Seattle police are making progress on carrying out a range of court-ordered reforms, according to a report submitted to US District Court today by Merrick Bobb, the federally-appointed monitor of the department. But there's a serious problem that persists: the Force Review Board (FRB), an internal unit charged with assessing whether police officers are using force appropriately, engages in a convoluted process that avoids holding officers accountable for policy violations.
"Progress at the FRB has plateaued in the last six months," writes Bobb, who criticized the FRB in a previous report six months ago too.
The most troubling issue relates to the ongoing reluctance of the Board to find that a use of force was out of policy... In some instances, Board members engage in convoluted interpretations of policy, extended philosophical conversations about the importance and meaning of concepts like “intent” and the meaning of “may,” or unrealistic and implausible interpretations of facts... On at least a few occasions, the Board has cited language contained in the Preface to the SPD Manual to avoid initiating processes that might result in officer discipline.
The FRB's lengthy discussions have led to a major backlog of cases, according to Bobb, who argues that rigorous enforcement of SPD's written policies—regardless of whether the force used, in and of itself, was "reasonable"—is critical to creating a practice and culture of accountability. In 2011, the Department of Justice found that SPD officers used unconstitutional, excessive force in approximately one out of every five incidents. This is the review board that SPD says will review all the use of force that occurred on May Day.
Bobb is also not entirely pleased with the rollout of a revamped Early Intervention System, which SPD has touted as the answer to the problem of how veteran Officer Cynthia Whitlatch was able to get away with so much for so long. The revamped EIS will be "finally getting off the ground" on June 19, Bobb says, but it's become a lightning rod within the department and a source of "substantial cultural anxiety... Officers have worried that the non-disciplinary system would somehow lead to them unfairly getting 'dinged' or singled out." Bobb says no member of the senior command asserted ownership over getting it up and running until very recently.
Most of Bobb's other findings are on the sunnier side, however:
- The SPD has a head start on other departments around the country in addressing biased policing and police brutality. The department's emphasis on de-escalation and reporting of force is a "national model," he says. (He warns, however, that its training unit is stretched thin and needs more resources for the progress on training to be lasting.) "SPD is positioned to be a leader in the national reform effort," Bobb says. "While many departments are struggling with where to start, SPD is well underway."
- Bobb praises the department's award-winning approach to body cameras, including the hiring of hacker Tim Clemans. Even though a body camera pilot program isn't wrapping up until July, Bobb argues forcefully that all SPD officers should deploy permanently with body cameras now.
- Last month, the department began collecting information about incidents in which crisis intervention-trained officers deal with people in crisis (generally mental illness or substance abuse). About ten percent of those they encountered ere contacted repeatedly during a single week. Bobb notes that "slightly more than 50 percent of the Department’s applications of force involved subjects impaired by either mental illness or drugs or alcohol over the past year," down from 70 percent in 2011. About one third of SPD officers are crisis intervention-trained.
- In what appears to be a veiled reference to cases like that of Whitlatch, Bobb notes that officers "sometimes make mistakes or bad decisions." He says these incidents are dispiriting and "it can be tempting to conclude that nothing has changed." But, he argues, periodic accounts of problems or serious uses of force shouldn't be taken as conclusive evidence either way on the progress of reforms.
Go read the full report here.