Council contemplates creating a private cause of action for bias-free policing

Last July, the City Council had a discussion of bias-free policing, and what steps it might take to hold the Seattle Police Department accountable for its biases. This morning, the Council revisits the topic.

Framing the discussion is a draft piece of legislation creating a private cause of action for Seattle residents who are victims of biased policing.

Let’s start with the basic definition of “biased policing” as stated in the bill:

Biased policing” means selective enforcement or non-enforcement of the law, including the selecting or rejecting of particular policing tactics or strategies, by a police officer, that is based on race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, color, creed, age, alienage or citizenship status, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, political ideology or housing status rather reasonable suspicion grounded in specific and articulable facts, or probable cause, that the individual has been or is about to be involved in a crime.  Biased policing does not include using race, ethnicity, or any other status in any reliable suspect’s description.

And here’s where it creates the private cause of action:

Police Officers shall be prohibited from making decisions or taking actions that are influenced by unfair bias, prejudice, or discriminatory intent. Any person who is the victim of biased policing shall be entitled to compensation as provided under this Chapter 14.22.

Within 180 days of an incident of biased policing, a victim may file either a civil complaint in Seattle Municipal Court, or a claim to the Hearing Examiner (but not both). In Municipal Court, a victim can seek an injunction, a restraining order, or other forms of relief against ongoing behavior of the perpetrator of the biased policing. In a hearing with the Hearing Examiner, the victim may seek monetary damages: up to $5000 per violation, plus attorneys’ fees and other costs.

The proposed legislation also requires SPD to provide training on bias-free policing practices to all officers, and to collect data on both “Terry stops” and traffic stops to allow for better analysis of the existence of biased policing practices (or the absence of such).  SPD would have to file an annual report analyzing the data collected.

I wrote previously about Council President Harrell’s interest in creating private causes of action in order to increase the city’s accountability for its actions. In fact, last August, bias-free policing was Harrell’s topic du jour for exploring the usefulness of creating a cause of action.

The draft ordinance has not been officially introduced into the Council’s legislative process, so today’s conversation will be an informal first discussion. And it will occur in the same meeting as the first reading of the broader police accountability legislation introduced with much fanfare, so it might not get much attention. Nevertheless, if it goes forward it will provide an important avenue for residents of Seattle to air their complaints about biased police practices.