the constitution.
“This is not a court finding. This is our finding, and only means that we thought we could bring a lawsuit under this statute,” Diaz said. “We thought that we saw officers generally were using force too quickly, escalating minor offenses, such as jaywalking, especially with people that were in behavioral crisis. There wasn’t a definition for force.”
In 2012, the federal court under Judge James L. Robart approved a settlement agreement, also known as consent decree, and appointed a monitor to make sure the obligations were being met.
“What we are trying to accomplish is we want police services in a way that’s constitutional, effective, keeps us safe, and in a way that promotes public confidence,” Diaz said. “We could have all of those things, but until people feel it and have confidence in the police department, it’s going to make the rest of the things harder.”
A four-pillar system is used to implement new policies to promote those values; clear rules of the road, training to our values, supervision and accountability, and assessments. As a result, SPD Use of Force policy and training defined clear rules for use of force, and now requires officers to de-escalate a situation if they are able. SPD has introduced a Force Investigation Team and Force Review Board to report, investigate and review the highest levels of force.
Since implementation of the new policies, the Federal Court Monitor has found a 60 percent decrease in Type II force. Baton and taser use has gone dramatically down and when force is used 96-to-99 percent of it is done within new policy. Perception of the police force has also gone up in the last four years. Comparing the years of 2013, 2015 and 2016, the overall approval improved from 60 percent to 64 percent, and then to 72 percent. Among the African American population alone, approval ratings went up from 49 percent in 2013 to 62 percent today, Diaz said.
A separate assessment was done to determine whether crisis intervention officers were appropriately trained to deal with individuals in crisis and know how to minimize the need to use force against those subjects. Results showed the use of force against people in crisis accounted for 15 percent of all incidents in which force was used, compared to 70 percent during the DOJ investigation.
According to Diaz, the DOJ receives an incredible amount of individual complaints that go unnoticed, and one of the things that brought Seattle to the forefront was communities coming together with one big request.
In response to a concern raised at the meeting regarding a possible overturn of the consent decree with the upcoming elections, Diaz reassured attendees that since the federal judge has a lifetime appointment, nothing can be done as long as he’s in service; the policies are here to stay until then.
“And all the accomplishments don’t go away just because we go away,” Diaz said. “Formal structures like the CPC (community police commission) will still be here. If they are still available to the community, I hope they will still keep happening.”
“We’re leading the nation in police reform,” said East Precinct Capt. Paul McDonagh. “It was the officers that accepted the changes and brought about the changes. We were the leaders in crisis intervention at the time, and got a little stagnant and needed some changes. It’s part of what they are, and they are going to keep it.”
Lastly, concern over the need for more police officers in Seattle as its population continues to grow — recently surpassed 700,000 — was raised at the meeting. SPD has around 1,300 officers, and about 300 of them are ready to retire. McDonagh named various reasons for the recruiting problem, including the private sector attracting potential applicants with bigger salaries and attrition during the academy and training.
“You couldn’t pay me enough money for the job that I do, if I was in it just for the money,” said East Precinct Operations Lieutenant Graham Ballingham. “You can dangle a six-figure salary, but we don’t get paid for what we do, we get paid for what we are willing to do. To be able to be a police officer, you need to have a deep understanding of compassion and humanity, courage, and a tireless sense of humor about the world.”
The next East PAC meeting will be held 6 p.m. Thursday, June 22, at the Garfield Community Center.