Seattle police watchdogs and civil libertarians say they are alarmed and disappointed by a new report showing officers — despite nearly a decade under federal oversight partly intended to address bias — continue to stop and use force against Black people in the city far more often than white people.
The report found that Black people, per capita, were seven times more likely to be subjected to force by Seattle police than white people, and five times more likely to be stopped and questioned. Native Americans in the city were nine times more likely to be stopped, it said.
The greatest disparities were found in incidents where force was used against children or young adults: the report noted that , while Black people make up 7% of the city’s population, “most children and young people who were subjected to SPD force were Black.”
The 54-page document, completed in January and posted without fanfare on the Seattle Police Department’s website on July 15, was compiled by the Center for Policing Equity, a Los Angeles-based social justice and policing think tank. It analyzed SPD data on tens of thousands of citizen interactions between 2015-2019.
The Community Police Commission, one of three Seattle police oversight and advisory bodies, said in a statement the CPE report “reiterates problems our community has known and experienced for far too long — the Seattle Police Department’s policies and practices continue to subject our communities of color to more intensive and forceful policing than our white communities.”
“Now is the time for action,” wrote commission co-chairs La Rond Baker and Erin Goodman. “It is … clear that SPD current policies and practices are insufficient to address these disparities and adequately protect our community.”
“The community wants a system it can trust,” said CPC Executive Director Brandy Grant. “Under the current system, the use of force against Black people is seven times the per capita rate as white people. That does not breed trust or equality.”
Interim Seattle police Chief Adrian Diaz declined to be interviewed about the report, but said in a statement posted on the department’s website that SPD “is committed to full transparency, open communication about our data, and addressing all disparities for which the department is responsible.”
“The SPD will not hide from the hard work ahead but will embrace our mandate to end bias in policing,” the chief said.
The report noted that the data was incomplete and that officers failed to fill out race-related information on roughly 1 of every 6 use-of-force reports examined. The bulk of the report focuses on so-called “Terry stops,” named after a 1968 Supreme Court ruling, Terry v. Ohio, that allows officers to briefly detain someone for questioning without making an arrest. The group was able to review information from 36,511 stops and nearly 4,000 incidents where force was used, the report said.
Over that five-year period, the data shows that between 31% and 35% of all stops involved Black people, who make up just 7% of the city’s population. By comparison, white people, who make up 70% of the city’s population, made up about 55% of the stops.
“Of all racial groups stopped by SPD, white persons appeared to be treated more leniently than any other group” the CPE found. “They were stopped less frequently per capita than Black or Native American persons; once stopped, they were least likely to be arrested and most likely to be released without citation or arrest.”
Moreover, while Black people were searched more often by officers, the data showed that when white people were searched, they “were much more likely than their nonwhite counterparts to be found with a weapon.”
“Our analyses of Terry stops … found racial disparities in stop rates in every SPD sector in the city,” the report said. “Black and Native American individuals experienced the heaviest burden.”
Black people were overrepresented when it came to the use of force, as well, the CPE found. While 7% of the city’s population, Black people account for nearly 35% of all use-of-force cases. And the study found that Black people were subject to more serious force than whites.
The greatest disparity was found when force was used against children. Of 44 incidents between 2014 and 2019 in which police used force against a child 14 years old or younger, 23 cases involved Black children, the center found. Likewise, Black people were involved in fully 59% of incidents where force was used against young people aged 15 to 21 — 332 of a total 563 incidents of force over five years.
The study found that Asian and Latino individuals were underrepresented by percentage of the population when it came to police stops and use of force.
The report makes five recommendations, including requiring more detailed records of all police traffic and pedestrian stops and incidents where force is used. It also suggests the department expand and clarify its use-of-force definitions, particularly regarding holds that might restrict breathing (chokeholds and neck restraints have been banned).
The report also praised the department for cooperating and found “reasons for optimism and identified opportunities for improving SPD practices in the service of fair and equitable policing.”
Chief Diaz said the department had already adopted most of the recommendations, and announced a new public dashboard for access to police stop and arrest data.
The issue of police detentions and searches without arrest has been a source of friction ever since the U.S. Supreme Court issued the ruling that defines them, Terry v. Ohio. That law says police may briefly detain a person, without making an arrest, if they reasonably suspect the person is involved in criminal activity.
Abuses of the practice have included the infamous “stop and frisk” policy of police in New York, Chicago and other major cities where similar racial disparities have surfaced. In Seattle, SPD previously issued two critical “disparity assessments” as part of its obligations under the 2012 consent decree with the Department of Justice that arose from findings that SPD’s officers routinely used excessive force during arrests, usually involving people of color or people with mental-health or substance-abuse issues.
SPD is entering its 10th year under federal oversight and has found compliance with the consent decree daunting. The city was on the verge of asking the federal judge to dissolve the agreement, claiming it had reached compliance, when the murder of George Floyd, and the violence that rocked the city during the summer and fall of 2020, changed city officials’ minds. A federal court hearing on the status of those efforts is set for next month.
When the Department of Justice completed its investigation into the Seattle Police Department in 2011, concluding officers routinely used excessive force during arrests, it stopped just short of a formal finding that SPD engaged in biased policing.
Department attorneys warned, however: “Our investigation raises serious concerns about practices that could have a disparate impact on minority communities. These practices undermine SPD’s ability to build trust among segments of Seattle’s diverse communities.”
Chief among those practices was the city’s improper use of Terry stops, which the DOJ said appeared to be targeting people of color, although data was lacking at the time. Now it’s not, and the CPE report shows Terry abuses remain an issue today.
“SPD’s continued use of force and biased policing during the decree and following the DOJ investigation is alarming and disappointing,” the Washington chapter of American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement. The ACLU led the coalition of community groups that convinced the Justice Department to investigate the SPD following the 2010 shooting death of Native American woodcarver John T. Williams.
“We need true accountability to ensure the department stops causing further harm and damage to their relationship with the community,” the ACLU said.