“What is next for policing in Seattle?” is the first question people ask when they learn I’m the monitor of the federal consent decree overseeing the reform of the Seattle Police Department.
My role as monitor is to offer advice to the court and work with the city in complying with the terms of the consent decree — and based on that role my answer is to look at 2021 as a bridge to trusted and accountable policing.
The foundation of the bridge is built on proving that policing is accountable and equitable, that it’s constitutional and lawful, and that it’s agile and adaptable over time. The 2021 monitoring plan submitted to the court lays out a clear path forward on each of these fronts. Here is how we get there.
First, policing in Seattle must become more accountable and equitable. To accomplish this, the monitoring plan focuses not only on back-end accountability — to ensure officer misconduct is adjudicated in a fair, rigorous and transparent way — but also front-end accountability to ensure that what the police do aligns with community needs and the priorities of residents in the first place.
For example, this year the SPD will receive Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement training as part of a nationwide initiative that gives officers tools and practical training on intervening and preventing peers from harming someone or engaging in misconduct. The overall accountability work in the monitoring plan will seek to refine and bolster the capacity of Seattle’s oversight and accountability partners, including the Community Police Commission, the Office of Police Accountability and the Office of the Inspector General.
With respect to equity, SPD is working to implement leading-edge innovations such as the Center for Policing Equity’s Compstat for Justice model to understand and address bias and disparate impact. At the same time, SPD’s performance in the areas of force, stops, crisis intervention and other areas will continue to be analyzed through the lenses of disparate impact and treatment with respect to race and ethnicity.
Second, SPD must ensure that policing is sustainably performed constitutionally and lawfully. Since the consent decree began in 2012, the department has made solid progress in this regard — with year-over-year improvement in when and how officers use force, how they help people in crisis, when they can justly stop and detain a person and how they are supervised. The monitoring work in 2021 will not only pressure-test and evaluate how that progress has evolved in recent years, but also shore up any areas that need improvement. Importantly, this work will include a Sentinel Event Review process, led by the independent Office of the Inspector General, to better understand what went wrong during the protests and demonstrations of 2020 — and build a common vision around how the police can prepare for and respond to crowds and protests going forward.
Third, SPD must continuously build the capacity to learn, adjust and improve over time. Policing cannot be static — it must be agile and able to adapt to ever-changing community needs, problems and demands. For instance, the department is designing an enterprisewide risk management system that will help identify problematic trends before challenges arise. It is also working on an officer wellness initiative that will help support the officer mental health and well-being that is vital for performance. This work on adaptability is critical now and as the city re-imagines policing for the next generation.
To make measurable progress on these three areas, Seattle will need to muster new levels of collaboration, resolve and trust. For the City Council, mayor and other city stakeholders, taking a long-term view will be essential. Knee-jerk and short-term responses to long-term public safety challenges risk setting the city back. Through the consent decree, the city made a set of binding promises about how SPD will promote public safety. Compliance with the decree requires that the city provide resources necessary to carry out those promises. Stripping away funding from SPD without meaningfully standing up the alternative community resources and social programs necessary to provide for community well-being risks undermining the progress that Seattle has made over the past eight years.
Seattle can support the current reforms and also re-imagine the future of public safety. The federal consent decree is a baseline but cannot be the limit. So long as the baseline commitments of the consent decree are preserved, exploring new approaches to public safety is a fertile ground for community-driven transformation.
In the few months I’ve been monitor, I realize that the fog of turbulent times and the ever-present feelings of tension and uncertainty regarding policing make it hard to see a way forward. Yet when we clear our eyes, we can get a glimpse of the other side of the bridge — a trusted and legitimate Seattle Police Department that provides for public safety and community well-being fairly, justly and equitably.