Use of force by Seattle police officers reached an all-time low last year — after skyrocketing in 2020 during the summer protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd — but statistics continue to show sharp and disturbing evidence of racial inequities when officers resort to their hands, Tasers or guns.
A preliminary review of the department’s use-of-force trends since 2019, released this week by the federal monitor overseeing court-ordered police reforms, remarks on significant and ongoing progress made by SPD in lowering the number of use-of-force incidents of all types, and praised the city’s review of the violence in 2020 that marred and undermined those efforts.
At the same time, the monitor points out that Black and Native American people continue to be disproportionately represented when force is used, based on census data, and that Asian and Black people make up an inordinate number of the victims of police shootings.
However, Seattle police monitor Antonio Oftelie said any conclusions are complicated by the fact that race data was missing in almost a third of the reports overall, even though officers are required to provide it.
Both the monitor and Seattle police officials said the failure by officers to report the data, as well as their supervisors to require it, was troubling.
Oftelie, calling the missing data a “significant concern,” said Tuesday in an interview that it is unlikely he’ll recommend to U.S. District Judge James Robart that the city be allowed to end its now decade-old consent decree with the Department of Justice without that issue being resolved. The consent decree followed an investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division that found fault with the department’s use of force and found evidence of biased policing.
“This significant percentage of use of force with an unknown race overall, and especially for higher levels of force, is concerning,” Oftelie wrote in the report.
Brian Maxey, the SPD’s chief operating office, agreed. While he said its fair to expect some reporting anomalies, “but not a third. That is very concerning.” He said the department is in the process of implementing a new reporting system that “should clear that up.”
Looking at data from 2019 through 2021 (and excluding the anomalous 2020 data), the monitor found that Black people, who make up 7.3% of the city’s population, were involved in 36% of all uses of force by Seattle police officers, including 54% of police shootings and 36% of other “Type III” incidents where force could result in serious injury or death.
Police used “Type II” intermediate force — such as Tasers or pepper spray — against Black people in 34% of those incidents. “Type I” force, involving transitory pain but no physical injury or pointing a firearm, was used against Black people in 37% of those applications.
“The disparity remains pretty glaring,” said Oftelie.
With the 2020 data included, the numbers are only slightly lower and still show significant racial disparities.
Moreover, the data shows that while force incidents are trending downward, Black people are still most likely to have a gun pointed at them by a police officer — a Type I use of force. The instances are down from a high of 304 in 2015 to an average 82 in 2019-2021, a 73% decrease over that period, the report found.
“Even as this decrease is notable, Black subjects are still most likely to be the subject of a firearm-pointing despite being the subject of force less frequently than White subjects, or subjects of an unknown race,” the report said.
The use-of-force report follows one issued last year detailing detentions that showed Seattle police stop Black and Native American people for questioning at rates far higher than white people.
The new report shows that Black people made up 36.4% of all arrests by Seattle police 2020-21. The arrest data for 2019 was incomplete and not included.
Whites made up 67% of the city’s population and 54% of the total use-of-force incidents from 2019-21. Whites also were 54% of arrests for the two-year period of 2020 and 2021. Type III force, not including firearms, was used on white people in 64% of those totals, and whites were subjected to Type II force in 58% of those incidents. White people were targeted in 15% of total police shootings.
Asians, who make up 15.4% of Seattle’s population, were involved in 23% of police shootings. Otherwise, they were underrepresented in the use-of-force data, making up less than 5% of the Type I and Type II force incidents, and none of the Type III incidents that didn’t involve firearms.
Mayor Bruce Harrell, in a statement, said that “racial disparities in policing are totally unacceptable.”
Spokesperson Jamie Housen said the mayor’s office “is continuing to evaluate this preliminary report” and will use the data to “provide an important baseline for our efforts to ensure unbiased policing going forward.”
The missing racial data “raises substantial concerns about SPD’s force demographic data collection,” Oftelie wrote. “To say nothing about the potentially troubling implication for continued compliance on the decree’s core self-reporting obligations and the quality of supervisory review of use of force reports.”
Oftelie noted that the race data is missing even though “a good portion of use-of-force incidents are captured via SPD’s body-worn camera system,” which in many of these cases could be used to identify the race of the subject.
Aside from 2020, Oftelie said the overall numbers are encouraging, but added that the racial disparities revealed by the data are disturbing and “the most challenging aspect of how we measure compliance with the consent decree.”
The city agreed to oversight by a federal monitor and to reform the Seattle Police Department in 2012 after an FBI-led investigation completed the year before found officers “engaged in a pattern and practice” of using excessive force in arrests and uncovered evidence of biased policing.
Since then the city has spent more than $90 million to revamp the department’s policies and training, bolster its oversight and disciplinary processes and rein in its use of force across the board. The result has been a measurable decrease in the overall instances where force is used by officers across the spectrum of the types of force used, from simple pain-compliance holds to shootings, according to the report.
“SPD’s overall use of force declined 33 percent from 2015 to 2019 and 49 percent from 2015 to 2021,” according to the report. Both 2019 and 2021 showed record low uses of force overall, taking into account reduced police activity due to the pandemic, Oftelie’s team found.
Indeed, the report found that the most serious incidents — ones in which the force used could be expected to cause serious injury or death — were down 60 percent between 2014 and 2021, where officers used serious force an average once in roughly every 40,000 times officers were dispatched to a call.
Incidents where officers point their firearms at people — considered a low-level of force — have declined to the lowest levels ever seen in 2019 and 2021 and incidents where officers resort to using a Taser — considered a medium-level use of force — are down 61 percent, from an average 14 times a month between 2001-2010 to 5.5 times a month from 2014-2021.
However, the report notes that the response to the 2020 protests were a blight on that trend, with record amounts of force reported and crowd tactics that undermined public trust and resulted in a “near collapse of reporting and review obligations” required by the consent decree. The response to the protests, Oftelie wrote, “produced immediate outrage, lasting harm and a number of important questions about the future of policing in Seattle.”
That summer led to more than 19,000 complaints to the police department’s Office of Police Accountability and resulted in the SPD’s Office of Inspector General initiating a Sentinel Event Review that is ongoing, which the monitor said is a “robust, necessary process of critically analyzing” the SPD’s protest response. As a result the department has revamped its crowd control policies, with additional changes in the works.
During the protests, Black Lives Matter obtained an injunction preventing SPD from using force against peaceful protesters, and then the department was held in contempt by a federal judge for violating it.
While an overall reduction in the use of force may meet the legal requirements of the document, “there is also the spirit of the consent decree” and the need to address racial bias.
“Even though trends are in the right direction, the disparity we see is still pretty glaring” and calls for additional and more robust data collection, the report said.
An earlier version of the graphic misidentified the population demographics. The population percentages are for Seattle residents.