In the past year, following the federal takeover of the Seattle Police Department in 2011, the police department has been hailed by some as a national model of transparency and reform. In a recent hearing, federal judge James Robart praised police chief Kathleen O'Toole and Mayor Ed Murray, and said he's "pleased with the progress we've made, with more work to come."
This summer, the White House recognized department officials for their transparency. Other police departments around the country are sending their officers to Seattle to learn from what the SPD is doing. The policies and practices established here will have major implications for other reforms enacted across the country. Federal court-appointed monitor Merrick Bobb says the department is "likely to get the job done if it continues on the path it is on now"—rolling out body cams, tracking use of force, training officers in de-escalation, and implementing new technical systems.
But Seattle's reform advocates say the department isn't going far enough, and that federal monitors aren't paying close enough attention to the SPD's disciplinary issues. At issue is the scope of civilian oversight, the way in which officers are trained, and the role of civilian police commissioners.
Local reformers are pushing for "a more comprehensive, independent, and sustained approach to civilian oversight with the necessary authority for that oversight to be as effective as possible," said Anne Levinson, a retired municipal judge who audits the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA), the agency that investigates police misconduct. Real police reform, she said, should be "permanent, sustained, and independent—not subject to political winds and not having to rely on the federal court."
Gerald Hankerson, the president of the local NAACP chapter that was part of the initial group that requested federal oversight of SPD, said he has little confidence in the reform process. "The community should have a chance to oversee the police," he said. "I get so frustrated when I hear people say we're making progress. The consent decree created all kinds of ways of measuring improvement, but those are not reflected in a changed reality on the ground. This is a technocratic process to get the people to think there's reform."
Currently, there are several ways in which the Seattle Police Department tracks officer conduct. In one, the OPA investigates complaints of officer misbehavior and makes recommendations to the police chief about whether the officer should be disciplined. Another way is the department's new Early Intervention System (EIS), which flags officers with problematic behavior and is designed to give them a chance to correct the behavior before it rises to the level of requiring discipline. EIS systems are seen as a national best practice in policing, and the SPD launched its revamped EIS in June.
But Seattle's top police misconduct investigator, OPA director Pierce Murphy, was removed from the group that oversees the EIS—an action taken at the SPD's request, with the approval of the DOJ, federal monitor, and federal judge.
The Performance Review Committee (PRC) is tasked with reviewing any changes to the EIS data that officers request, as well as status reports on officers who've been flagged. The committee also has the power to help decide whether to place an employee on an early-intervention mentoring plan.
"I'm not directly involved, and that's over my objection," Murphy said. "In my view, the EIS is one of the first stages in the accountability process. I think having civilian involvement is really critical." Now, only police employees are on the PRC.
In an e-mail, SPD's Sean Whitcomb said Murphy was removed from the oversight committee to "keep... in line with national best practices. No other department that we are aware of merges their version of our Office of Professional Accountability with employee intervention."
Whitcomb said Murphy still has full access to a database of personnel information, in which all incidents are archived, as well as access to PRC documentation. In a separate statement, the Department of Justice said it agreed with the SPD, and that including Murphy in the EIS process would risk "losing what we all really want—having a chance to avoid discipline problems before they even occur."
But Levinson, the OPA auditor, believes Murphy should be on the committee overseeing the EIS process, and should play a more expansive role in general. "It's important that OPA be integrated into the organization and not walled off," she said, "and that the organization not create separate review panels or special units that have authority to be looking at performance issues... OPA should have unfettered access and involvement with any of those specialty units or panels."
Prior to coming to the SPD, Murphy served as community ombudsman at the Boise Police Department, where he was allowed to use both civilian and police investigators to carry out investigations into misconduct. (So far, he has been unable to use civilians in Seattle because the city is still negotiating that change with the police guild.) After more than a decade on the job, Murphy was widely credited for having turned the troubled department around. He told me a significant part of his success in Boise was because his role was not limited to officer discipline. Instead, he had a broad mandate to uphold and imbue accountability.
In June, Merrick Bobb, Seattle's federal monitor, said the EIS had become a lightning rod within the department and a source of "substantial cultural anxiety." Removing Murphy from the EIS oversight committee plays into rank-and-file fear of accountability and mistrust of the OPA, rather than challenging them head-on.
There are also questions regarding the SPD's training regimen. In 2014, the DOJ approved sending officers to the Force Science Institute, which is run by psychologist William J. Lewinski, a nationally known police trainer. Officers attended Lewinski's training on "biomechanics"—purportedly, what is happening biologically to officers and subjects during incidents when force is used.
In August, Lewinski was the subject of a front-page New York Times profile, "Training Officers to Shoot First, and He Will Answer Questions Later." In the article, Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter Matt Apuzzo exposed how the DOJ commissioned a review of Lewinski's studies, which were not published in peer-reviewed journals, and concluded they weren't reliable. An editor from the American Journal of Psychology called Lewinski's work "pseudoscience."
In a statement to The Stranger, the DOJ said the federal monitor rejected making Lewinski's training mandatory, but allowed for it to be optional, and some officers attended the training anyway. It didn't answer questions about how many officers attended, at what cost, or who paid for the training. Nor did the SPD.
However, court records show that in June 2014, Judge Robart and the DOJ approved plans to train the SPD's new Force Investigation Team, which is deployed to investigate the scenes of officer-involved shootings. The plans make multiple references to Lewinski's training, including this line: "FIT personnel will attend the Force Science Certification Course."
Apart from Murphy and the OPA, the Community Police Commission (CPC) represents a less direct but more broad-based form of civilian oversight. The group was created by the consent decree as a temporary body and consists of experts and activists involved in criminal justice work, as well as representatives of Seattle's two police unions. In a statement, the DOJ said community input will be "critical" to ensuring reforms are successful in Seattle, and noted that the CPC helped develop the SPD's new policies on crisis intervention, de-escalation, and bias-free-policing training.
But in the summer of 2013, CPC commissioners unanimously threatened to resign unless they were allowed a larger hand in the overhauling of Seattle's use-of-force policies. According to police expert Sam Walker, who recounted this history in a new article for Criminal Justice Review, the federal monitor initially rejected their requests, but conceded after all 15 commissioners communicated their intent to resign.
"The City and the Monitor were unwilling to face the consequences of a mass resignation of the CPC," Walker wrote. "In short, the CPC gained a greater community voice in the police reform process than it had been given in official documents by making a demand and threatening to resign if it were not granted." Walker said the use-of-force policy, with its strong emphasis on de-escalation, has emerged as a national best practice. This sequence of events, he said, "represents the first time in the history of the American police where community representatives had a formal voice in the making of police policy."
Tensions between CPC commissioners reached the boiling point again in June of this year, when Judge Robart stopped the CPC's accountability work in its tracks. The CPC had proposed legislation to make itself permanent and to bolster accountability mechanisms. After waiting on the mayor for months to introduce the legislation, it asked the council to pass the law on its own, but the judge put his foot down.
"None of it will be put into effect until you bring it back here," the judge said angrily. Under the current agreement between the city and the DOJ, the CPC will cease to exist once Robart is satisfied that the SPD has hit its reform targets. If the CPC wants a permanent role beyond the consent decree, the judge said, the agreement itself will have to be amended.
The legislation has been in limbo ever since. But in a hearing on police accountability and discipline scheduled for August 26, Robart is expected to clarify what he believes should be the pathway forward. "The court desires a more unified approach," the hearing's docket listing said.
"It isn't going to work for the community voice to be just one of many at the table, and in many ways, the least empowered voice," said CPC cochair Lisa Daugaard. "Local participants and activists are going to have the best information about both what is wrong and what needs to happen to make things better."