MORE than three years after the U.S. Department of Justice began its investigation into the Seattle Police Department, the police department is making significant and positive progress toward reforming itself.
Now, with new Chief Kathleen O’Toole on board and necessary building blocks in place, the department is poised to take more steps forward.
Much work still needs to be done to achieve the consent decree’s goals, especially around the discipline system, data collection, and the supervision and mentoring of officers. These areas need work to ensure greater accountability, transparency and public confidence.
But reform is happening. Observant Seattle citizens are starting to see a change in policing on the streets. Accountability and transparency are being built into the culture, which is a must for lasting change. Once reforms are hard-baked into the organization, communities will be safer and have more confidence in the police department. Officers will have the tools and support they need to do their jobs in the best way.
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The federal court has approved nearly all of the policies and training at the heart of the consent decree, and they are being implemented — including those related to use of force, stops and detentions, bias-free policing, crisis intervention and performance monitoring.
All of these policies and training materials were drafted with police officers at the table and their real work in mind. Now it is time to put it to work on the streets of our neighborhoods.
Nearly all 1,300 sworn SPD officers have completed 16 hours of in-class training on the legal use of force and how to report and investigate it. By year’s end, all officers will have completed a more intensive 32-hour course. The training program, compressed in such a short time frame, is a huge undertaking and underscores the commitment of the department — and that of the mayor, council, community leaders and the state police training academy.
Some new policies are truly groundbreaking. One example is in crisis intervention:
Throughout the country, we have seen the tragic role mental illness can play in public safety. Here, specially trained officers and social-service agencies will be on scene helping to manage incidents involving people who are mentally ill or suffering from addiction.
SPD’s information showed that 70 percent of the times police used force, someone who was in mental-health crisis or under the influence of drugs or alcohol was involved. Before, the department simply didn’t have the policies or training programs in place to deal with this population.
In designing the approach, crisis intervention experts, officers, advisers and training experts came together to build a better way to deal with people in crisis. No policy can avert every problem. But SPD now will train every officer and every dispatcher to deal with people in crisis — how to identify and de-escalate, and know whom to call for help.
Every precinct on every watch will have officers with additional, specialized training who can be called to the scene. In an inspiring display, when the department asked officers to volunteer to become “certified,” many officers responded immediately to this call to service, even though it requires additional training.
Chief O’Toole steps in at an opportune time — reforms are in place to take the Seattle Police Department to a new level. Fortunately, the chief has made it very clear that a top priority is to keep driving reform. And she has the authority needed from the mayor and council, community leaders, the U.S. Justice Department, the federal judge overseeing the case and the federal court’s police monitor.
The chief takes over a department of officers dedicated to keeping our city safe. Most have demonstrated a willingness to be open to change and to embrace ways to police safely and effectively. The Justice Department works with these men and women on a regular basis. We are safer because of them.
O’Toole has the opportunity now to make the department into what many of us envision will be a national model for progressive policing. It is an opportunity Seattle and SPD has to get right. True change must come from within.
Jenny A. Durkan is the United States Attorney for the Western District of Washington.