Understanding the SPD Use of Force Report

Yesterday the Seattle Police Department issued their second annual Use of Force Report, a compilation of data on how and when SPD officers used various levels of force on suspects during 2017.

SPD categorizes its use of force into four types (or levels — SPD uses them interchangeably):

  • Type I – Actions which “causes transitory pain, the complaint of transitory pain, disorientation, or intentionally pointing a firearm or bean bag shotgun.” This is the most frequently reported level of force. Examples of Type I force, generally used to control a person who is resisting an officer’s lawful commands, include “soft takedowns” (controlled placement), strike with sufficient force to cause pain or complaint of pain, or an open hand technique with sufficient force to cause complaint of pain. Type I uses of force are screened by a sergeant and reviewed by the Force Review Unit.
  • Type II – Force that causes or is reasonably expected to cause physical injury greater than transitory pain but less than great or substantial bodily harm. Examples include a hard take-down or and/or the use of any of the following weapons or instruments: CEW, OC spray, impact weapon, beanbag shotgun, deployment of K-9 with injury or complaint of injury causing less than Type III injury, vehicle, and hobble restraint. An on-scene (where feasible) sergeant collects available video evidence and witness statements; the evidence packet and analysis of the force is reviewed by the Chain of Command and the Force Review Unit. Cases flagged by the Force Review Unit for further inquiry, in accordance with policy criteria, plus an additional random 10% of Type II cases are also analyzed by the Force Review Board.
  • Type III – Force that causes or is reasonably expected to cause great bodily harm, substantial bodily harm, loss of consciousness, or death, and/or the use of neck and carotid holds, stop sticks for motorcycles, and impact weapon strikes to the head. Type III force is screened on-scene by a sergeant, investigated by the Force Investigation Team, and analyzed by the Force Review Board.

Type III use of force is also subdivided into “officer involved shooting” (OIS) and other types of severe force.

In 2017, SPD dispatched 891,740 officers to 398,459 unique events in the city. There were 1,578 uses of force reported at 845 of those events.   In other words, at 0.21% of the events to which officers were dispatched, some level of force was used — a very small fraction.

Let’s start with the overall trend: use of force is nearly the same as  2016, with a small but noticeable shift to less severity. The level 3 numbers are so small that it’s impossible to draw any conclusions about trends; the year-to-year fluctuations caused by even one or two incidents over the course of an entire year is enough to skew the numbers. Remember, we’re talking 20 uses of Level 3 force among 398,459 events. 20 is still 20 more than we’d ideally like to see, and I’m not justifying 20 as the “right” number; I’m just saying that we shouldn’t look for a year-to-year trend in numbers that small and noisy.

Level 2 use of force seems to be continuing a multi-year downward trend, which is good news.

For some reason, SPD decided to throw in a really stupid and misleading graph of this data, broken out by month:

SPD knows that there are seasonal variations in Seattle’s crime statistics, so there’s really no point in looking for trends in monthly data (patterns yes; trends no). And it’s senseless to try to fit seasonal use-of-force data to a linear trend line; to do that, you’d have to normalize the monthly use-of-force data to the monthly police dispatches.

It also senseless to fit data to a linear trend line when we know darn well that the numbers will never go to zero; there is some unknown baseline amount of incidents that SPD will use some level of force every year, and it’s far more likely that the trend will asymptotically approach the baseline. So if there’s a trend, it’s going to be a curved line.

OK, back to the data.  It’s no surprise that almost 90% of the use of force was by patrol officers. The Compliance and Professional Standards Bureau oversees field training, which largely happens on patrols.

Next, demographics of the people that SPD used force on. About 80% of subjects were male. Blacks continue to be overrepresented, slightly more so among men than women, and whites continue to be underrepresented, also slightly more so among men than women.  It’s worth pointing out, though, that these individual stats aren’t the whole story and more analysis should be done on this — including comparing these demographics to the demographics of all SPD arrests to see if they are using force more or less on certain populations during arrests. That said, the numbers continue to be worrisome.

The Level 3 use-of-force demographics are very small numbers, but just for the record, of the 18 subjects thee were:

  • 7 white men;
  • 4 black men;
  • 2 Native American men;
  • 2 black women;
  • 1 white woman;
  • 1 Native American woman;
  • 1 woman of unknown ethnicity.

And of the 8 officer-involved shootings, they involved:

  • 4 white men;
  • 1 black man;
  • 1 white woman;
  • 1 black woman;
  • 1 woman of unknown ethnicity.

Here’s a list of types of calls in which incidents of use-of-force happened. In retrospect, it’s not surprising that a large percentage are assaults.

The report also includes data on incidents by day-of-week and time-of-day. Apparently Tuesdays are a good day to stay home. And (again, not surprisingly) late night is the peak time for use of force.

The geography data is very interesting. Of the five police precincts, three saw decreases in use of force (South, Southwest, and East), and two saw dramatic increases (North and West). Nearly 57.2% of use-of-force incidents occurred in the North and West precincts,

Within the North Precinct, one specific sector, including Wallingford, Fremont and Ballard, saw its incidents increase 92%.

There is an in-depth analysis of taser use in the report, particularly relevant given the controversy over whether one of the officers in the Charleena Lyles shooting should have been carrying his department-issued taser.

There were 27 incidents in which officers deployed tasers last year, with 54 individual taser activations. The report says that most involved one or two activations, though one incident involved a single officer activating his taser six times; four the time times the taser malfunctioned and didn’t deploy; in the other two the taser did deploy but not sufficiently to subdue the subject.

A taser has multiple modes of deployment, depending on the distance from the target. If within reach, it can be used in “drive/stun” or “contact” mode in which it is held against the person’s body. At a distance, it is used in “probe” mode, in which two darts are shot into the person’s body and the electric charge is sent through them. In between, it can be used in a combination mode, with the probes first and then direct contact. In any of the modes, it can be used repeatedly because a single charge often isn’t enough to subdue a suspect; that’s called a “re-energize.”.

It turns out tasers kind of suck. Of the 54 activations in 2017, they were effective in 21 — 39%.

It’s particularly ineffective in “probe” mode. Here’s a graph of the different ways tasers were deployed last year, and how well they did.

When you look at it by distance, it looks like a distance of 6-10 feet is optimal, but generally they are unreliable — and particularly at distances of over 10 feet.

SPD tracks officers’ explanations for why the taser didn’t work. Clothing was the reason 58% of the time, and the report calls out “heavy or baggy clothing” as a frequent cause of taser ineffectiveness.

As an aside: according to the Force Investigation Team report on the shooting of Charleena Lyles, she was three feet away from Officer Anderson (the one who was supposed to by carrying a taser) and wearing a puffy winter coat when she threatened him with a knife.  The statistics above suggest that if Anderson did have a taser, there’s a very good chance it wouldn’t have been effective. That of course is not an excuse for his violation of SPD rules in not carrying it, but it decreases the likelihood that it would have changed the outcome of the tragic incident.

The last section of the use-of-force report is a look at the outcomes of internal reviews conducted by SPD’s Force Review Unit (FRU) and Force Review Board (FRB). The FRU reviews all level-2 uses of force, and the FRB reviews all level-3 uses as well as level-2 uses when any of these factors are involved:

  • possibility of misconduct;
  • significant policy, training, equipment or tactical issues;
  • when the Force Investigation Team (which does investigation legwork for SPD) was contacted for consultation and declined to respond or investigate;
  • when less-lethal tools were used;
  • when a canine makes physical contact with a subject;
  • when a subject is transported to an emergency room.

Both the FRB and FRU use the same process to review cases. In total, they reviewed the actions of 487 officers involved in 185 use-of-force incidents last year. The FRU approved of the officer’s conduct 100% of the time — but keep in mind that it only handles less severe and uncontroversial cases, so this isn’t that surprising. The FRB disapproved of three officers’ actions, and deferred 95 cases that had already been referred to the Office of Professional Accountability.

The numbers are similar for their reviews of tactics and decision-making.

They are also similar for their review of supervisors’ on-scene supervision when they were present before the use-of-force occurred.

They were more critical of the reviews of the timeliness and thoroughness of Force Investigation Team and chain-of-command investigations.

Here are my take-aways from the report:

  • Overall use of force by SPD seems to be stable at a fairly low level, and the severity is dropping. It would be wonderful to see it drop further, but it might take a change within SPD, or a drop in overall crime in Seattle, to make that happen.
  • The increase in use-of-force in the North and West precincts is very concerning, and it deserves a more thorough explanation for what’s driving it.
  • People of color are still disproportionately higher subjects of use of force. This also needs a better explanation so it can be addressed.
  • Tasers suck. SPD should take a hard look at its policies regarding the provisioning and deployment of them.
  • SPD needs to revise its practices for FIT and chain-of-command investigations and reviews.

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