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SPD Forges Ahead On Reforms As Consent Decree Heads To Court

Amy Radil

The recent settlement between the US Justice Department and the city of Seattle on police reform has yet to be formally entered in federal court. That's expected to occur at a hearing this Friday. Community groups say the settlement was less far–reaching than they had hoped. But officials at the Seattle Police Department say their own reforms will go further than the settlement requires. KUOW's Amy Radil has that story.


The settlement between the Department of Justice and the city of Seattle is supposed to remedy the excessive use of force. That excessive use of force by police was the principal finding in DOJ's investigation.

Soon, every time a Seattle police officer points a firearm or uses force, that incident will be reviewed by the department. These changes are spelled out in a consent decree, to be enforced by an independent monitor.

Community groups have greeted the consent decree with enthusiasm. But it doesn't address every issue the DOJ raised.

Chris Stearns chairs the Seattle Human Rights Commission. He says many issues his group cares about are being put in the lap of a new advisory group, called the Community Police Commission. He's worried that the group will have little funding or power.

Stearns: "And the commission will do what commissions do, which is to issue a report and make recommendations. And then it's up to the city and the police department to see if they want to follow those recommendations. And that's concerning, because we've been down this road before."

Stearns says past "blue ribbon panels" brought incremental changes to policing, but didn't do enough. One civil rights body, the Minority Executive Directors Coalition of King County, has asked Mayor McGinn to give the new commission more tools: its own attorney and staff, and the ability to request information from the police department.

Stearns was also disappointed to find that the settlement will not require SPD to gather data to address claims of "biased policing."

Stearns: "We were expecting the Justice Department and the city to agree that the police department would actually have a way to measure biased policing, would start that right away, and would get to the bottom of that question."

The DOJ noted "serious concerns" about racially biased policing in Seattle. It concluded that half of cases involving "unnecessary or excessive uses of force" involved minorities. Stearns says for community groups it's hard to overstate the importance of race in police relations right now.

Stearns: "Race is what drove the initial request for investigation, and for there to be real fundamental change and better policing, the Seattle Police Department and the city and the communities have to have an honest dialogue about race."

Officials at the Seattle Police Department say they will be collecting data on race, even though it's not required by the consent decree.

Mike Sanford is the assistant chief overseeing SPD's 20/20 reform plan. He says he wants a system that is easy to use, but one that won't leave gaps in the future when it comes to analyzing the data.

Sanford: "We're sensitive to insuring that whatever we do is legal, constitutional, ethical and yet doesn't miss the boat in terms of getting at what we want to get at. We want to study that."

At the department's West Precinct in Belltown, a meeting room has been set aside for officers working on reform initiatives. Sanford says they are well along on revamping many aspects of police training. Training for new officers will soon include more Seattle history, including the ways racism has affected the growth of certain neighborhoods.

The DOJ report noted that use of force was infrequent for SPD, but that a small number of officers used force frequently. Sanford says sometimes that's a result of the officer's assignment in a high–crime area. For example, officers making undercover drug busts have to chase down fleeing suspects. But he says SPD is preparing to look at those episodes individually and "holistically" to see if anything needs to be addressed.

Sanford: "When police officers are in positions where they're using force frequently, so they're using force more often than average, who's watching that, who's paying attention to that and is there training, guiding, assignment or other issues that we should be sensitive to, or help them with because of that?"

Sanford says some results of the new initiatives are already visible on the street.

In four of the top crime spots in downtown Seattle, officers are now required to spend 15 minutes of every hour out of their cars. And one more thing: those officers have to wear their hats.

Sanford: "When my father was a police officer here, they had to wear their hats when they got out of the cars. It's just what police did, it's how you recognized the police from a long way away. That went away before I came on the department almost 30 years ago. And they've brought that back to downtown to say, when you're in these crime spots, we want your hats on."

Sanford says this creates a greater sense of police protection, and feedback has been positive. He says the number of 911 calls in those areas went down.

Sanford: "They were able to drop the number of calls there, and these are the highest crime locations in that precinct. They went through the floor, because everyone around is engaged and recognizing and talking to the police, and if you're someone doing something you shouldn't be, you notice that as well."

Sanford says what sounds like a superficial measure — telling officers to put their hats on — also instills a greater sense of professionalism in the officers themselves. He says that sense of professionalism can go a long way toward preventing police misconduct in the first place.

I'm Amy Radil, KUOW News.

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