Latest reports put best face on SPD’s efforts to sustain reforms under consent decree

If there’s one thing that the Seattle Police Department has become quite good at, it’s churning out reports on its reform efforts. In the run-up to a pivotal hearing on May 15th with U.S. District Court Judge James Robart, the city has filed several reports on it recent work to continue and sustain its police reforms under its consent decree with the Department of Justice.

The stakes are high: just over a year ago, Robart declared the city in “full and effective compliance” with the consent decree. That started the clock on a two-year “sustainment period,” and if SPD can sustain compliance continuously through those two years, then Judge Robart can terminate the consent decree and lift the dark cloud that SPD has been living under since 2012.

But last December, Robart threatened to find the department out of compliance, because of the collective-bargaining agreement it signed with SPOG, the union representing police officers, and because an arbitration panel overturned the firing of SPD officer Adley Shepherd in a manner that called into question the efficacy of SPD’s reforms.

The approved plan for the two-year sustainment period calls for the city to submit quarterly reports to the Court, successfully complete several audits, and complete ongoing work on several reforms and policy revisions. Those requirements are the basis of the five reports submitted in the past week.

The quarterly report gives a succinct summary of SPD’s activities since the beginning of the year. Among the successes it tallies:

  • It touts the signing of the collective bargaining agreement with SPOG, and re-litigates why the city believes the contract benefits reform efforts. This is an interesting choice, given both that the contract wasn’t actually signed in the first quarter, and that the city has already argued its case ad nauseum in briefs leading up to the hearing scheduled for the 15th. The city particularly hammers again on its belief that binding arbitration does not undermine police accountability.
  • It notes that eight new members have been appointed to the Community Police Commission (CPC), one-third of the total membership of the Commission. Strangely, it asserts that they will “bring new energy to the Commission” and provide “a fresh opportunity for the City to re-evaluate and re-focus the commission on its mission of engaging with communities and facilitating community oversight of SPD.” It goes on to say that it hopes “the composition of the new Commissioners will bring a spirit of cooperation and collaboration with SPD and the other ‘Accountability Partners’ — the Office of Police Accountability and Office of the Inspector General.” That is a backhanded critique of the prior CPC, suggesting that it has strayed from its intended focus and has been unwilling to cooperate and collaborate. To be sure, the CPC has been the most vocal critic of the SPOG contract, including urging Judge Robart to find that the contract is a step back from the city’s accountability goals. It’s also an admission that the Mayor’s goal in selecting new commissioners is to change the CPC’s direction.
  • It highlighted efforts underway at SPD to improve how it engages with diverse communities in Seattle. Those efforts include a focus on diversity hiring, and SPD notes that in 2018 36% of its new hires were persons of color — a new high. SPD has also established a “recruiting cadre” of officers trained to serve as recruiting liaisons in the community. And the department continues to evolve its required training for officers: in 2019, all officers will be required to take courses in African-American History and the history of Seattle’s Central District that were developed in cooperation with the Northwest African-American-American Museum. SPD is also replacing its current 4-hour course on implicit racial bias with an 8-hour class taught by the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission. And it is consolidating its varied community-based initiatives into a single Collaborative Policing Bureau that houses the Navigation Team officers, the Crisis Response section, and the Community Outreach section.
  • The city submitted a report on the initial results of its Disparity Review, which quantified disparities in the use of force, investigative stops (aka “Terry stops”), and frisks. The review applied a process known as Propensity Score Matching to make the best apples-to-apples comparisons of incidents to see if there are racial disparities in police behaviors. With the caveat that the overall incidents of use of force, Terry stops, and frisks are all very low, the study did find that minorities were frisked at a higher rate than whites, though frisks of minorities produced weapons 1/3 less frequently. Police officers pointed firearms at non-whites about 30% more often than whites. The study also found that Asians, Blacks and Hispanics were stopped for shorter periods of time than whites, though members of native tribes were stopped for longer.

  • The city submitted some fairly minor revisions to its Bias-free Policing policy, mostly changes to what happens when a person makes an accusation of biased policing at the scene of the incident, to increase the likelihood that a supervisor will have the chance to follow up on the accusation.
  • The city issued some new policy directives around its data analytics platform, which has been an area of significant investment for SPD and has received praise from the court-appointed police monitor. Under the new rules, Captains, Lieutenants and Sergeants are all required to regularly review the squad and officer performance data the platform is generating. The city will also be rolling out its new records management system later this month, as well as an upgrade to its data analytics platform in June.
  • The city submitted an update to its Crisis Intervention Policy, mostly minor changes and clarifications. The new policy does clarify the limits of an officer’s legal authority to take someone into custody based on an order from the person’s “designated crisis responder.”
  • The city also submitted an update to SPD’s Employee Conduct Policy. A set of changes were made after careful consultation and negotiation with OPA, that allow a larger number of minor policy violations to be handled by supervisors instead of requiring referral to OPA for investigation. OPA had been inundated with these minor referrals, creating a backlog and pulling valuable investigative resources away from more important cases. The change is also apparently good for employee morale, in that a referral to OPA was seen as a significant performance failure for police officers but one that could happen for fairly trivial reasons. The court-appointed monitor had made a similar recommendation that supervisors should have greater responsibility for addressing minor policy violations.  The new policy also defines a new category, “Serious Policy Violations,” including use of force that is not reasonable, necessary and proportional; violations of constitutional protections, criminal violations; dishonesty; bias-based policing; and failure to cooperate in an internal investigation. All Serious Policy Violations must be referred to OPA. Finally, the new policy creates a new screening procedure for “unsubstantiated allegations of serious misconduct,” wherein supervisors try to substantiate claims first and if they can’t they send them to OPA for screening rather than a full investigation.
  • SPD reported first-quarter statistics for use of force and crisis intervention and the outcomes of SPD’s force-review panels. In Q1, officers were dispatched to 96,536 unique events; of those, only 301 involved a use of force by one or more officers — less than 1/3 of 1%. The “Type I” least-serious uses of force dropped dramatically, possibly because of a change made where discomfort commonly caused by proper use of handcuffs is no longer recorded as a Type I use of force (though it is still documented and tracked).

    Blacks continue to be over-represented among the people upon whom SPD officers used force.

    SPD documented 2,701 incidents in Q1 involving a person in crisis (roughly 30 per day — wow), and officers use force in 45 of those incidents (less than 2%). Here’s how the incidents were resolved:
  •  SPD completed an audit in Q1 on officers’ use of stops and detentions. That audit found that in around 97% of audited cases officers had documented a reasonable suspicion for the stop. However, persons of color are still overrepresented among the people stopped.

  • SPD also completed an audit of its Early Intervention System. The system, which is used to flag officers demonstrating signs of high-risk behavior before serious incidents occur so that supervisors can intervene, was put in place in the early days of the consent decree, but was generating too many alerts. With help from the DOJ and the police monitor, SPD has revised the numerical thresholds for generating alerts to better calibrate the system to the officers who require intervention.

Throughout most of the consent decree period, both the DOJ and the police monitor have praised SPD for their diligent work in pushing through reforms. That has continued during the sustainment period, despite the ongoing debate over the SPOG contract.  For his part, Robart has also from time to time chosen to note SPD’s hard work on reform efforts, though it hasn’t stopped him from critiquing their work where he found fault in the details.  It’s fair to surmise that in Robart’s eyes, following through on the sustainment plan, including all of the policy updates, the audits, and the reports is necessary but not sufficient for him to release the city from the consent decree next year; they still have to convince him that the SPOG contract is compatible with bias-free and accountable policing In addition, it may have to show him that SPD can actually move the numbers on the stubbornly persistent racial disparities in Terry stops and use of force — and time is running out on that.