The protests roiling the nation, and how our own police have responded, have raised questions about the progress Seattle has made in reforming its police department after nearly eight years of federal oversight. Some say nothing has changed. Some say reform has done its job and the protests have gone, or risk going, too far.
I’ve had a front-row seat to the court-driven reform efforts. To me, it is undeniable that the Seattle Police Department has made progress: Its use of force is down dramatically, while the effectiveness of its community watchdogs has skyrocketed. And yet, I also think these protests are as essential today as similar protests were in August 2010, after the killing of John T. Williams, the Native American woodcarver, whose death galvanized the community request for our wide-ranging investigation of the SPD in the first place. There is no contradiction. The ongoing reform efforts and today’s protests, if each are to succeed, must mutually reinforce each other.
While at our local U.S. Attorney’s Office, I led the investigation of SPD in 2011 that found officers engaged in an unconstitutional pattern of excessive force. I led the negotiations, culminating in the “Consent Decree” signed eight years ago next month, and led the implementation of the decree for more than five years, until the federal judge overseeing the matter declared in January 2018 that SPD had then met every one of its discrete obligations, triggering a wind down period that continues to this day.
To those who say nothing has changed and the federal court process should be tossed aside: As the federal court’s independent monitor Merrick Bobb and Professor Jacqueline B. Helfgott at Seattle University, among others, have detailed:
• Serious uses of force are down 60% from 2009, which means 700 fewer people each year since 2016 were subject to force than were in 2009. That means nearly 3,000 people have avoided police violence because of reform. More broadly, between January and July 2018, there were 103,553 police-resident interactions, but only 0.00369% (or around one-third of 1%) involved any force, 86% of which was “low level.”
• Similarly, the use of force against those in active behavioral or mental-health crisis plummeted, from 70% of all force used to 15%. More broadly, between January 2017 and June 2018, of the 15,995 crisis contacts reported, only 1.73% led to any force, the vast majority of which was again low level.
• When misconduct does happen, the blue wall of silence has been breached. Complaints by SPD against SPD used to be “nonexistent” (as one officer admitted to me during the investigation). In 2017, internal complaints accounted for 20% of all complaints filed. This meant that SPD officers reported on each other more than 250 times that year.
• And those complaints, as well as the 15,000-plus complaints related to the recent protests, will be investigated, not just by a civilian-led unit, but now by a civilian-run internal affairs unit, the Office of Police Accountability (OPA), which reports to a civilian inspector general, a position that didn’t exist in 2012.
Of equal importance, the Community Police Commission (CPC) did not previously exist. This was the first consent decree in the nation to create a community body designed to bridge the gulf that had formed between large portions of the community and the SPD, and to give those members an effective forum where they could interact directly with SPD.
And the CPC and other members of the community have been busy: from the development of binding use-of-force rules, where for the first time de-escalation was mandated and choke holds effectively banned; to anti-bias training designed and actually conducted dozens of times by community members themselves; to crafting a new robust officer-discipline system, the vast majority of which was enshrined in city ordinance and labor agreements.
The bridge the CPC created continues to be well-traveled. On June 3, I, along with dozens of other community members, virtually attended the CPC’s general meeting, where they bore witness, where they strategized, and where they had the ear of Chief Carmen Best and Mayor Jenny Durkan directly. One CPC commissioner — who told her story of being tear gassed the day before, picked herself up, dusted herself off and came to the meeting — still shaken — to share her experience and continue to do the hard work of reform.
So to those who say nothing has changed, it’s simply factually wrong and a disservice to those community members, including the CPC, who have been marching, sweating and bleeding for this work, not just for the decade I’ve summarized but, for certain commissioners, for the last seven decades.
And yet, is the work of reform “done?” Definitely not. As the monitor found, disparities exist as to whom force is used on, who is searched and what is found during those searches. These are not minor matters. And lest there be any suggestion to the contrary, every use of force matters, even “low level.” Indeed, any shooting rightly can destroy community confidence. The decree, however, was never meant to be the final word in reform. The decree doesn’t require such disparities to be eliminated before it can sunset. The decree doesn’t even contain words that are most pertinent now eight years later: “body cams,” “demonstration management” or even “officer discipline.” In some areas, the decree expressly relied on the community to develop solutions appropriate to it, outside the purview of the judge. In short, the decree did not swallow all of police reform whole for all time.
So to those who are wondering, whether loudly or quietly: “Haven’t we dealt with this already?” or “When will things will go back to normal?” or are even skeptical of the motives of those in the streets and choose to focus on the few demonstrators who cause property damage: Things won’t, can’t and shouldn’t go back to “normal” simply because we have the decree. Just as in 2011 — when the community protested the killing of Williams and demanded the civil-rights investigation that triggered the consent decree — the passion behind today’s protests are as necessary to true reform as any shiny policy paper, any excellently-delivered training or any ruling by any federal judge.
We need both the wisdom of the slow, steady and effective organized reform efforts, and the urgency of the protests. They should reinforce each other. For me, it’s a sign of our city’s strength, not a sign of weakness, that we can hold both ideas at once. It is a cause for hope, not dejection, that we can come this far and still have the energy to go further.