The good news: the Seattle Police Department is making encouraging progress towards reforming its history of overly aggressive policing tactics identified by the Department of Justice in 2012.
The bad news: The monitor tasked with overseeing that reform has found the department is failing to adequately investigate mid-level use of force incidents, like those involving pepper spray, tasers, and blast balls.
On the same day Attorney General Loretta Lynch was in town meeting with Central Area activists, the federal monitor tasked with overseeing SPD’s use of force consent decree filed an assessment on how the department was progressing with internally tracking use of force incidents.
The monitor found the department was hitting key benchmarks laid out by the DOJ. However, the report also said SPD still has “a ways to go” towards adequately documenting and investigating Type II use of force incidents by officers, like those typically involved in responding to May Day protests on Capitol Hill.
Type I forces include physical interactions that cause minimal pain or disorientation, like soft takedowns. Type III incidents are those that cause great bodily harm or death.
Documenting and investigating use-of-force incidents was identified by the DOJ as a major problem area within SPD back in 2012. The recent report found half of the internal investigations on Type II incidents were still found to have “material deficiencies or omissions, inaccuracies, evidence of bias, or other significant issues.”
The monitoring team evaluated 30 randomly-selected Type II cases that occurred between July 2014-December 2014. The report doesn’t specify dates or addresses, but some incidents are very similar to reports from this year’s May Day riot on Capitol Hill.
In one “crowd management” situation, officers who had been relieved from protest duty deployed pepper spray, a hair pull, blast balls, and a takedown without authorization. Upon reviewing the documentation for the incident, the monitor found the officers were not identified or interviewed by superiors.
Sergeants are not uniformly canvassing for all witnesses, impartially and thoroughly interviewing those witnesses, pursuing all relevant lines of investigative inquiry, securing adequate statements from witness officers, and ensuring that they are sufficiently uninvolved in the incident in the first instance to conduct an impartial investigation.
Sergeant reports are critical as they typically form the basis for subsequent chain-of-command reviews. The monitor report described why documenting is so crucial to reform:
The reporting requirements . . . are not merely bureaucratic. The Department simply cannot adequately address the risk of unconstitutionally excessive force if it does not know about every instance in which an officer employed force.
Chief Kathleen O’Toole has proposed using “precinct operations sergeants” to review Type II investigations for completeness, a move the monitor supports.
Low ratings for East
City and SPD officials have repeatedly said that restoring public trust in police goes hand-in-hand with reform. On Thursday, the federal monitor released the findings of a community survey (PDF) it commissioned to gauge just that. Overall, public perception of SPD has improved over the past two years and people are reporting more equal treatment on average.
Unfortunately, SPD’s approval ratings have increased in all precincts except the East, which includes Capitol Hill and the Central District. 52% of people in the East Precinct approved of the police this year, the lowest rating in the city.
On the other hand, LGBT residents were among the minority groups that have warmed the most to SPD since 2013, according to the report. Back then, 44% said they disapproved of the department. This year, only 27% said they felt the same way. Citywide, opinions of SPD have not changed among African Americans in the past two years, with 48% approving and 40% disapproving this year.
Last year’s troubling arrest of William Wingate on Capitol Hill no doubt played into the relatively low East Precinct approval ratings. Cynthia Whitlatch, an 18-year veteran officer, arrested the elderly man on Capitol Hill in an incident that was later deemed to be aggressive and biased. Whitlatch, a white officer, claimed Wingate, a black man, pointed a golf club at her while he was standing on the corner of 12th and Pine. Wingate had used the golf club as a cane for years, but ended up in jail and charged with unlawful use of a weapon.
Throughout the investigation into the incident, Whitlatch claimed no wrong doing and maintained she was actually the target of reverse racism. O’Toole fired Whitlatch last month.
Prior to Whitlatch’s termination, police union president Ron Smith issued a statement arguing SPD’s Office of Professional Accountability had taken too long in conducting its investigation. CHS reached out to Smith several times last week and this week to further discuss the termination, but Smith would only point us to the September 1st statement.
A few other interesting findings from the DOJ survey included:
- African Americans are far more likely to be stopped in their car (28% in the last year) than whites (13%), Asian Americans (19%), or Latinos (18%)
- 4% percent of Seattleites say they were victims of SPD racial profiling in the past year, identical to 2013. This includes 10% of Asian Americans, 9% of African Americans, and 6% of Latinos — all statistically unchanged from last year.
- African Americans and Latinos more likely than whites to report specific problems with their interactions.
- Most Seattleites (55%) believe that SPD engages in racial profiling very or somewhat often, statistically unchanged from 2013.
- Most Seattleites still think that Latinos and African Americans are being mistreated by police. That’s also true for homeless people.
- 46% percent of Seattleites believe the police commit excessive force very or somewhat often, unchanged from 45% saying the same in 2013.
- Among people who reported bad experiences with police but didn’t file a complaint, 81% said they didn’t think filing a complaint would lead to changes in the department, and 24% said they worried about being harassed if they filed a complaint.
- Less than 1% of Seattleites report being a victim of excessive force in the past year
- 89% of people support SPD officers wearing body cameras.