The U.S. Department of Justice's probe of the Seattle Police Department stretches credulity with an analysis of questionable quality, says a Seattle University professor, Matthew J. Hickman.

Share story

THE Department of Justice investigation of the Seattle Police Department was launched over concerns about eroding public trust and confidence in the Seattle police, but I am far more concerned about whether DOJ deserves our trust and confidence. The public release of DOJ’s report highlighted two empirical findings that stretch credibility beyond its limits, and DOJ is presently trying to force the city to institute reforms without DOJ revealing the methods that produced its findings. If Seattle does not push back, DOJ will end up causing more harm than good.

U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan, along with Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, recently announced with great drama that a small number of Seattle police officers were responsible for a large number of use-of-force incidents during 2010. This somewhat appealing reflection of the Pareto Principle (the “80/20” rule that says most effects come from a small portion of causes) resonates well with the public and makes for an easy sales pitch.

But, contrary to the drama and public outcry, it’s exactly what we would expect to find, and it’s exactly what one will find in all other metropolitan police departments across the country. It does not define a “pattern or practice” nor does it describe a small number of “bad” officers. It simply describes the expected distribution of use of force in any police department.

With equal drama and flair, the Durkan team also announced that one out of five uses of force in Seattle during a roughly two-year period studied were “unconstitutional,” although they had already been cleared by the department’s review process.

I’m frankly shocked that DOJ went public with such a ridiculous statistic; it’s totally inconsistent with the available research literature on police use of force, and stands in defiance of reason. I can only conclude that DOJ had no other goal than to incite the public and build popular support for a baseless political cause.

Further, and due entirely to DOJ’s negligence, we simply do not know how often the police in the United States use excessive force. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 authorizes DOJ’s “pattern or practice” investigations, but DOJ has neglected another provision of the Act that requires it to acquire data about the use of excessive force by police for research and statistical purposes and to publish an annual summary of those data. Justice Department officials have failed to do so for the past 15 years or so.

If they had invested in collecting these data on a systematic basis, they would have the larger context that might make their “pattern or practice” investigations more meaningful. As a consequence, we simply don’t know if Seattle’s data are “too high,” “too low,” or “just right.”

In sum, there are legitimate questions about the quality of DOJ’s analyses here in Seattle as well as the expertise of those who produced them. As of this writing, DOJ has failed to provide the details of its methodology. It is doing so in hopes that Seattle will voluntarily enter into a costly consent decree without questioning DOJ’s highly questionable findings.

Yet there is ample evidence that DOJ has built a house of cards in support of a political agenda. The empirical findings of its investigation simply don’t pass the “smell test” and will not stand up to legal or scientific scrutiny. The city of Seattle should call DOJ’s bluff, and settle for nothing less than a formal apology.

Matthew J. Hickman is an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at Seattle University. He was previously a statistician at the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, in Washington, D.C.