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Press Release

Justice Department, City Hail Approval of New Seattle Police Department Bias and Stops Policies

For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, Western District of Washington

            SEATTLE – U.S. District Judge James L. Robart today approved sweeping new Seattle Police Department policies on biased policing and investigative stops.  The new policies were created by the city of Seattle in conjunction with the Justice Department, and approved the federal Monitor.  The new “Stops and Detentions” and “Bias-Free Policing” policies clarify how officers are to handle street encounters and will help ensure that officers do not engage in discriminatory policing.  For the first time, the policies will require the collection of data to help evaluate trends and address any ongoing concerns.

Consistent with the settlement agreement reached by the Justice Department and the city of Seattle in 2012, both policies were developed with significant input from members of the Community Police Commission (CPC), Seattle Police Department (SPD) and nationally renowned policing and civil rights experts.  The CPC and community members who were engaged through an extensive outreach program played a major role in formulating the policies.  The parties met several times with the CPC, which did extensive community engagement and had a working group on the topic, and incorporated its comments.

The new policies will go into effect on Jan. 31, 2014.  Officer training is currently being developed in consultation with the CPC and will be implemented by the end of summer 2014.  

“Police legitimacy and community trust are built through each encounter that police officers have with the public.  These new policies put the Seattle Police Department at the forefront of law enforcement agencies across the country,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Jocelyn Samuels.  “These policies require that data on each encounter is collected and analyzed to ensure that discriminatory policing is not taking place.  This transparency promotes the accountability of our law enforcement officers and will give the public confidence that policing in Seattle is fair and impartial.”

            “These new policies will set the national standard and are a huge step forward,” said U.S. Attorney Jenny A. Durkan.  “They give police the certainty they need while addressing some of the most consistent and damaging concerns raised by community members.  We want proactive policing; yet negative street encounters and any real or perceived bias can significantly undermine the trust necessary for effective policing in every corner of our community.  Officers will have clear direction and SPD will have the data and tools its needs to ensure progress.  I am very grateful to the CPC for its role in developing these policies and educating the public about them.”

“The perception of racial bias in policing doesn’t just corrode the community’s trust in the police force, it erodes the morale of our officers,” said Seattle Mayor Ed Murray. “Addressing this very real issue is among the most serious and urgent reforms the Police Department must undertake in the consent decree process. The new policies announced today are a great step in that direction -- and the CPC is to be commended for its excellent work. These policies will give our officers clear and consistent direction for effectively handling encounters on the street. Combining in-depth training on these polices with on-going tracking, monitoring and reporting of these encounters is another critical step to ensure SPD is trusted by the community, effective in the community and accountable to the community. And with the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend upon us, I can’t think of a better time for Seattle to step forward on the issue of bias-free policing.”

The department’s investigation in 2011 found that SPD officers often exhibited confusion between a casual, social contact (where a person is free to leave) and an investigative detention short of an arrest, also known as a Terry stop (where a person is not free to leave).  Some data and community input suggested that this confusion – as well as other problems with training and oversight – led to inappropriate pedestrian encounters that may have resulted in a disproportionate number of people of color - in particular youths - being stopped where no offense or other police incident occurred.  Incidents of overt discrimination and the fact that excessive force disproportionately occurred against minorities also gave the department concern and lead to the inclusion of these issues in the settlement agreement.  SPD’s failure to collect and analyze data that could address and respond to allegations compounded the problem.   

The new Stops and Detentions policy lays the foundation to resolve those concerns by:

  1. Clarifying the distinction between social contacts and Terry stops.
  2. Making clear that a Terry stop occurs any time an officer has restrained the liberty of a citizen; must be based on reasonable suspicion; must be reasonable in scope and duration and has certain limits imposed by law; and must be documented with clearly articulated and objective facts.
  3. Ensuring professionalism in such stops.
  4. Improving oversight by requiring supervisors to review the documentation of Terry stops before the end of their shift and requiring SPD to collect, for the first time, electronic data about such stops that will permit analysis and identification of trends, patterns and concerns with practices at a systemic level.

The new Bias-Free Policing policy also gives officers clear direction by:

  1. Clearly and accurately defining what bias-based policing is.
  2. Expanding what “personal characteristics” are covered by the policy, including gender, sexual orientation and homelessness.
  3. Identifying expressly prohibited acts and reporting obligations when an officer observes a prohibited act.
  4. Improving oversight by requiring a supervisor to go to the scene of any complaint of bias-based policing to investigate, analyze and document such encounters.
  5. Requiring SPD to collect, for the first time, data about policies and practices that may have, not an overtly discriminatory intent, but an unwarranted “disparate impact” on certain protected classes.

"This is another major milestone as we move forward in our reform efforts," said Seattle Police Chief Harry Bailey. "I would like to acknowledge the members of the Community Police Commission for their contributions in working with my staff to make these policies a reality. The new policies, when coupled with proper training and supervision, will ensure that our police department will be able to deliver the quality police services that our residents deserve and expect."

“I am excited by the real progress towards reform these new policies evidence,” City Attorney Pete Holmes said. “Numerous different points of view were considered through the hard work of many participants. In the end, we are fortunate to have a federal judge and monitor who help the parties along each stage of the Seattle process to a successful conclusion.”

Updated March 23, 2015