You might’ve interacted with them at the airport, at a marina, or at a cruise terminal without ever realizing who they were: The Port of Seattle Police might look like the Seattle Police Department, but they’re actually a completely separate agency with their own separate jurisdiction, policies, and leadership. And a new report is calling for dozens of reforms at the department, from wonky little logistical tweaks to big procedural changes.
The report, ordered by the Port of Seattle Commission, was prompted by last summer’s protests and conducted by the consulting firm 21CP. It covers a wide range of topics, including union participation, coordination with other police departments, and budget; but the biggest areas of focus are transparency, police interactions with unhoused people, and equity, particularly among non-white employees.
Among the findings: Port of Seattle Police are largely operating in accordance with goals set out by the Commission, with infrequent use of force. (The POSPD, it’s worth noting, has not tear-gassed any neighborhoods.) But there are 52 areas in which they could do better.
The report notes, for example, that training materials as recent as 2020 advised officers to reinforce a “warrior mindset” throughout training — a contrast with the “guardian mindset” that the department provided in 2021. The “warrior” versus “guardian” approach has been a topic of concern at police departments around the country; one approach is more adversarial, the other more protective. Both stances, academics argue, present different problems to culture-change within policing.
Mike Villa, Port of Seattle Acting Police Chief, says that the department wants to emphasize the guardian mindset. “Protecting and serving is our mission,” he said in an interview with The Stranger. (Villa was appointed by the Port's executive officer in 2020, following Chief Rod Covey being placed on long-term leave over misconduct allegations.)
Deborah Jacobs agrees. Jacobs, a member of the Commission’s Task Force on Policing and Civil Rights and also a former Office of Law Enforcement Oversight director at King County who wasn't reappointed after an investigation found she'd used "inappropriate and discriminatory language on the job" said, “It’s really about mutual respect and understanding that you’re not at war with someone. I firmly believe de-escalation training and techniques … keep law enforcement safer as well.”
(Update: Jacobs writes that she was "victim of a smear campaign" at OLEO, and notes that since then she's participated in a variety of reform efforts with the Task Force on Independent Investigations and the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability.)
The report also calls for a body camera policy. Though the POSPD doesn’t currently use body cameras — most of the areas they cover already have security cameras in place — they anticipate adding body cameras in early 2022. That timeframe will require swift policy development, particularly in cases where privacy is a concern, like in cases involving minors or people suffering mental health crises.
Another point raised in the report is that a high number of employees decline to report their race/ethnicity — between 20 and 25 percent. That “definitely makes it challenging” to identify equity issues, says Delmas Whittaker, Chapter President of Blacks in Government at the Port and Director of Marine Maintenance. He notes that the department is already seeking to increase workforce diversity by advertising openings through groups like the National Latino Police Officers Association.
But even when diverse candidates present themselves, the report notes, there are equity issues around hiring. Female applicants fail written evaluations at a higher level than male applicants — seven percent to five percent — and the department hasn’t hired any entry-level women in the last three years.
Villa notes that the department has promoted female officers from within the organization in that time, and that the department has more female officers than the national average.
Also addressed in the report is the POSPD’s response to unhoused people. The department is emphasizing a move away from a traditional police response, and it recently began a six-month pilot program that dispatches a Crisis Coordinator to help individuals in need. That Crisis Coordinator is a commissioned officer, but she has prior experience as a social worker and will not wear a police uniform, Villa says.
That’s a good start, but the report urges the department to go further by developing more policies involving first responders who are not armed, and to increase access to support resources. That work will likely come through SEA Cares, a new partnership among various airport departments that was developed in response to an increase in people using the airport as emergency shelter during COVID.
Overall, Villa says, “I agree with all the recommendations.” That’s borne out by the work he’s undertaken since assuming his role in 2020. Many of the recommendations in the report were already being addressed before it was released this week, and the POSPD is committed to using the report to guide further reforms, Villa says.
That will depend on cooperation between Port of Seattle Commissioners (three of whom are up for re-election in November), police leadership, the commission’s police task force, and on-the-ground staff.
“We have an implementation plan,” Whittaker says, noting that the next move for the task force is to prioritize the recommendations. They'll have ninety days to review the recommendations before implementation begins, and Commissioner Peter Steinbrueck has asked for progress reports at 6 and 12 months.
“We’re going to make sure folks are going to hold us accountable for doing the right thing," Whittaker says.