SEATTLE – A comprehensive assessment of the Seattle Police Department’s (SPD) uses of force from July 2014, through October 2016, has found SPD in initial compliance with requirements of the Court-ordered agreement with the Department of Justice (DOJ). Federal Monitor Merrick Bobb filed the formal assessment with the U.S. District Court today and concluded that the finding of initial compliance with the use of force provisions of the consent decree “represents a singular and foundational milestone on SPD’s road to full and effective compliance – and represents Seattle crystallizing into a model of policing for the 21st century.”
Monitor – working closely with DOJ and a team of other enforcement experts – reviewed data relating to SPD’s use of force for a two-and-a-half-year period and found that officers are effectively implementing SPD’s revised use of force policies. assessment concludes: “In the vast majority of instances, officer force appeared necessary, proportional, and objectively reasonable under the circumstances – with a number of incidents featuring superior examples of officers strategically de-escalating situations in order to minimize the nature of the threat while potentially mitigating the severity of force that needed to be used.” Notably, the Monitor found that these improvements in officers’ use of force did not result in more officer injuries or an increase in crime.
“This positive assessment is a credit to the men and women of SPD, from line officers to command staff. They have embraced reform, made it their own, and fundamentally changed what is happening on the streets of Seattle,” said Annette L. Hayes, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington. “The findings demonstrate that rigorous policies are in place, high-quality training and supervision have been implemented, proper reporting and investigation is happening, and appropriate levels of force are being used. Also important, police experts found that because SPD is collecting data on uses of force, SPD is able to critically analyze and address issues as they come up. SPD has reached a major milestone in its reform efforts. I commend city leaders for making reform meet city needs including officers and diverse communities alike.”
The assessment examined three interrelated areas of officer activity, aggregated trends of when force is used, and an in-depth analysis of those incidents in which officers deployed force. The Monitor divided the data from the 28 months into two time periods to analyze trends and make comparisons. Among the important findings are:
SPD officers used less force, and less significant types of force:
Overall use of force rates are down – both over the past 28 months and compared to the DOJ investigation period of 2009-2011;
Less-lethal instruments are used infrequently – with baton use dramatically declining from the time period before and during DOJ’s investigation;
Low-level, type I force incidents spiked initially and continue to make up a large portion of all force used, but even that level of force has trended downward recently;
The typical SPD officer uses force very infrequently, and while a small group of officers use force more frequently than their peers, they do not use different, or more serious force, than SPD officers who used force less.
Force has gone down without officer injuries going up.
Force has gone down without crime going up, demonstrating that constitutional policing does not require sacrificing public safety.
As determined by the Monitoring Team’s law enforcement and other experts, officer force is systemically consistent with the law and the heightened requirements of SPD policy. Specifically, the Monitor found that officers used force that was consistent with SPD policy, necessary under the circumstances, and proportional and reasonable more than 99 percent of the time. Officers also complied with the duty to de-escalate in 99 percent of cases where that duty was applicable. For intermediate-level Type II and serious Type III force from the more-recent 14-month period, which is analogous to the moderate and serious uses of force identified and analyzed in the 2011 DOJ investigation, nearly 96 percent of force incidents were consistent with SPD policy.
The Monitoring Team found no cases in which an officer used force to address someone who was only verbally confrontational, nor did officers use inappropriate force on handcuffed and restrained individuals. Critically, in the small number of cases in which the force used was found to be unnecessary, disproportional, or unreasonable – or there was a failure to de-escalate consistent with SPD policies – the Monitor found that most of the time entities and structures within SPD identified the problem. As a result, the Monitor concluded that “when an officer performs in manner contrary to SPD’s use of force policy, the Department is able to catch and correct the error.”
In contrast, in 2011, DOJ found that SPD officers used force “in an unconstitutional manner” at an unacceptable rate; “too quickly resort[ed] to the use of impact weapons” such as batons; too frequently “escalate[d] situations and use[d] unnecessary or excessive force when arresting individuals for minor offenses,” especially individuals experiencing a behavioral crisis, rather than de-escalating situations; and too frequently used excessive force against individuals who “talk-back” but otherwise pose no physical danger, such as individuals who are already restrained by handcuffs. DOJ concluded that systemic and structural deficiencies, including inadequate policies and training, especially relating to force weapons and de-escalation techniques, were the root causes of the problems identified in its investigation. The Monitor concludes in his assessment that “many of the issues identified in the DOJ’s investigation with respect to the application of force have been eliminated or, otherwise, substantially eliminated” through SPD’s efforts.
The Monitor did find racial disparities in the population against whom force was used, but found no statistically significant disparities with respect to the type or severity of force used. Under the Consent Decree, the City has committed itself to identifying and working to address unwarranted disparate impact, and those efforts will be the subject of a forthcoming assessment.
Previous assessments found SPD to be in initial compliance with requirements relating to crisis intervention, the Office of Professional Accountability, use of force reporting and investigation (including a recent follow-up assessment of Type II investigations), the Force Review Board, supervision, and the Early Intervention System. The Monitor also examined public confidence and community trust regarding SPD.