With the Seattle Police Department at the center of attention during city-wide protests in the summer of 2020, the Port of Seattle took the opportunity to launch a sweeping review of its own police department.
Although the Port Commission did not launch the review in response to public criticism of Port police, the department’s reputation was on shaky ground. When protests erupted at the end of May, Port police officers joined SPD during widely scrutinized clashes in downtown Seattle, and in June, the department placed its chief, Rodney Covey, on administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation into allegations that he discriminated against a Black officer.
A month later, with the department in the hands of acting chief Michael Villa, a task force led by the Port’s director of equity and the president of the Port’s Black employee resource group began sifting through the policies and practices of the Port police.
To steer the task force, the commission tapped national police consulting firm 21CP Solutions, a firm replete with former SPD leaders, including former Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole, former SPD Chief Operating Officer Brian Maxey, and former Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best.
The task force presented the final product of its year-long review to the Port Commission on Tuesday, offering a mostly positive assessment of the department with some notable suggestions for improvement.
Most of the group’s recommendations involved the department’s policy manual, which relies heavily on a service called Lexipol—a library of boilerplate law enforcement policies that subscribing agencies can modify to match local laws. The reviewers deemed many of Lexipol’s policies “overly complex and technical, hard to comprehend, [and] disjointed,” and noted what while the Port police can adjust the policies to make them easier for officers to understand, the department has modified only 45 percent of the Lexipol policies in its manual.
The task force also outlined a slew of changes to bring the department’s policy manual in line with statewide standards for law enforcement and the department’s on-the-ground practices.. Notably, Port police policies don’t currently require officers to de-escalate confrontations when feasible.
The review could not account for 11 uses of force by Port police officers during protests in downtown Seattle and Tukwila in May 2020, including the use of tear gas, in part because the Port police only started wearing body cameras this year, after a new state law forced them to do so.
When reviewing the remaining 90 incidents between 2018 and 2020, the consultants found that officers typically tried to use some de-escalation tactics even in the absence of an explicit requirement in their policy manual. Because of the lack of body-camera evidence to corroborate these officers’ accounts, the reviewers noted that their analysis was “only as deep as the reporting was accurate.”
The majority—75 percent—of these 90 incidents took place at SeaTac airport; the rest happened on or near Port properties in South King County, the Duwamish shoreline, and the Ship Canal.
More than half of the department’s uses of force involved trespassing calls, which are a rough proxy for responses to unhoused people on Port properties, particularly at the airport. The people on the receiving end in these incidents were disproportionately Black, whereas almost all uses of force against “members of the traveling public” at Port facilities involved white people, who were generally intoxicated, experiencing a mental health crisis, or both. While the reviewers largely avoided criticizing the officers’ decisions to use force, they raised concerns about two incidents in which officers used force to take people into custody for trespassing instead of simply allowing them to leave the airport.
In response, the task force recommended that the department shift away from a “police response to homelessness,” which they argued could also drastically reduce racial disparities in the department’s uses of force. The department recently hired a sworn officer with a background in social work to fill a new crisis coordinator position, which launched as a pilot last month. The goal, Villa said, is to “reduce the number of people experiencing homelessness at the airport” by referring unhoused people to services elsewhere in King County.
The report found that officers of color were more likely to report feeling undervalued and excluded from opportunities than their white coworkers; interviews with department staff later clarified that the officers’ concerns stem from perceived “cronyism” within a mostly white group of department staff. To address equity and fairness concerns, the task force recommended the department adopt formal policies to address conflicts of interest in the disciplinary process and reduce opportunities for bias during promotion decisions. The reviewers also suggested that the department develop a plan for recruiting Latinx and entry-level female officers; the department currently employs only one Latinx officer, and it has not hired a woman for an entry-level sworn position in three years.
The department has six months to create a plan to implement the recommendations. Deborah Jacobs, the former head of King County’s Office of Law Enforcement Oversight and one of the outside experts who participated in the review, believes the department is on firmer footing than other police departments that have faced similar reviews. “These aren’t the kinds of extreme issues we see in some other departments: these are fixable,” Jacobs said. But like all police departments, she added, the most intractable challenges—and the most difficult to pin down—are cultural. “As we have seen time and time again, culture eats strategy and policy for lunch.”