Report Shows Ongoing Racial Disparities in Use of Force, Sparking Criticism and Questions About Future of Consent Decree

By Erica C. Barnett

A review of the Seattle Police Department’s use of force over the last three years, released by the federal monitor who oversees the consent decree over the department, found that despite a decline in the use of all levels of force, officers remain far more likely to use force against Black and Native American people than white suspects, and that Black people were most likely to experience the most serious type of force, which includes shootings by police. Thirty-six percent of use of force incidents involved Black individuals, who make up just over 7 percent of Seattle’s population.

Between 2019 and 2021, SPD officers used the highest level of force (known as Type 3 force) against 15 Black people, compared to 15 white people and 15 whose race officers listed as “unknown.” Overall, the race of nearly one third of all use-of-force subjects (and more than half of the people police used force against during the summer 2020 protests) was recorded as “unknown” (compared to 9 percent of people arrested overall), making it hard to draw clear conclusions about the true extent of racial disproportionality in use of force. This data gap could simply mean “a box wasn’t checked,” Oftelie said during a public meeting about the report Tuesday night, or it could be “something a bit deeper and more culturally nefarious, like officers have not wanted to check that box… in order to avoid repercussions” related to racial bias.

At Tuesday’s meeting, community members, including members of the city’s Human Rights Commission and a staffer for City Councilmember Alex Pedersen, raised questions about the report’s conclusions and how they’ll be incorporated into upcoming negotiations with the city’s largest police union, the Seattle Police Officers Guild. Malik Davis, a staffer for Pedersen, expressed frustration about the secrecy surrounding contract negotiations, noting that SPOG’s 2018 contract, which invalidated major elements of the city’s landmark 2017 police accountability ordinance, was the reason the federal judge overseeing the consent decree, James Robart, ruled the city partly out of compliance with the agreement the following year.

Oftelie is expected to recommend a path toward ending the consent agreement later this spring.

Meanwhile, the city’s Human Rights Commission, which is not one of the city’s official “accountability partners,” is seeking amicus status on the consent decree in order to share “the stories and solutions of our residents and community stakeholders most affected,” according to an SHRC press release. “In simple terms, the amicus status will enable the Commission to be a ‘friend of the court’ and have the ability to petition the court for permission to submit a brief in support of our neesd for continuous police accountability,” the SHRC wrote.

Two members of the city’s Community Police Commission, which does have amicus status with the court, said Tuesday night that amicus status does not give them carte blanche to “petition the court” or communicate with Judge Robart directly; it does allow them to “file on on the city’s brief, like we did in 2020 when the city tried to come out from under the consent decree,” CPC member Rev. Harriett Walden said.

“Amicus means that you can file [a brief] in support … or you can file in opposition,” Walden told PubliCola. “You can’t just write the judge.”

“We’ve always filed in opposition,” Walden added, using an attorney who is not affiliated with the City Attorney’s Office.

SHRC commission co-chair Tyrone Grandison said the commission hopes “that we will be able to file motions that document police misconduct and request the Court take the necessary and available accountability steps. ” He added, “Amicus curiae status does not have to contain the current constraints [that exist] on the CPC. We are hopeful that the Court will not place the same conditions on the amicus curiae status that SHRC is seeking. ”

City council public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold said the CPC had given “important and valuable feedback” in response to Oftelie’s two previous reports on other aspects of the consent decree, and said the Human Rights Commission should submit their own feedback in response to the third report, if they haven’t done so. “The ability to provide feedback to the monitor on the preliminary assessments is not reserved to parties with amicus status,” Herbold said.

A spokesman for City Attorney Ann Davison declined to comment on the commission’s efforts to get amicus status with the court.

 

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