Does the Seattle Police Department Need to do More to Fix its Image?

Reforms are taking hold within SPD, but is more still needed?
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

To talk about the state of the Seattle Police Department (SPD) is, in many ways, to speak in contradictions.

Crime is down citywide by nearly 10 percent. And yet, the voices coming from concerned communities—from Magnolia to the Chinatown–International District, Capitol Hill to the Rainier Valley—cry out in alarm over a lack of safety, real or perceived. The department employs more officers now than it ever has. And yet, the rank and file complain of vast understaffing and resources stretched beyond capacity. Public confidence in the police is reportedly higher now than it’s been in years. And yet, trust among communities of color hasn’t budged.

Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole has been christened as the standard-bearer for 21st-century police reform, as evidenced by the invitation to sit by first lady Michelle Obama as President Barack Obama delivered his final State of the Union address in

January. But legislation codifying these reforms, shielding them from political sea changes, has yet to make it to the desk of Mayor Ed Murray for his signature. The City of Seattle, to this day, lives under a Department of Justice cloud: The Justice Department has not yet seen enough evidence that SPD has righted its wrongs.

As you drive south on I-5, the view along Lake Union and the Montlake Cut is one of cranes. More than the Space Needle or the stadiums or even Pike Place Market, these crouching mammoths are the current symbols of Seattle’s economic success.

But with prosperity comes anxiety over density, homelessness and property crime. As the firewall between the public and city, the police department is often both scapegoat and the government body expected to make everything right. “What folks have to remember, whether they like police or not, is that the contact to government in every major city in the United States is the police,” says Robert Merner, assistant chief of police in command of SPD’s Criminal Investigations Bureau, in an interview last year. “If we’re the first conduit of government…then we have to make sure we’re a good conduit.”

Strong words. But they don’t change the fact that SPD has been the most scrutinized branch of Seattle government over the past 10 years. Since 2012, SPD and the City of Seattle have been under a Department of Justice decree to fix problems that include the excessive use of force and patterns of bias. The entire process is overseen by an independent, jointly selected federal monitor, Merrick Bobb. Over the past year, reports from the monitor have been largely positive, each time noting that SPD is improving its use-of-force reporting, its de-escalation techniques and its presence in the community. As a result, reports the monitor, a survey of the public shows that trust in the police department is improving.

But the voices of discontent are still ringing loudly.

One of Magnolia’s most vocal activists is Cindy Pierce, who has taken the reins of the Neighborhood Safety Alliance, a community group unhappy about what members see as a lack of responsiveness to property crimes. They’re also concerned about the RVs, housing permanent occupants, that are parked on Magnolia streets. Before a crowded room in January, Pierce led the angry voices of hundreds of residents of Queen Anne, Ballard and Magnolia. “Seattle has one of the highest property crime rates in the country,” she said, denouncing what she sees as the “lack of responsiveness by our elected officials, who don’t recognize the problem or are unwilling to do anything about it.” Magnolia, like some other neighborhoods, has elected to hire private security guards.

In the Chinatown/International District, you’ll hear from a community of people still heartbroken over the July 2015 murder of Donnie Chin, a beloved local leader and director of the International District Emergency Center, who patrolled the streets of the neighborhood for 40 years. In a meeting last November, longtime residents stood up and wondered aloud about where the police were, why people were building fires beneath I-5 and why Chin’s killers had not been brought to justice.

Go still farther south and you’ll hear from people like Hassan Diis and Jamal Ahmed, both members of Seattle’s Somali community. Despite heightened outreach efforts on the part of the police department—such as hiring liaison Habtamu Abdi—years of calcified mistrust have failed to crumble as young East African men continue to be killed on a regular basis; at least four were killed last fall. “It’s lip service,” Ahmed says of the police department’s efforts.

Last November, a small group gathered on Capitol Hill to protest a grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson, a white police officer, for the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, a black teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri.

Policing in the United States is changing.

The high-profile shooting deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Tamir Rice in Cleveland and most recently, Laquan McDonald in Chicago, have focused attention on problems within police forces and the role of technology in simultaneously exposing and potentially providing a solution to these problems. Controversial police tactics probably haven’t changed, but documenting and replicating those tactics on the Internet have made them a crowdsourced affair.

Both the public and government officials are asking how police can utilize technology to foster more accountability and transparency. Are body cameras the answer? Last fall, Mayor Murray pledged full funding for body cameras in the department, despite concerns from community groups that state laws don’t answer questions of privacy and public disclosure. “We will work carefully to get this right,” he promised.

Should police data be open to the public? SPD posts all of its crime data online (seattle.gov/seattle-police-department/crime-data), although sifting through it is a chore. And some groups would like more transparency around the disciplinary processes within the department.

How much should departments rely on predictive models of policing? SPD recently rolled out its Real Time Crime Center—a data-driven approach to distributing patrol officers to certain areas based on past crime trends. Some see it as an efficient use of resources; others see it as a path toward Minority Report.

Mayor Murray unseated previous Mayor Mike McGinn partly on a platform of public safety. But as it turns out, resolving past issues within the police department—while also looking at how best to serve the city in the future—is a complicated thing. What does success even look like?

If you measure success by the numbers, Seattle is looking good. All crime is down this year from last, part of a long trend downward.

But break-ins are up. And as Assistant Chief Steve Wilske, in charge of the SPD’s Patrol Operations Bureau, said to the Magnolia crowd, “If overall crime is down, it doesn’t matter to you, if it’s up in your neighborhood.”

If success is measured in response time, we have a problem. Times are up across the board, especially for lower-priority crimes, such as car prowls, and especially in the North Precinct, north of the Lake Washington Ship Canal. That said, Brian Maxey, SPD’s chief operating officer, suspects police response time is a poor measure of overall performance.

Among city council members, neighborhood activists and within SPD, staffing inadequacies have been identified as one of the root issues with policing a growing city. Ron Smith, president of the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, the rank-and-file union, has been hammering city officials on this point. “We’re hurting for cops,” he says over the phone. “It’s gotten worse and worse, and then it angers the public when they show up late for a low-priority call. That’s not the officers’ fault, it’s the city’s fault.”

Compared to some cities, SPD is understaffed. In 2012, Seattle had 20 officers for every 10,000 people. Meanwhile, Boston had 33, Memphis had 43, and Baltimore, 47.

Having more police doesn’t solve all crime issues; for example, Baltimore has 10 times the number of homicides as Seattle, despite its large police force. But there is consensus within the police department and the Seattle City Council that the department needs more officers, affirms SPD spokesman Sean Whitcomb. Prior to his election, while on the campaign trail, Mayor Murray pledged to add 100 cops over the rate of attrition in his first term. “Seattle has more people than at any point in history, but the number of fully trained officers has actually decreased in recent years,” Murray said in 2014 as he presented his budget proposal. “By the end of 2016, we will have the highest number of fully trained officers in the Seattle Police Department’s history.”

Hiring more officers has been a concern for the city since 2001, but with the tech and housing busts, the department has fallen behind. And every time hiring halts or decreases during economic slumps, the city is forced to play catch-up in booms. This approach subsequently creates a bow wave of attrition at the other end, putting the city in the position to catch up all over again.

Maintaining a police force is not like hiring for a fast-food joint. Increasing the SPD force by 20–25 officers means hiring close to 80 new recruits a year to make up for the 50–60 officers who leave the force every year.

It also takes a new recruit about nine months to complete training—five months at the Washington state police academy in Burien and four months of field training with SPD. During that time, a recruit might drop out of the academy for any reason. If they’re unable to fully participate in training due to illness or injury, they have to start all over, even if they’re already four months through the academy.

As if this wasn’t complicated enough, the Seattle Police Department has an agreement with the Washington state academy to reserve seven spots per class for SPD recruits. In a standard year, the academy has nine classes, or space for 63 SPD recruits. With 50-plus officers leaving the department a year, that’s not enough to grow the department at the pace the mayor would like.

The problem is not insurmountable. According to the academy’s Commander Rick Bowen, there’s room to add another six classes per year. But doing so means securing additional funding, another hurdle that will take time to clear.

While increasing the total number of officers in the city may help the department with some issues—response time, for example—it’s not necessarily the magic bullet. For example, would more officers eliminate the issue of occupied RVs parking in neighborhood? Mayor Murray has said repeatedly that he doesn’t see a correlation between this issue, which is causing a lot of complaints to the police, and an officer shortage. Maxey maintains that improvements in technology could help lighten the burden on Murray’s goal of adding more officers.

At the time of this issue’s publication, a long-awaited audit of the SPD, meant to answer the question of how many officers are “enough,” had been delayed.

As the city grows and changes, so too must the police department. But for many Seattleites, how that happens—through more officers, more technology or something else—is probably less important than how it ultimately affects them. While praise for the department from President Obama and the Department of Justice monitor is welcome, what probably matters more to most of us is how quickly an officer responds to our crime complaint, how we’re treated in encounters with police and whether we feel safe walking on our streets.