When I was sworn in as mayor of Seattle, I pledged to build a fairer and more just city by working to bridge the disparities that divide us—disparities in income, housing, education, and economic opportunity that too often fall along the fault lines of race and gender.
I also vowed to address the disparity in policing and public safety in Seattle. Fairness and justice are built on the principle that we are all equal under the law. But that principle is just empty words unless we feel safe and protected in our communities. This is fundamentally a matter of trust between the citizens of Seattle and the men and women of the Seattle Police Department (SPD) who are sworn to protect us.
There was a time when that trust was much stronger than it is today. In 1992, the National Institute of Justice, an agency of the US Department of Justice (DOJ), hailed the pioneering work of the SPD to create closer ties with citizens and build trust in the community:
“The Seattle experience can provide useful guidance and serve as a model for other communities that are interested in developing meaningful partnerships involving citizens and the police… The partnership has provided benefits for both parties that sustain and reinforce the relationship between the police and the community.”
Twenty years later, the Department of Justice placed the SPD under a federal court order following an investigation that found “reasonable cause to believe that SPD engages in a pattern or practice of excessive force, in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution.”
During my inaugural address, I made achieving the mandate of the federal court order my top priority. But my goals for police reform go beyond mere compliance. I believe that the SPD can once again be a national model for fair, just, and compassionate policing. To get there we’ll need to weave the spirit of the court’s recommendations into the very fabric of our police force. We need to revitalize the lines of communication between the SPD and the citizens they are sworn to serve. We need to ensure that the constitutional rights of every individual and the safety of every community is protected, without exception.
Lasting reform will require a new leader for the SPD who is committed to justice in the broadest sense of the word. I will appoint a leader who values social justice, community engagement, and public accountability, and who will work to create a police force that is as diverse as the community it serves. The next chief will have my full support to make any changes he or she deems necessary to achieve long-term cultural change within the department. Nothing will be protected as sacred in our pursuit of reform, except this city’s commitment to fairness and justice.
But we can’t wait for a new chief to arrive to move forward with reform. This is why I directed the SPD create a new Compliance and Professional Standards Bureau. Launched in January, it includes units dedicated to each of the five key elements of the court order: compliance, training, use of force, force investigation, and information technology. Integrating reform into every aspect of the day-to-day work of the Seattle Police Department under the authority of an assistant chief with the full backing of the chief of police is a major step forward toward reform. The federal monitoring team has called the Compliance and Professional Standards Bureau “great innovation, a promising innovation, and a heartening development in this process.”
One clear sign that the process of reform is moving forward is a new set of rules and policies developed by the SPD and approved by the federal court governing use of force, stops and detentions, performance monitoring, bias-free policing, and crisis intervention. The Department of Justice has said that these new policies have the potential to “fundamentally change the experience on the street between the community and the police.”
Rules are important, and so is a police force trained according to these rules. While training is the next step in the process, what really matters is how well these new policies are implemented at the street level. The Compliance and Professional Standards Bureau will play an important role in making sure that these new policies become part of the everyday culture of policing in Seattle. Selecting a new chief to set the right tone for the overall culture of the department is also critical.
As we move forward, greater accountability within the SPD will be essential. Technology in the form of on-uniform microphones and in-car video offers a powerful tool for reviewing the use of force. After more than a year of delays, it’s time for SPD get this right. In addition, the department must improve its ability to collect, track, and analyze data describing its interactions with Seattle residents, particularly when force is used. In March, US Attorney General Eric Holder offered Justice Department assistance in implementing a comprehensive data intelligence system that will enable SPD to identify issues, improve effectiveness, and reduce harm.
But these tools will only be effective if they are used as part of a disciplinary process that is fair, transparent, timely, and consistent. It became painfully obvious in the early weeks of my administration that this is not always the case within the SPD today.
I believe that accountability starts at the top and I have accepted responsibility and apologized for mistakes my administration made regarding the disciplinary process. But those early mistakes clarified for me the need to institute broad holistic reform at SPD. In response, I am enlisting the help of the experts on the Community Police Commission, the director of the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA), the OPA auditor, and my own adviser on police discipline to make reforms to our disciplinary process. Department of Justice officials and the federal monitor have expressed optimism about this effort and a willingness to provide technical assistance if needed.
The collective bargaining agreement between the city and the police unions will also serve as a powerful tool for driving cultural change within SPD. Enforcing reforms mandated by the consent decree will be a major goal of future contract negotiations. The federal court is on record as saying that in Seattle, “a collective bargaining contract will not shelter the police from the provisions of the Constitution of the United States of America.” Nor will I allow it to be used to extract a ransom for compliance with the provisions of the US Constitution.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I believe we need to take steps to increase the role that the community plays in oversight of our police department. This is an area where we have made strong progress. The Community Police Commission that was created as a requirement of the consent decree has made invaluable contributions to the development of polices that are redefining the way our officers conduct their business. The Community Advisory Committee is playing an essential role in the hiring process for the next police chief.
Going forward, my administration will focus on more rigorous engagement with the civilian oversight of the disciplinary process within the SPD. I’ll continue to rely on expert advice from the Community Police Commission as we work to implement recommendations of the federal court. And I’ve asked the Community Advisory Committee to develop a plan to help the new chief reach out to Seattle’s many diverse communities.
Early in the search process for a new chief of police, I viewed a video from PugetSoundOff.org, in which a group of young people at the Metrocenter YMCA offered their thoughts on what this city needs from its next chief of police.
I was moved and inspired by what they said. They asked for a great mentor who knows kids, who is committed to social justice, who understands other cultures, and who teaches his or her officers about the importance of treating people equally. And this: “protect and serve, it’s for everybody.”
Arriving at this point—where all of Seattle’s citizens trust that policing is for everybody—will not happen overnight. Retraining 1,300 hardworking uniformed personnel who are asked to carry out their difficult, dangerous, and necessary work every day in every neighborhood and community of this city is a monumental task.
But the path forward is clear. And while there will be stumbles along the way, they will not be because of any lack of commitment on the part of this administration to achieving true and lasting reform of the Seattle Police Department. For the first time since the Department of Justice investigation began, everyone—Seattle’s mayor, city attorney, and city council along with the federal monitoring team and the Department of Justice—are all working together with what the federal monitor called a “new spirit of cooperation.”
Should we stumble again, I will return then, as I do now, to one simple refrain: We move on toward reform.
Ed Murray is the mayor of Seattle.