Commissioner Peter Steinbrueck, left, thinks defunding police is misguided. Delmas Whittaker, who manages vessels at the Port, thinks the proposed reforms need work.
Commissioner Peter Steinbrueck, left, thinks defunding police is "misguided." Delmas Whittaker, right, who manages vessels at the Port, says the proposed reforms need work. Port of Seattle

Port of Seattle Police were sent into the city with bikes to handle crowds during recent protests and were involved in a pepper-spraying incident on May 30th, the Port has confirmed. (That was the same day video captured a child affected by pepper spray, but it's unclear whether Port Police were involved in that incident.)

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Now that the dust and tear gas is starting to settle, the Port has announced that they’ll be joining the SPD in banning chokeholds, and going even further with six reforms to address police violence. (Update: Port spokesman Peter McGraw clarified that "the Police Accountability Review is not tied to Port of Seattle Police’s use of pepper spray on May 30, but motivated by racial disparities in policing nationwide. Our discussions were started well before that.")

But to be clear: they’re not talking about defunding the police. Definitely not.

“We’re not joining the call for defunding the police,” says Commissioner Peter Steinbrueck. “I think it’s misguided… We have to have a police force that’s well funded, well trained, and diverse.”

Each year, Port Police rack up around two to three dozen incidents involving use of force, though the last complaint about any of those incidents was in 2015. Considering that 60 million people pass through the airport every year, that seems like a pretty good record. But it doesn’t mean changes aren’t due.

While the focus on police reform typically addresses neighborhoods, rather than ports, the cops you see at the airport and ferries are still officers of the law. For now, rather than defunding, the Port is looking at implementing reforms and convening a task force. They’re banning chokeholds, of course — though in other jurisdictions that have banned chokeholds, cops still somehow seem to find a way to use the move to kill citizens. They’ll require de-escalation training, which is nice, but on its own that kind of training hasn’t been shown to be very effective.

They’re also requiring that hiring panels be diverse, rather than just “strongly encouraging” diversity. And they’re disqualifying applicants who have used excessive force against the public, or who have been guilty of racial discrimination against another employee.

And yeah sure that’s great, but also … why does the racial discrimination ban only apply when it’s against fellow employees, and not when an applicant has been found guilty of bias involving members of the public?

It’s worth noting that the Port of Seattle Police Chief Rod Covey was placed on leave this month for misconduct, and that the Seattle Times reported that decades ago, Covey was accused of racial discrimination when he was a cop in Arizona. At the time, he was cleared of one of those allegations, and settled out of court regarding another.

Port officials declined to provide any further details on the current situation with Covey.

Delmas Whittaker, who manages vessels at the Port and serves as chapter president of Blacks in Government, acknowledged that the reforms now being proposed still need work. The Port is hosting a public forum next week to refine their next steps.

“The conversations that we’re having with our Port staff and the public testimony that we expect on the 30th of June will be invaluable,” he says. “We’re making sure we’re putting fine points on things that need to be identified prior to the execution of our assessment and the establishment of the task force.”

The Port will also review their use of qualified immunity, the principle whereby cops are protected from lawsuits over violations of civil rights. But because qualified immunity is a federal issue, the Port says they can only “look at” how qualified immunity is used, and “consider” seeking regulatory reform. OK.

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The last item on their list of changes is ensuring that officers’ names are clearly identifiable. This seems as fundamental as requiring that officers wear pants and it’s bonkers that it was not a thing before!

Nearly two decades ago, Steinbrueck helped pass legislation in Seattle that required cops to always have their name tags displayed. Back then, badge numbers were not included in his legislation; similarly, badge numbers are not addressed in the policy changes currently being considered by the Port.

There’s going to be a public hearing on these proposed reforms next week, on Tuesday the 30th at 10:30am. You can watch live at, or call in at (425) 660-9954 with code 608060825#.

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