Review of Seattle Police Shows Promise of US-Backed Reform

In Seattle, federal prosecutors launched an investigation of the Police Department following questionable use of force against minorities

Federally mandated changes in the Seattle Police Department led to a stunning drop in how often officers use serious force, with no rise in crime or officer injuries, according to a review released Thursday.

The city's improvements come after Attorney General Jeff Sessions signaled that the Justice Department might back away from overhauling local police departments. Some say the move would be disastrous given the tensions that have plagued the country following violence by officers and attacks against police.

During a 28-month span from 2014 to 2016, incidents in which Seattle officers used force that caused or could be expected to cause injury fell at least 60 percent from a similar period in 2009 to 2011, according to the review from a court-appointed monitor overseeing police reforms under a 2012 settlement.

Officers reach for their Tasers and batons less frequently than they used to, and while minorities are more likely to be subject to force, they are not more likely to be subject to serious force than whites, the report said.

The numbers suggest that a police department whose officers formerly "would escalate even minor offenses ... has changed in fundamental ways," the monitor wrote.

Importantly, concerns that crime would rise or police would get hurt more often because of perceptions that officers would be reluctant to act proved unfounded, the monitor said.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray called the results from the collaboration with the Justice Department an example of what's possible when both a police chief and rank-and-file officers buy into reforms.

"My message is, one, these skills, learning how to de-escalate situations, makes it safer for you, as an officer," the Democratic mayor said in an interview. "Secondly, the training doesn't work, the reform doesn't work, unless it comes from the top down."

He said for the DOJ to reconsider its commitment to overhauling departments like those in Chicago and Baltimore is "a recipe for an explosive situation."

The Justice Department did not immediately return a message seeking comment on the findings.

Sessions issued a memo last week announcing his intention to reconsider all existing consent decrees, the court-overseen agreements between the DOJ and cities designed to resolve concerns about unconstitutional policing. He said while police must respect people's rights, it "is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies."

The DOJ sought to delay a hearing Thursday on a proposed agreement to overhaul the Baltimore Police Department, saying it needed time to determine whether the proposal would hinder efforts to fight violent crime. The judge refused.

In Seattle, federal prosecutors launched an investigation of the Police Department following questionable use of force against minorities, including an officer's fatal shooting of a Native American woodcarver in 2010. They found that officers were too quick to get physical, especially in low-level situations, a conclusion that the department's brass strongly resisted at the time.

In hard-fought negotiations, federal prosecutors and the Justice Department pushed the city into a settlement in 2012 that overhauled police training, procedures and record-keeping, all aimed at reducing unnecessary uses of force, curbing biased policing and improving residents' trust.

The results have been unequivocal, according to the city, the DOJ and the monitor. All Seattle officers have received training on how to better handle those with mental illness or abusing drugs.

In responding to roughly 10,000 incidents a year in which people are in behavioral crisis, officers use force just 2 percent of the time. And in the vast majority of those instances, officers used the lowest level of force, equivalent to pointing a gun or a suspect complaining of pain from handcuffs.

An incident last week illustrated the new approach. A suicidal man, armed with a knife, caused a disturbance on a downtown street and refused to drop the weapon. Officers cordoned off the street. A stun gun failed to subdue him, but negotiators spoke with him for hours, eventually persuading him to surrender.

Polling conducted for the monitor says residents' attitudes toward police had improved. The percentage of those who said they approve of Seattle police has risen from 60 percent in 2013 to 72 percent in 2016. Much of that improvement is among black residents, with approval jumping from 49 percent to 62 percent.

The report contained the first department-wide assessment of how officers use force, and the results were striking, the monitor's team found.

The review covered 2,385 incidents — about three per day — from July 2014, soon after new use-of-force policies were adopted, through October 2016. The total use of force declined 10 percent from the first half of that study period to the second, the monitor said.

Seattle police used serious levels of force, anything that could be expected to cause injury, 487 times — a 60 percent drop from the 1,230 instances reported from January 2009 to April 2011, when reporting practices were not as rigorous, the monitor said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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