By Erica C. Barnett
As soon as next year, US Judge James Robart could lift the consent decree with the Seattle Police Department that has been in place since 2012, when the US Department of Justice concluded that SPD routinely used excessive force, engaged in biased policing, and lacked appropriate structures to ensure accountability for bad actors.
But the department still has to make significant improvements to its accountability and crowd control practices before seeking release from federal oversight, according to a report released last week by the court-appointed monitor who oversees SPD’s reform efforts, Dr. Antonio Oftelie, and his three-person team.
Overall, the monitor’s report found that SPD is in compliance with the consent decree in key areas, including crisis intervention, stops and detentions, and use of force, “except during the waves of protests over the summer of 2020, in which the serious concerns from both the community and the Monitoring Team described herein evidenced a need for further work in the area of policy and training around use of force, force reporting, and force review in large-scale crowd management events.”
The report does not deal explicitly with police accountability, which Oftelie told PubliCola is “still very much an open area” in the consent decree that will have to be addressed in the future; however, it notes that Oftelie’s team will conduct an assessment of Seattle’s entire accountability system as part of a larger monitoring plan that could wrap up as soon as the end of this year.
“The accountability system in Seattle is one of the best in the country, but it does have certain gaps or areas that could use improvement,” Oftelie said.
SPD has been under federal oversight since 2012, after the US Department of Justice determined that the department routinely engaged in unconstitutional policing practices, including bias and excessive use of force, and that it lacked meaningful oversight and accountability mechanisms to address unconstitutional behavior by officers.
Since then, the city has asked Judge Robart to release it from the consent decree on two occasions, both times unsuccessfully. The most recent request, from former city attorney Pete Holmes and former mayor Jenny Durkan, came in May 2020—just before protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, when police targeted large groups of demonstrators with blast balls, tear gas, and other “less-lethal” weapons, leading to more than 19,000 complaints.
Setting aside the protests, which the report addresses separately, the monitor concluded that SPD has sustained its compliance with the consent decree on use of force, stops and detentions, and how the department responds to people experiencing a behavioral health crisis.
“SPD officers respond to nearly 10,000 people in crisis per year, and Crisis Intervention Teams have dramatically improved interactions and outcomes – with force used in only 1.5 percent of contacts with individuals experiencing crises and many improvements made in connecting individuals in crisis to supportive human services,” the report says. (Crisis Intervention Team officers have gone through special training to respond to behavioral health crisis.)
“And when officers stop or detain a person, they must now articulate the reason for a stop and provide justification for searches,” the report continues. “As a testament to this progress, policing organizations around the nation, to advance their own reforms, have come to Seattle to learn from SPD and adopt policies and best practices in crisis response, de-escalation, and critical decision-making models.”
In a letter to Oftelie shortly before the monitor released the report, City Council public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold noted that the report also found a sharp increase in the number of people contacted by SPD officers while in crisis more than five times, with the greatest increase among people contacted more than 16 times.
The report also notes that even when it’s impossible to prove officer bias, disturbing racial disparities persist in almost every kind of police contact the report covers. Black and Native American people “are disproportionately stopped, detained, subjected to force,” according to the report, which also notes that officers are more likely to frisk Black people than white people, even though “frisks of White subjects more consistently find weapons.” Officers are also more likely to stop and frisk people when they’re in a neighborhood with more people of a race other than their own, the report found, and more likely to point their guns at Black individuals than people of any other race.
“Significant and persistent racial disparities suggest that continued monitoring of implementation of biasfree policing could result in positive community outcomes,” Herbold wrote.
The report also notes a strikingly high percentage of people—23 percent of those subjected to force, 16 percent of crisis contacts, and 17 percent of people stopped by police—whose race officers recorded as “unknown.” (Excluding the 2020 protests reduces the proportion of “unknown” use-of-force subjects to 15 percent.) The percentage of people of “unknown” race SPD interacted with spiked dramatically starting in mid-2019, when SPD stopped recording “Hispanic” as a racial category, according to the report, and apparently started reporting the race of most Latinos as “unknown.”
The report incorporates findings from several preliminary assessments, which found that officers’ use of force declined 33 percent between 2015 to 2019 and 48 percent between 2015 to 2021, with a more significant reduction in the most serious types of force, such as shooting; that officers responding to people in crisis rarely resort to force, “a dramatic improvement from DOJ investigative findings that led to the Consent Decree”; and that although there are still troubling racial disparities in who gets stopped and detained by police, officers are generally able to articulate “sufficient legal justification” for their actions by establishing “reasonable suspicion” when stopping or frisking a person.
“I would describe the challenge right now with the number of officers as a crisis from the consent decree perspective. Are officers being supervised, is data being analyzed, is force being analyzed at the right level? All those systems are near collapse.”—Seattle Police Monitor Dr. Antonio Oftelie
The consent decree, Oftelie says, does not define aspirational goals for SPD; it establishes a “floor,” not a ceiling, by setting minimum standards for constitutional policing. Although the city council has groused at times that the consent decree makes it hard for them to pass laws reforming the department—for example, by transferring some of its duties, and funding, to civilians outside the department—Oftelie argues that “the ceiling is relatively unlimited,” and that the city could impose new rules on SPD—requiring special training on how to deal with people who are walking brandishing knives, for example—without violating the terms of the consent decree.
“I don’t agree that the judge has put any limitations on polices and practice that the city can put in place,” Oftelie said. “It’s situational, but I think that issue has taken on a narrative in the city that’s overblown… I think the community, and maybe sometimes the council, has used the consent decree as an excuse not to innovate new things.”
The report cautions that that the final phase of the consent decree will be “challenging,” and notes that SPD still has work to do to build on the progress it has made and restore trust with Seattle residents, particularly when it comes to protest response and accountability.
“In the comprehensive assessment, we deemed SPD in sustained compliance with use of force exclusive of crowd management, stops and detentions, and crisis intervention—what I didn’t say is that I recommend that these paragraphs in the consent be closed out and terminated,” Oftelie said. “SPD will have to write a new policy for crowd management that takes into consideration state law and the less- lethal weapons ordinance, and that policy will need to be reviewed by the DOJ, the monitor, and ultimately the court.”
The monitoring team outlined a number of steps the city will need to take before seeking to end the consent decree, including the implementation of new crowd control policies recommended by the Office of the Inspector General, the creation of a plan to address “potential bias and unwarranted disparities in policing,” and the selection of a permanent police chief who can improve the culture of SPD, a subject the consent decree does not directly address but which impacts every aspect of policing, from the way officers treat individual protesters to officers’ widespread refusal to comply with state and local mask mandates.
Meanwhile, “The Seattle City Council must ensure that SPD can train, hire, and provide supervision to qualified and committed personnel; invest in alternative response capabilities; and negotiate a contract with police unions that upholds appropriate working conditions and procedural justice while also bolstering accountability and community trust,” the report says.
Contract negotiations (and police union contracts themselves) have been significant barriers to reform in the past. Although the Seattle Police Management Association, which represents captains and lieutenants, reportedly plans to accept a number of concessions sought by police reform advocates in its contract, SPOG may be poised to move in the opposite direction, doubling down on protections for officers accused of misconduct, for example. If meeting the requirements of the consent decree requires the city to bargain with the police union, it has the potential to slow the whole process to a crawl.
“Ideally, they’d want to come to the court with, ‘Here are the new collective bargaining agreements we’ve signed and they comply with accountability” requirements, Oftelie said. If that turns out to be impossible—the last time the city negotiated a contract with SPOG, it took four years, and the union walked away with major concessions that contributed to Robart finding SPD out of compliance with the consent decree the following year—the city could find itself under the consent decree for years to come.
Looming over all these discussions is the fact that SPD continues to lose officers faster than it can hire new ones, limiting the department’s ability to dedicate detectives to investigations and take officers off patrol to attend trainings on new policies and practices. Since 2020, interim chief Adrian Diaz has taken officers and detectives off specialized duties and assigned them to patrol shifts and 911 response, using overtime to fill gaps in police coverage.
“I would describe the challenge right now with the number of officers as a crisis from the consent decree perspective,” Oftelie said. “Are officers being supervised, is data being analyzed, is force being analyzed at the right level? All those systems are near collapse.”