Ending biased and excessively violent policing must be a top priority in Seattle, Washington state and the rest of America.
Remarkable protests and awareness prompted by the senseless death of George Floyd and many others must lead to radical change, sustained reform and equitable treatment by law enforcement.
Key to this progress is acknowledging that systemic racism persists and demands change. Also needed are state and federal laws strengthening police accountability, providing clear and consistent restrictions on the use of force and banning the use of chokeholds.
It is a testament to the reform momentum that the White House and Congressional leaders in both parties are advancing policy reforms, though President Donald Trump’s executive order last week fell short of the leadership that’s needed and acknowledgment that racism is core to the problem.
All agree better data collection is essential. Trump ordered a national database of police misconduct, including terminations and judgments for excessive use of force. But the feds have been pledging to gather national data on use of force since 1994, and there’s still woefully incomplete reporting.
Follow-up, funding and stronger guidance on reporting by the nation’s 18,000 police agencies is needed, according to Matthew Hickman, a Seattle University criminal-justice professor and former federal crime statistician.
“We need national leadership on this issue — someone who will take up the charge and say the nation needs to have systematic data collection on the use of force by police, and we’re going to do it,” he said.
At the local level, demand for reforms and budget crises present an opportunity to reassess spending on law enforcement and the different services police provide in their communities.
Seattle is a focal point, for better or worse. Sustained protests on Capitol Hill have sadly fed propaganda for those who oppose reform. All sides are skeptical of Seattle leadership.
This is doubly disappointing because Seattle offers lessons on how to improve a police department through improved training, policies and oversight, as it’s been doing under a 2012 federal consent decree.
Seattle is far from perfect, though, especially with police contracts making it harder to hold officers accountable for misconduct. Seattle’s decree was a starting point, not the conclusion, of what must be continual improvement and pursuit of equitable policing.
Even so, reforms in Seattle since 2012 led to substantial reductions in the use and severity of force, which was measurable because the department began collecting better data. The court-appointed monitor of Seattle’s progress said in early 2017 that the decline in force “represents a singular and foundational milestone on SPD’s road to full and effective compliance — and represents Seattle crystallizing into a model of policing for the 21st century.”
Since then, several incidents of misconduct revealed how much work remains. The city had to win a Superior Court judgment last year to uphold the firing of an officer who punched a handcuffed woman, because an arbitrator had reinstated the officer. Arbitration clauses in police contracts weaken accountability and should be prohibited by the Legislature.
Questions about Seattle police management were also raised during recent protests. The city’s formerly vaunted crowd management systems were overwhelmed, mistakes were made and mixed messages were sent about the use of tear gas and who decided to abandon the East Precinct.
Seattle should assess how it deploys officers and what organizational changes are necessary. It also needs to continue innovative and progressive programs such as the Navigation Team, which pairs specially trained officers with outreach workers for responding to homelessness situations.
Managing the intersection of policing and social services was already a thorny problem, as were severe inconsistencies in Seattle’s criminal justice system. Political feuding over those issues and Seattle’s consent decree previewed the complexity now at hand.
The nation is engaged in a critically important and overdue conversation about how to confront systemic racism and end abhorrent, disproportionate police violence against people of color.
Leadership across Washington should listen, learn and act boldly on reforms.