Earlier this month, the Seattle Police Department started circulating for review a set of proposed changes to its policies for officers’ use of force and crowd control. It sent the drafts to the city’s three police accountability organizations — the CPC, OPA, and OIG — as well as to the Department of Justice and the court-appointed police monitor, asking for feedback by January 8th. But miscommunications between SPD and the CPC over the feedback process have thrown a wrench into the works and are raising the tensions in a perpetually strained relationship.
SPD likes to do its drafting and feedback quietly, and in its customary form asked the accountability bodies not to publish or further circulate the draft changes. Nevertheless, Assistant Chief Lesley Cordner joined the CPC’s weekly meeting two weeks ago (a meeting open to the public) to verbally walk the CPC members through the proposed changes. She agreed to come back again this morning to answer questions — and that’s where the trouble started. The CPC members gathered their questions for today’s session — very substantive ones — into a memo, and sent them off yesterday (Tuesday) morning to Cordner. Here’s the memo:
Then, at 5pm yesterday, Cordner emailed the CPC saying that the questions were not the kind she was expecting: she thought she would be providing clarifications about the “form,” structure and language of the draft policies, rather than trying to answer the substantive policy questions. She told the CPC members that while she welcomed their substantive questions, she preferred to wait until all of the groups had submitted their feedback on January 8th to discuss all of them together rather than try to address just the CPC’s alone. Further, she cancelled out of this morning’s meeting since she was not prepared to address their questions. Here is her email:
As you can imagine, this did not go over very well with the CPC this morning, who had allocated an hour in their meeting for the conversation with Cordner. CPC members expressed their frustration with SPD, which has earned a reputation for frequently being less than forthcoming and cooperative with the CPC. They also claimed not to understand the distinction Cordner was making between “form” and “substance.”
The CPC also raised some pertinent issues about the transparency of the review process, including how the larger community would be given the opportunity to provide input and feedback — especially since SPD was asking for the drafts to be kept private. They expressed confusion as to whether SPD was expecting to conduct its own public outreach on the policy changes, or whether it was delegating that responsibility to the CPC (a not unreasonable approach if appropriately communicated, agreed upon, resourced, and given the time to do it right). The CPC agreed today to have a follow-up conversation with Cordner to try to sort things out, but also to press harder to ensure that SPD makes allowances for a real public input process and eventually answers their questions.
In the meantime since the proposed changes, as submitted to the accountability bodies, are public records, SCC Insight managed to obtain them last week.
There are eight parts, represented as revisions to the SPD policy manual’s various sections:
- Use of Force Core Principles
- Use of force Definitions
- Using Force Definitions (don’t ask me why there are two separate definitions sections)
- Use of Force Tools (including lethal and less-lethal weapons)
- Use of Force Reporting and Investigation
- Reviewing Use of Force
- Crowd Management, Intervention and Crowd Dispersal
The changes to the use of force policies are mostly specific, narrow edits, while the crowd management policy is more of a wholesale rewrite. Both policy draft incorporate some, but not all, of the changes recommended by the OPA, OIG and CPC in August when they were asked to weigh in on crowd control weapons.
Some of the more notable changes in the use-of-force policy drafts:
- “Stationary tire deflation devices” — formerly known as “stop sticks” — are revisited. The new regulations make clear that they are only to be used on stopped vehicles, and are strictly prohibited on vehicles in motion.
- De-escalation is emphasized when safe, feasible, and doesn’t compromise “law enforcement priorities.”
- Requires officers to distinguish between deliberate attempts to resist versus perceived physical or psychological inability to comply with a command.
- “Knee on neck” holds are prohibited.
- New emphasis on giving verbal warning before use of deadly force.
- Officers are required to take notice and action when a subject says they can’t breathe, including calling for medical aid.
- Officers will summon medical aid when subjects receive a bite from a canine unit; have difficulty breathing; or were on the receiving end of an OC Spray use — assuming that the subject remains in the officer’s control and doesn’t flee.
- New sections are added for pepper ball launchers and stationary tire deflation devices.
- Use of less-lethal force on a restrained (e.g. handcuffed) subject, while not outright prohibited, is strongly discouraged and the new policy makes clear that any such use will be highly scrutinized.
- More emphasis on giving verbal warnings in advance of use of force, including specific techniques for doing so.
- An update to the rules for canine units. They are not to be used to bring someone into custody for administration warrants, not on a subject under the influence of drugs/alcohol or in a behavioral health crisis. Also, verbal announcements must be given in most situations before a canine unit engages with a subject.
- An update on the recommended target areas on the body for applying a taser.
- Updates to the rules for blast balls, requiring an imminent threat. Blast balls must be directed toward open space.
- 40mm less-lethal launchers may be used by any trained officer, and are no longer reserved just for SWAT officers.
- A rewrite of the policies on use of firearms. It clarifies that pointing a firearm at a subject is a “Type I” use of force.
- New requirements for reporting and investigation of the use of stationary tire deflation devices.
- Extra flexibility in the timeline for review of use-of-force incidents tied to large-scale events and events that occur over long periods of time, due to the high number of individual uses of force that may have occurred.
The crowd-management policy draft, as mentioned above, represents a much larger rewrite of the old policy. Some notable topics in the new policy:
- A more explicit focus on protecting both life safety and property rights — though this will continue to be a topic of debate as to whether property rights should be on an even footing with life safety.
- More focus on situations where a small number of people in a large crowd are causing violence and property disruption, and how to deal with them with the minimal amount of disruption of the larger crowd.
- Incorporating a “matrix” approach suggested by the OIG, which lays out the possible crowd management scenarios and lays out recommended approaches for each.
- Recognizing the presence and rights of legal observers and the media at protests (though there is no mention of medics).
- The specific responsibilities of incident commanders during protests, including writing an event plan beforehand, using intervention techniques other than dispersal orders when possible, ensuring that there are avenues of egress before issuing a dispersal order, making sure that the dispersal order is heard by the crowd, and adjusting police tactics after a dispersal order if the crowd no longer poses a threat. incident commanders retain “ultimate responsibility for the decisions of subordinates.”
- A use-of-force policy specific to crowd management, stating that the Department’s goal is “to facilitate crowd management events with as minimal force as is reasonably necessary to protect life and property.” It adds 40mm launchers and pepper balls to the list of “less lethal” weapons authorized, though specifies that only officers trained to deploy them may carry and use them under the supervision of the incident commander. It clarifies that only SWAT is authorized to carry and deploy 40mm less-lethal impact rounds for crowd control purposes. It also reiterates that as the level of violence in the crowd diminishes, the incident commander “shall affirmatively ensure personnel are directed to modulate their force.” Strangely, the draft policy is in violation of the current injunction imposed by Judge Richard Jones, in that it allows for blast balls and other less-lethal weapons to be used to direct a crowd in broader circumstances than the injunction allows.
- Processes for debriefing large-scale or prolonged events.
- Event plans must be written and filed.
In anticipation of the draft policies being published by the press today, SPD issued its own release this evening making the drafts public. In addition, the eight draft documents linked to in SPD’s release each contain a link to a survey for members of the public to provide feedback. The surveys have three questions:
- What do you like about this policy?
- What don’t you like about this policy?
- This policy should be implemented, as is (yes/no).
The CPC members, in their meeting this morning, expressed their desire to go further than feedback surveys, however. They agreed to push for public forums to discuss the policy changes, preferably partnering with SPD but possibly with the City Council if the police department is not amenable to it.
SCC Insight asked a spokesperson for SPD whether the department expects to do further outreach beyond the survey, or is relying on the CPC to do so. The spokesperson promised an answer on Thursday.
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