As a result, the department is in “initial compliance” with key provisions of a 2012 consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department to address excessive force, the monitor, Merrick Bobb, wrote in the report.
The Seattle Police Department’s Force Review Board, one of the linchpins of court-ordered reforms, is meeting its responsibility as the department’s “hub of internal accountability,” the federal monitor overseeing the reform effort concluded in a report issued Tuesday.
The high-level board, which reviews and analyzes the most serious and intermediate use of force, is not only doing a good job of determining whether force fell within policy, but is also considering whether incidents can teach the department about “training, tactics, procedure, and policy,” the report said.
In assessing cases between June 2 and Aug. 25, the report found 85 percent were handled adequately or better than required under the consent decree, and that in 87 percent deliberations were based solely on facts and not speculation.
In 56 percent, the board found an officer may have violated some type of SPD policy, including nearly 13 percent involving force that were referred to the department’s Office of Professional Accountability for further review.
The court-appointed monitor found that a major step, given that between 2009 and 2011 only 0.04 percent of force cases received any significant scrutiny in the chain of command.
In its 2011 findings, the Justice Department concluded that during a multiyear period, only five of 1,230 use-of-force files were referred at any level up the chain of command.
With the progress in scrutiny, Bobb and his team complimented the department for reaching a “significant stepping stone along the path toward full and effective compliance and notable improvement from the beginning of the consent decree, when review of force, when it occurred, was superficial at best.”
While the team will continue to closely watch the board’s work, Bobb said he was confident that under the leadership of Assistant Chief Lesley Cordner and Capt. Gregg Caylor the work will move forward.
Among the ongoing issues, Bobb wrote, is that lower-level supervisors had found use of force outside of policy in only two percent of the cases compared to the board’s 56 percent.
In addition, the department “needs to address and resolve the low quality of underlying investigations by supervisors and for the chains’ erroneous findings as to policy,” he said.
Bobb’s comment was consistent with a previous assessment in September, during a visit to Seattle by U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, that sergeants, lieutenants and captains had done an inadequate job of reviewing midrange use of force: incidents that could cause physical injury but are not life-threatening. That includes the use of stun guns, pepper spray and batons.
To improve, the department plans to put administrative lieutenants in each precinct to focus on force reviews and ensure their quality.
Bobb did find in the September report that officers are doing a good job of reporting force, with sergeants providing adequate initial responses. He also said the department’s Force Investigation Team was conducting thorough investigations of the most serious use of force, including officer involved shootings.
Overall, the monitor’s September assessment found SPD in initial compliance in three of four key reforms, now joined by the Force Review Board finding.
Bobb, a Los Angeles based police-accountability consultant, will conduct 10 more assessments of other key areas of the consent decree between now and March.
In response to Tuesday’s report, Annette Hayes, the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington, praised the findings in a statement, calling them a “major step forward.”
“Critical to lasting reform is having internal systems and structures in place that provide consistent oversight and accountability, and real-time feedback to help a police department continually improve,” her statement said. “That is what SPD now has with the Force Review Board.”
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray also issued a statement, thanking Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole and saying the monitor “recognizes a renewed culture of accountability at the Seattle Police Department.”