The monitor says Seattle police have reached initial compliance with the Department of Justice agreement to revamp its crisis-intervention model; data shows force used in just a fraction of incidents.
The Seattle Police Department has taken major steps in dealing with individuals in mental crisis without resorting to the use of force, according to the court-appointed monitor overseeing police reforms.
The monitor found the department has reached “initial compliance” on the issue outlined in a 2012 consent-decree with the Department of Justice.
The SPD’s treatment of the mentally ill or chemically impaired was a significant finding of the DOJ’s 2011 investigation into the use of excessive force by officers. The investigation found police routinely used unconstitutional levels of force in making arrests, often against people who were mentally ill or intoxicated.
The city is entering its fourth year of the consent decree to address the issue. In the past three years, the SPD has overhauled its crisis-intervention mechanism, providing basic training to every officer on the 1,300-officer force and advanced crisis-intervention training to hundreds of those officers, wrote Monitor Merrick Bobb and his monitoring team. Trained officers are now dispatched to virtually every call involving troubled individuals, and the results, Bobb said in the assessment released Tuesday, have been significant and encouraging.
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“There has been a real, tangible, and objective change in the way Seattle police are interacting, compassionately and with an eye toward treatment, with those in crisis,” wrote Bobb.
The Seattle Police Department is apparently the first major police agency in the country to gather detailed data on responses to calls requiring crisis intervention and whether force was used, the monitor said.
Bobb’s review of three months of that information — 2,516 crisis-incident reports filed between June and August last year — showed officers resorted to force in just 2 percent of those cases during that time frame.
Crisis intervention-trained officers were able to respond to more than 70 percent of the calls they were sent on. The startling statistics showed the department was on track to respond to more than 10,000 crisis-related incidents that year, averaging more than 27 a day, according to the monitor.
The data, however, is not complete, and the monitor is asking the department to refine the form officers fill out to capture more information, to include instances when a crisis officer is dispatched to a call but then told they aren’t needed.
Even so, the numbers “demonstrate the enormous workload that crisis calls create for the SPD,” Bobb wrote.
And of the approximately 50 incidents where force was used by officers against someone suffering a behavioral crisis, the lowest-level of reportable force (such as handcuffing) was reported in 42 of those incidents, and Level II (such as pepper spray) in just eight instances. No cases were reported in that time frame where Level III force — expected to cause significant injuries — were reported.
“While not determinative of the issue, we consider this frequency of the use of force to be solid,” the monitor wrote.
It is particularly notable, Bobb said, given the types of calls involved. More than 800 of the calls involved individuals reported as “disorderly disruptive” and another nearly 600 classified as “belligerent uncooperative.”
More than 600 of the subjects had threatened suicide and 96 were armed with knives, 16 had firearms and 109 were armed with other weapons.
One incident cited by the monitor related a call where two officers responded to an individual in crisis who was armed with two butcher knives. The officers, rather than confronting the individual, withdrew from the suspect’s apartment, managed to establish a rapport with the individual, and talked the suspect into surrendering.
The monitor said the officers, who were not identified by name, “did an excellent job working together to not only protect each other but the safety of the suspect as well.”
The monitor directed the department to refine how it gathers that data and encourage officers to report not only outcomes, but how they arrived at them — for instance, reporting what techniques they used, such as putting distance between themselves and the suspect, or “verbalization” techniques to diffuse a tense situation.
However, the data that was available “provided anecdotal support for the notion that the SPD is almost always handling crises with a high level of skill and avoiding the unnecessary use of force in difficult situations.”
The city’s goal now is to show sustained compliance with the crisis-intervention requirements of the consent decree.
Toward that end, the SPD points out that it has sent 901 officers through the advanced, 40-hour crisis-intervention training, although only about 550 of them have volunteered to be “certified” crisis-intervention (CI) officers who would be dispatched to calls solely for that purpose.
CI officers are now available in every precinct on every watch, according to the monitor, and every officer on the force has now been provided with at least eight hours of crisis-intervention training, Bobb noted.