If only a database had been there to prevent all this
If only a database had been there to prevent all this luoman / Getty Images

Congratulations are in order to the Seattle Police Department, which managed to rack up an impressive 1,880 allegations of policy violations in 2020, a 58% increase over the previous year and a 170% increase in use-of-force allegations alone. Wow! That can’t have been easy!

Those numbers are according to the Office of Police Accountability, which is still in the process of reviewing many of last year's complaints and estimates that they’ll be finished sometime this summer. In their annual report, released this week, they noted that in 2020 there were 432 complaints that warranted further investigation, a 31% increase over previous years; and they have so far sustained findings against 68 employees.

Last year, to be fair, was a particularly busy time for gun-carrying civil servants, what with all the protests. And what was it that people were protesting, again? Oh, right, police violence. Cops getting aggressive at BLM protests is like arriving late to a disciplinary meeting about always being late to things … or at least, it would be, if being late to things caused innocent people to die.

Anyway, while it’s very nice that OPA is churning through those complaints as fast as they can, not every town in Washington has a granular attention to the nitty-gritty of smashy cops. But soon that may change, thanks to a law just passed by the Legislature and awaiting Jay Inslee’s signature.

The bill, SB 5259, will create a uniform public database of all use-of-force incidents in the state, whether the encounter results in a fatality or just an injury. Currently, if you want to know how violent Washington cops have been, you have to go combing through multiple very different websites.

The problem with that is that it’s very hard to know where reform efforts are most needed. Should attention be focused on Seattle, as discussed by mayoral candidate Bruce Harrell? Or in Tacoma, where a cop drove through a crowd at a race? Or one of the many many many other cities where cops have been involved in the deaths of civilians?

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This bill will hopefully provide some guidance when it comes to tackling the problem of violent cops. Once Inslee signs the bill — and he should, quickly — the state will establish a new group consisting of people in law enforcement and community organizations to oversee the creation of a centralized database, which will be maintained by an as-yet-unselected state college or university. The group will be required to issue semi-annual reports on police misbehavior.

This has been in the works since at least 2016, when a task force called for just such a database. Work on it picked up in 2019, when the Legislature asked the Attorney General to put together recommendations, and then the timing could not have been more apt when the AG released those recommendations in June of last year. Once a bill implementing the database arrived in the Legislature, lawmakers were eager to vote in favor; it passed 46-2 in the Senate, and 97-1 in the House.

Of course, a database alone doesn’t save lives, or stop police departments from sending jittery people with guns to address minor traffic infractions. That will require a change in what we expect from a police department, or at least how much money we give them. But the database will provide some direction for those changes, a single unified map instead of a bunch of itty-bitty napkin-scratches that don’t fit together. It’s a start, in other words. A slow, gradual, achingly incremental start.