Guest columnists Kate Pflaumer and Terrence Carroll disagree with parts of the recent U.S. Department of Justice audit of the Seattle Police Department. But as former civilian auditors of SPD's internal investigations, they think it can provide a path for improvement.
THE recent Department of Justice report concerning use of force by the Seattle Police Department has created controversy and evoked a variety of responses within the community. As former civilian auditors of SPD internal investigations, we do not agree with all the report’s conclusions, but think it can provide a positive basis for improvement.
History provides perspective: Nearly 20 years ago, public oversight of SPD’s discipline system was established with the appointment of a civilian internal investigations auditor. About 10 years later, the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA), headed by another civilian, was created.
In 2008, a blue-ribbon panel — which included the current U.S. attorney for Western Washington, the American Civil Liberties Union and other stakeholders — recommended major changes that strengthened the role of civilian oversight. Over the last year, the OPA has been working to simplify the investigation and decision process and make other auditor-recommended improvements.
The Justice report confirms that OPA investigations are thorough (contrary to the report, virtually all use-of-force complaints are investigated by the OPA, not by precincts). But it highlights an important point: The greatest limitation of the disciplinary system is that OPA reviews only those incidents where a complaint is filed or that are otherwise brought to its attention — a small percentage of all use-of-force incidents. The OPA should be involved in the review of use-of-force reports and each officer-involved shooting from the time of the incident.
The SPD’s policy that prevents officers’ use-of-force statements from being used in criminal cases is overprotective — partly because of the police guild contract — and does need to be fine-tuned. Procedures should also be amended to encourage public confidence and cooperation, such as precluding the use of complainants’ statements against them in court.
The DOJ report reaffirms concerns OPA auditors have expressed about the importance of training and supervision. Many in the community have noted the escalation of minor incidents between citizens and officers into serious use-of-force confrontations. As auditors, we criticized this escalation regularly, yet the current auditor’s reports show it continues.
Officers often perceive that they have few tools other than force to respond to uncooperative citizens. Their state academy training focuses on “taking control of the situation,” not de-escalation strategies. Rigid rules about when a flashlight or baton can be used will not solve the problems. Training must be experiential, involving role-plays, and provide specific skills so that force is a last, not a first, resort, and issues of inherent bias are understood.
SPD must also ensure more officers receive crisis-intervention training, to give them better understanding of how to interact with those under the influence of alcohol, drugs or untreated mental illness. And finally, as has also been recommended in the past, supervisor training remains critically important to prevent excessive use of force and ensure best practices. These types of thorough, ongoing training require a serious commitment of resources and, in our opinion, remain a priority.
The best solution to reducing the frequency and severity of force lies in a comprehensive, coordinated review by the department and stakeholders of those aspects of SPD policies, training, supervision and discipline that will enlarge the range of responsive and appropriate tools for officers, and will promote public trust in the officers as well as the officers’ trust in the hierarchy of the department. While some of the report’s conclusions merit further analysis, the leadership of the city and the police department have committed to move forward with these important changes in a timely and comprehensive way.
With an open, good-faith approach, we are confident that the challenges described in the DOJ report can be met.
Kate Pflaumer, left, is a former defense attorney who served as U.S. attorney for the Western District of Washington from 1992-2000 and as the civilian auditor for OPA 2002-2008. Terrence Carroll is a Distinguished Jurist in Residence at the Seattle University School of Law and served as the SPD internal investigations auditor 1982-1992. He also served as chair of the 2008 Seattle Blue Ribbon Panel on Police Accountability.