Merrick Bobb, the federal monitor overseeing Seattle police reforms, is lending his support to body cameras on officers in his latest progress report, which mostly commends but also criticizes the department for its overall efforts.
The federal monitor overseeing Seattle police reforms is endorsing the use of body cameras by officers, calling them a key tool for “accountability and transparency.”
“The time for permanent use of on-officer cameras by all SPD officers is now,” the monitor, Merrick Bobb, writes in the fifth semiannual report since the city entered into a 2012 consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department to curtail excessive force and biased policing.
His strong support for body cameras, contained in the 47-page report made public Monday, comes at a time then the department confirms that it plans to shift from a small pilot program to departmentwide use of the cameras by some 640 patrol officers.
While not a “silver bullet,” Bobb writes, studies show body cameras substantially reduce use of force and citizen complaints.
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Bobb’s report lauds the department for steps it has taken to comply with the consent decree, commending Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole and her newly formed command staff, as well as the city and Justice Department for their “unflagging commitment” to reform.
Although significant work remains — particularly in improving the investigation and review of use of force — the department has moved closer in the past six months to complying with the consent decree and positioning itself to be a leader in national police-reform efforts, the report says.
Bobb, a Los Angeles-based police-accountabillity consultant, submitted the report to U.S. District Judge James Robart, who is presiding over the consent decree. Robart ultimately will decide when the city has met its obligations.
While the report provides no indication when the federal oversight might end, its timelines for future assessments and, notably, for the development of a sophisticated computer program to track key requirements of the consent decree, raise the possibility the department could be found in compliance by late 2016 or early 2017.
Areas of praise
The report, the second since O’Toole was sworn in as chief last June, echoes the previous one, noting in its first paragraph that she has “validated the Mayor’s choice of her as the right person to reform the Department, encourage police proactivity, and fight crime intelligently and efficiently. ”
“I think the collaborative process is paying off,” Mayor Ed Murray said of the city’s efforts to work with the monitor and Justice Department, while pointing out that the city still needs to come into compliance with the consent decree
O’Toole, citing her recent attendance at a conference of major-city police chiefs, said she was approached by others asking about reform because Seattle is at the “leading edge of this stuff.”
Proposed revisions to the policies, have been made after consultation with officers and others, including the police unions, the report says, while preserving the focus on de-escalating confrontations and using force in proportional, necessary and reasonable ways. The revisions are subject to Robart’s approval.
The report praises the department’s new efforts to track contacts with people in “behavioral crisis,” noting that seven individuals were identified as moving from one precinct to the next.
New training programs are taking hold, according to the report, attracting national attention.
“The success in training has been all the more impressive in light of the ongoing and significant limitations on resources available to the Education and Training Section,” the report says, noting SPD’s curriculum developers are overextended and its limited number of trainers must devote significant amounts of overtime to ensure all officers get the instruction.
Funding limitations need to be promptly addressed by the city and department so there is “no backsliding in the crucial area of officer training going forward,” the report says.
Police officials also are taking a smart approach to crime-fighting, using a forum called SeaStat to quickly identify and address trends, the report says, showing the department is “not attempting to address unconstitutional policing issues by unacceptably reducing policing.”
Areas of criticism
Some criticism is aimed at the department’s Force Investigation Team (FIT), which, under the new use-of-force policies, rolls out to investigate officer-involved shootings and use of the highest levels of force.
While FIT’s work represents a “sea change” over the SPD’s formerly perfunctory investigations, according to the report, it continues to ask inappropriate “leading and suggestive questions,” which can imply a desired answer or provide unknown information to the person being interviewed.
This “practice must stop,” Bobb writes, while also expressing concerns about FIT’s lack of objectivity during presentations to the department’s Use of Force Review Board.
The Review Board, singled out in past reports for sustained improvement, also comes under scrutiny for having “plateaued” in the last six months and for developing a backlog of cases, the report says.
“The most troubling issue relates to the ongoing reluctance of the Board to find that a use of force was out of policy,” it says, without citing specific cases. “In particular, the Board has some difficulty resolving cases where an officer’s force, at the moment that it was used, may have been reasonable, necessary and proportional but the officer violated another SPD policy — either in the events leading to the force or one of the SPD Manual’s more specific guidelines with respect to the force application itself.”
In some instances, the report adds, board members engage in “convoluted interpretations of policy, extended philosophical conversations about the importance and meaning of concepts like ‘intent’ and the meaning of ‘may,’ or unrealistic and implausible interpretations of facts.”
At the same time, the board continues to do good work and the department has moved quickly in the past several weeks to make significant changes, the report says.
The report also cites an “ungainly, 14-month process” to overhaul the department’s Early Intervention System, a key component of the reform effort used to identify officers whose problem behavior calls for nondisciplinary intervention.
But the department is now rolling out the program, with full backing by O’Toole, her deputy chief and two assistant chiefs, the report says.
As for body cameras, the report says, the rollout should be done as “immediately and rapidly as possible” to obtain factual accounts of encounters with citizens and acquire crucial information.
With the pilot project slated to end in mid-July, the department is already preparing for bids on a longterm contract for cameras; planning to work with the monitor, the Justice Department and others on final policies; and continuing to explore ways to balance transparency with privacy, Mike Wagers, SPD’s chief operating officer, said in an email.
Some adjustments may be needed to deal with privacy issues, Bobb acknowledges.
O’Toole said the goal is to first outfit the East Precinct, where the pilot project has occurred, then expand precinct by precinct.
The next big test for the department, as previously signaled, will be 15 formal assessments, carried out by Bobb’s team over the coming months, of different areas of the consent decree to determine if policies and procedures now on paper have, in the words of the report, “really taken hold in the field.”
Information in this article, originally published June 15, 2015, was corrected June 16, 2015. A previous version of this story left the impression that revisions to the Seattle Police Department’s use-of-force policies, adopted as part of court-ordered reforms, had been made. The proposed revisions, however, are subject to approval by the federal judge overseeing the reforms.