Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole is leading the Seattle Police Department toward compliance with federally mandated reforms to address excessive use of force and biased policing, the federal monitor reported Monday.
Hurdles still remain and the monitor, Merrick Bobb, says he can’t predict how long it will take the department to reach “full and effective” compliance.
“What the Monitor can say, however, is that, thanks to the current leadership, SPD is making sustained positive, progress,” Bobb wrote in his fourth semiannual report. “If it continues on the path that it is now, the Monitor can say — for the first time — that SPD is likely to get the job done.”
Overall, the 107-page report provides the most optimistic assessment of the department’s achievements since the city entered into a landmark consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department in July 2012.
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At the same time, it lays out a litany of shortfalls that must be fixed, notably the need to widen the scope of reform throughout the department and hold officers accountable for failures to de-escalate confrontations.
The report was filed with U.S. District Judge James Robart, who ultimately will decide if the Police Department has met the terms of the court-approved agreement. The department, the report says, is “approaching midpassage in its voyage to fully and effectively comply with many of the provisions of the Consent Decree.”
It gives credit to O’Toole, Mayor Ed Murray, City Attorney Pete Holmes, the Seattle City Council, the Justice Department’s civil-rights division, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle and the Community Police Commission, a citizen body created as part of the consent decree.
Murray, in a statement, said the report “reflects the significant progress that the Seattle Police Department has made in the last year toward reform and compliance.”
He said he looked forward to working with the City Council to bolster the SPD’s internal investigation and disciplinary process under proposals unveiled last month.
“We are making good headway and I am committed to keeping police reform moving forward,” the statement said.
O’Toole, the former Boston police commissioner who took over the Police Department in June, is repeatedly singled out in the report for praise. She has made compliance with the consent decree her top priority, in part by promoting some of the department’s “best and brightest” who fully support the need for reform, the report says.
In the top ranks, O’Toole promoted Carmen Best, a “progressive” assistant chief highly regarded inside and outside the department, to deputy chief, making her the second-highest sworn officer in the department, according to the report.
O’Toole also recruited an “exceptionally talented” civilian, Mike Wagers, from Northern Virginia to serve as the SPD’s chief operating officer, giving him the power to “get things done in what was a sluggish, passive, and often simply dysfunctional bureaucracy,” the report says.
Bobb, a Los Angeles-based police-accountability consultant, noted that O’Toole had appeared before Robart in court — something previous police chiefs had not done — to offer her personal assurance that “things would move quickly toward compliance.”
Training on new policies dealing with use of force, bias-free policing, stops and crisis intervention has been carried out at a remarkable pace, the report says.
“Whatever the issues might have been in the past with the quality of SPD training and the resources devoted to it, the Education and Training Section under its new leadership — which has only been on the job for eight months — has become one of the Department’s most promising drivers of systemic change,” Bobb wrote.
By Jan. 1, all officers will have received comprehensive training on the policies, allowing the department and the monitor to assess whether systemic change is taking hold, the report says.
Among the major improvements cited is better reporting and review of use of force, including significant strides in collecting crucial data. Bobb notes he and O’Toole agree the days of using hunches to run the department and address crime “are over.”
O’Toole took steps to reverse the bungled implementation of a stopgap computer program, the report says, which will be used until the department acquires a new, comprehensive business-intelligence system.
For the first time, SPD collected standardized data for a six-month period between April 1 and Sept. 30. It indicates that, on average, there are only 1.5 use-of-force events per day citywide, “suggesting that force reporting, investigation, and review requirements are not tying up substantial operational resources on any given day,” the report says.
Other data also can now be analyzed, providing the first steps to collecting accurate, real-time information that can be aggregated and examined, according to the report.
“The Chief swiftly implemented an analytical forum called SeaStat to guide SPD’s efforts to address crime trends quickly and deploy resources effectively,” the report says.
However, Bobb wrote, if recent media reports of a lack of aggressive response to property crimes reveal a trend, “the Monitoring Team will be concerned.”
Bobb praised the department for accelerating its timetable — now set for early next year — to seek outside proposals to develop the business-intelligence system. The project has been previously hampered by delay, drawing a rebuke from Robart.
Despite the overall progress, the report says many challenges remain, including:
• Delays in completing some use-of-force investigations.
• Failures to spread the good work of SPD’s use-of-force review board throughout the department.
• Lapses by the review board in not holding officers accountable for unreasonable failures to de-escalate confrontations, a key element of the reform plan.
• Demonstrating that officers are being held accountable for failing to activate their in-car video systems.
• Developing better self-analysis procedures to manage the risk of unconstitutional policing.
• Fully implementing an early-intervention system to identify potential problem officers and employ nondisciplinary measures.
• Providing enough sergeants to carry out crucial, front-line supervision.
• Closing the “significant distance” in re-establishing trust with the community.
• Weaving a new culture of accountability into the fabric of the organization that will remain intact no matter who is chief.