This past year of protests and calls for racial justice in Seattle have taxed the workings of the Office of Police Accountability (OPA), which reported a 170% increase in allegations of excessive force and an unprecedented number of overall complaints, according to its latest annual report.
The agency, which falls under the auspices of the Seattle Police Department but is overseen by a civilian director, reported just shy of 19,000 citizen complaints beginning shortly after the May 25 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and continuing unabated for weeks. Many of the complaints were duplicates, and OPA reported that it opened a total of 143 investigations into protest-related incidents, most involving allegations of excessive force and unprofessional behavior, according to the 2020 report issued Thursday.
Four of every 10 SPD employees had a complaint filed against them last year, a total of 602 individuals, all but 66 of whom were sworn personnel, the report said. SPD ended 2020 with 1,844 sworn officers, about 136 fewer than it began the year with, the report says.
OPA Director Andrew Myerberg said the workload has “sometimes seemed like we’re in triage mode,” but as the protests have diminished, the number of complaints has returned to manageable levels.
“The bad part is that we had so many cases, that there were so many incidents where force was used,” Myerberg said. “The good is that so many people availed themselves to the system. It shows, I think, that there is some trust in these institutions.
“And, love what we’ve done or hate it, at least we’ve been out there. We’ve been transparent,” he said.
Overall, OPA reported that it opened investigations into 432 incidents last year, an increase of 31% over 2019. Two-thirds of those complaints came from citizens, the remainder from within the department.
The OPA sustained investigators’ findings in 64 cases, according to the report, involving a total of 114 separate allegations against 68 individual employees, the report said. Punishments ranged from written reprimands (a total of 25); suspensions (15); oral reprimands (12); terminated prior to discipline (4); termination (3); and seven cases where officers resigned or retired before discipline, according to the report.
While biased policing complaints remained the third most reported allegation (behind professionalism and excessive force), the OPA report noted that the number of these allegations decreased slightly from 148 to 143 from 2019 to 2020.
The agency reported a total of 1,880 allegations involving possible Seattle police policy violations, a 58% increase over 2019. That included 370 separate allegations of unprofessional behavior and 358 allegations of excessive use of force, a 170% increase over the previous year, the report says, most of which occurred “while managing demonstrations of unprecedented magnitude.”
The department’s reactions to those protests and later several incidents in and around the so-called Capitol Hill Occupied Protest zone, or CHOP — after the department abandoned the East Precinct — led a federal judge to issue an injunction after finding SPD’s response likely violated the First Amendment rights of thousands of peaceful protesters. The department has since been held in contempt of court for violating that order.
The report notes a significant spike in reports beginning May 31, the day after widely publicized incidents of police using pepper spray, blast balls and tear gas on thousands of nonviolent protesters in response to a small group of vandals who set police cars on fire and damaged downtown businesses. There were 126 email and online complaints on May 30, and 8,564 the next day, according to the OPA statistics.