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Press Release

Monitor Finds Seattle Police Department’s Force Review Board in Initial Compliance with Consent Decree Requirements

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

SEATTLE – The formal assessment of Seattle Police Department’s (SPD) Force Review Board (FRB), the high-level internal accountability body established during the reform process to review and analyze significant uses of force, has found SPD to be in initial compliance with specific provisions of the court-ordered agreement with the Department of Justice. Federal Monitor Merrick Bobb filed the fifth of 15 systemic assessments with the U.S. District Court today and concluded that the FRB is “functioning well and, in a great majority of instances, as the Department’s hub of internal accountability, analysis, and continual improvement with respect to force.”

“Critical to lasting reform is having internal systems and structures in place that provide consistent oversight and accountability, and real-time feedback to help a police department continually improve. That is what SPD now has with the Force Review Board,” said Annette L. Hayes, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington. “This assessment shows SPD has made commendable progress in critically analyzing the most significant uses of force and providing ongoing supervision. This is a major step forward.”

As part of the court-ordered reform process, SPD established a tiered force reporting system that requires increased supervision and review of more significant uses of force, including for intermediate (Type II) and the most serious (Type III) uses of force. FRB has two distinct roles in SPD’s enhanced internal accountability and supervisory structure.

The first is to review the investigation of significant force events to determine whether the force used was contrary to SPD policy, such that an internal, administrative investigation by the civilian-led Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) should be initiated.  Its secondary role is to review the force incident as a whole for “best practices” to further systemic learning, including analyzing tactics, training, policies, and procedures, to improve officers’ performance in future encounters.  Some of the leading police departments in the nation successfully have used this type of accountability system for many years.

The Monitor concluded that FRB serves as the “key forum for ‘internal innovation and critical analysis’ of force.”  Specifically, the assessment found that of cases reviewed by FRB between June 2 and August 25, 2015:

  • Eighty-five percent of the cases were handled by the FRB in a manner that was consistent with, or above the expectations, of the consent decree.

  • In nearly every instance (96 percent of cases), the FRB appropriately evaluated the legal basis for the searches, detentions, and arrests involved in or implicated by the force incident.

  • In 87 percent of FRB deliberations, the group’s discussion was based solely on facts in evidence, without speculation.

  • In 93 percent of cases, the FRB sufficiently evaluated the objective reasonableness of the force used, the proportionality of force used, and the necessity of force used.

  • In instances where equipment issues were implicated, FRB’s discussion adequately addressed those issues in nearly 91 percent of cases.

  • Where there were issues involving the adequacy of SPD’s training, policy, or adherence to best practices, the FRB adequately discussed them in 92 percent of cases.

The assessment also found that, in nearly 13 percent of cases, FRB determined that an officer may have violated SPD’s use of force policy and referred the matter to OPA.  This is noteworthy given that, between 2009 and 2011, only 0.04 percent of cases received any significant chain of command scrutiny whatsoever.  The Department of Justice’s investigation of SPD in 2011 found that during the multi-year time period that the DOJ reviewed, only 5 of 1,230 use of force files reviewed “were referred at any level for further review” up the chain of command.  DOJ concluded that the “chain of command does not properly investigate, analyze, or demand accountability from its subordinate officers for their uses of force.” Specifically, SPD’s “secondary review process” for force was “little more than a formality that provides no substantive oversight or accountability”—typically serving as nothing more than “a rubber stamp of the first-line supervisor’s conclusion” that officer force was consistent with policy.

The consent decree requires that the FRB conduct timely, comprehensive, and reliable reviews of Type II and Type III force incidents. It specifies that the Board consist of an Assistant Chief or designee to chair the Board; representatives of the Training Section; a representative of each involved precinct, selected by a precinct captain; and a representative from the Department’s Professional Standards Section that is responsible for drafting SPD policy. A representative of the civilian-led OPA attends each FRB meeting and is permitted to “self-refer” matters he deems concerning. 

Board members receive a minimum of eight hours of training on an annual basis on force review.  Its mission is to review each use of force packet to determine whether the findings from the chain of command and FIT regarding whether the force used is consistent with law and policy, whether the investigation is thorough and complete, and whether there are tactical, equipment, or policy considerations that need to be addressed.

In September, the Monitor filed the first four assessments relating to the reporting and review of force up to, but not including, the FRB.  Those assessments concluded that SPD was in initial compliance in three of the first four areas, including Type I force reporting, Type II and III force reporting and Force Investigation Team investigations for Type III uses of force.  Chain of command investigations of Type II uses of force were not found to be in initial compliance. Information about the first round of assessments can be found here:

Additional assessments, including the quality of Office of Professional Accountability investigations, SPD supervision, stops and detentions, crisis intervention and officer use of force generally will be filed over the next four months.  Collectively, these assessments cover every area of the consent decree and will evaluate “whether [SPD] has the systems, policies, structures and culture in place” that the consent decree requires.

Updated February 4, 2016

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