Monitor Nudges Seattle|Police Toward Reforms

SEATTLE (CN) – The federal monitor overseeing reform of the Seattle Police Department released a semiannual report praising new Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole but saying “significant work” remains to be done.
     Seattle police were placed under a consent decree in 2012 after an 11-month Justice Department investigation found routine use of excessive force and civil rights violations. The department must comply with the decree, which includes court-mandated changes such as a revised use-of-force policy and crisis intervention training for officers, by 2017.
     Court-appointed monitor Merrick Bobb submitted the 47-page report Monday to U.S. District Judge James Robart, who is overseeing the consent decree.
     Bobb wrote that O’Toole, appointed in 2014 by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, is “the right person to reform the department.”
     “Chief O’Toole faced difficult circumstances on assuming the lead of the SPD, an organization where some prior senior leadership had disputed DOJ findings and the necessity of reforms. Civil service protections and Washington state law sharply limit the Chief’s ability to change Department leadership quickly and thoroughly, particularly at the rank of Captain, which prevents the SPD from cultivating and promoting the next generation of promising sergeants and lieutenants,” the report states.
     It adds that while more officers are on board with the new rules, some still have “a ways to go.”
     Bobb said the Force Review Board (FRB), which reviews all significant uses of force by officers, needs to pick up the pace of reforms. He said that board members appear “uncomfortable” in concluding that any use force violated policy.
     “Some FRB members have sometimes taken the position that, so long as force was ‘reasonable,’ it was consistent with SPD policy. Likewise, FRB members have at times mired themselves in convoluted policy and factual interpretations in order to conclude that force was ‘in policy’ or generally ‘reasonable,'” the report states.
     Bobb insists that the board must hold officers accountable for their use of force.
     The report lauds the department’s automated video blurring technology that allows it to post officer body camera videos from a pilot project on YouTube. This allows for transparency while protecting privacy of private citizens, according to the report.
     Bobb cited “national praise” for the 12-camera pilot project.
     “That technical solution stemmed from Chief Operating Officer Mike Wagers engaging a then-anonymous SPD critic on Twitter. The critic was transformed into a partner who assisted SPD, along with other experts in a so-called ‘hackathon’ in December 2014, with developing solutions for ensuring that body cameras simultaneously advance officer accountability, preserve privacy, promote transparency, and are not needlessly costly,” the report states.
     Bobb called for all Seattle police officers to start wearing the cameras as soon as possible.
     “Although significant work on implementing and refining Consent Decree reforms remains, SPD has moved closer in the last six months to where it needs to be. There is still significant work ahead, but the SPD is positioned to be a leader in the national reform effort. While many departments are struggling with where to start, SPD is well underway,” Bobb concluded.
     Another progress report is due in six months. U.S. Attorney General Loretta King is scheduled to visit Seattle and the Police Department in September.
     Mayor Murray said he was proud of how far the department has come.
     “Chief Kathleen O’Toole continues to drive positive culture change at SPD. We continue to develop and improve use-of-force policies to ensure they reflect best practices and real-world situations. New training for our officers in de-escalating challenging situations and responding to people in crisis is generating praise from the monitor and positive attention from other departments. We will continue to improve our force review process, where we know there is more work to be done,” Murray said in a statement.

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