Investigation of the Seattle Police Department by the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division


  1. Background and Scope of Review

The great majority of the City’s police officers are honorable law enforcement professionals who risk their physical safety and well-being for the public good. However, a pattern of excessive force exists as a result of a subset of officers who use force improperly, and is caused by a number of systemic deficiencies that exist in spite of SPD’s recent reform efforts.

For many years, the City of Seattle periodically has faced accusations of police misconduct, including claims of excessive force and discriminatory policing techniques. Over the last decade, the City has responded to these allegations by implementing significant measures to improve police oversight, including developing and refining an elaborate police accountability system.

Despite these efforts, recently there have been a number of widely publicized incidents involving use of force by the police, leading to understandable public concern. Our investigation was not prompted by any one particular incident. Nor did we focus on, or try to resolve the facts of, any of these high-profile events. Rather, we took a broader view. Specifically, with the assistance of our national policing experts, we systematically and thoroughly examined voluminous documents and records, including hundreds of hours of video footage, a variety of police reports, policy manuals, and SPD records related to its use of force and policing practices. This effort included obtaining and analyzing all use of force reports for the approximately two year period preceding our review. Moreover, we did not limit ourselves to a document review. We also conducted multiple site visits and interviewed hundreds of individuals, including community leaders, individuals alleging SPD officers had violated their constitutional rights, and SPD personnel, including front-line officers, their immediate supervisors, and command level staff.

  1. Findings

Use of Force – We find that SPD engages in a pattern or practice of using unnecessary or excessive force, in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Section 14141. Deficiencies in SPD’s training, policies, and oversight with regard to the use of force contribute to the constitutional violations. Officers lack adequate training or policies on when and how to report force and when and how to use many impact weapons (such as batons and flashlights). We also find that, starting from the top, SPD supervisors often fail to meet their responsibility to provide oversight of the use of force by individual officers. Command staff does not always provide supervisors with clear direction or expectations of how to supervise the use of force.

Discriminatory Policing – We do not make a finding that SPD engages in a pattern or practice of discriminatory policing, but our investigation raises serious concerns on this issue. Some SPD policies and practices, particularly those related to pedestrian encounters, could result in unlawful policing. Moreover, many community members believe that SPD engages in discriminatory policing. This perception is rooted in a number of factors, including negative street encounters, recent well-publicized videos of force being used against people of color, incidents of overt discrimination, and concerns that the pattern of excessive force disproportionately affects minorities. This perception can significantly undermine the trust necessary for SPD to conduct effective policing in minority communities. The City and SPD need to thoroughly examine the issues raised, address the policies, procedures, and training that contribute to the problem, and conduct more sustained and effective community engagement.

  1. SPD’s Use of Force

We find that SPD engages in a pattern or practice of unnecessary or excessive force, in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Section 14141. We base our legal conclusion on numerous factual findings, including the following:

  • When SPD officers use force, they do so in an unconstitutional manner nearly 20% of the time. This finding (as well as the factual findings identified below) is not based on citizen reports or complaints. Rather, it is based on a review of a randomized, stratified, and statistically valid sample of SPD’s own internal use of force reports completed by officers and supervisors.
  • SPD officers too quickly resort to the use of impact weapons, such as batons and flashlights. Indeed, we find that, when SPD officers use batons, 57% of the time it is either unnecessary or excessive.
  • SPD officers escalate situations and use unnecessary or excessive force when arresting individuals for minor offenses. This trend is pronounced in encounters with persons with mental illnesses or those under the influence of alcohol or drugs. This is problematic because SPD estimates that 70% of use of force encounters involve these populations.
  • Multiple SPD officers at a time use unnecessary or excessive force together against a single subject. Of the excessive use of force incidents we identified, 61% of the cases involved more than one officer.
  • In any given year, a minority of officers account for a disproportionate number of use of force incidents. Over the more than two-year period reviewed, 11 officers used force 15 or more times, and 31 officers used force 10 or more times. In 2010, just 20 officers accounted for 18% of all force incidents. Yet, SPD has no effective supervisory techniques to better analyze why these officers use force more than other officers, whether their uses of force are necessary, or whether any of these officers would benefit from additional use of force training.

This pattern or practice is also the product of inadequate policy, training and supervision. SPD fails:

(1) to properly monitor or investigate the use of force;

(2) to implement adequate policies on the proper use of various force weapons; and

(3) to adequately train its officers on the use of force, particularly the appropriate use of various force weapons.

The chain of command does not properly investigate, analyze, or demand accountability from its subordinate officers for their uses of force. In particular, we further find that the secondary review process is little more than a formality that provides no substantive oversight or accountability. Tellingly, of the approximately 1,230 internal use of force reports we received, covering the period between January 1, 2009 and April 4, 2011, only five were referred for “further review” at any level within SPD. Moreover, in our investigation, we found no case in which a first-line supervisor was held accountable for the inadequate investigation or review of a use of force incident.

We also find that SPD’s vague Use of Force policy and inadequate training encourage pervasive underreporting and render the Department’s statistics on its use of force incomplete.

Finally, we find that SPD’s Early Intervention System (“EIS”) and its internal affairs department (its Office of Professional Accountability, “OPA”) do not provide the intended backstop for the failures of the direct supervisory review process, for the following reasons:

  • OPA disposes of nearly two-thirds of citizens’ complaints by sending them to SPD’s precincts, where the quality of investigations is, according to one OPA supervisor, admittedly “appalling.” (We understand that OPA has suspended the assignment of investigations to the chain of command.)
  • OPA’s current classification and findings systems are so complex that they damage OPA’s credibility and undermine public confidence in OPA.
  • OPA consistently overuses and misuses the finding “Supervisory Intervention,” which results in neither a true finding nor a remediation of the officer. We find that Supervisory Interventions are often improperly used to dispose of allegations as serious as excessive use of force and discriminatory policing simply to avoid the “stigma” of a formal finding.

Although we find the structure of OPA is sound, and the investigations OPA itself conducts generally are thorough, these and other concerns render the system an additional deficiency contributing to the pattern or practice described above. Indeed, none of the uses of force our review finds to be excessive were referred to OPA for its review.

It is to SPD’s credit that it has been open to our discussions on these topics, and that it is in the process of revamping its review of officer uses of force and OPA’s classification and findings systems. We hope these findings add a sense of focused urgency and purpose to SPD’s efforts.

Separately, we are aware of recent incidents involving the use of Oleoresin Capsicum (“OC”) spray to disperse the so-called “Occupy Seattle” protesters on November 2, 2011 and November 15, 2011. Although these incidents concern us, we do not directly address them in this letter because they occurred outside of the timeframe of our review. However, we note that Seattle has previously been criticized for its response to demonstrators, including incidents related to the World Trade Organization meetings in 1999. In reviewing SPD’s response to the WTO demonstrators, the Police Executive Research Forum noted: “There is a balance to be struck between, on the one hand, First Amendment rights and other civil liberties, and on the other hand, the interventions required to protect public safety and property.” Police Management of Mass Demonstrations: Identifying Issues and Successful Approaches, PERF (2006) at 5. Our assessment of the constitutionality of police-citizen encounters in these protest scenarios is not limited to Seattle; we are paying close attention to police response to Occupy and other mass demonstrations across the country. As we resolve the issues addressed in this letter, we will review relevant information related to these events, including SPD’s own review, and determine whether additional findings are needed or appropriate.

  1. Discriminatory Policing

Although we do not reach a finding of discriminatory policing, our investigation raises serious concerns about practices that could have a disparate impact on minority communities. These practices undermine SPD’s ability to build trust among segments of Seattle’s diverse communities. Our investigation revealed the following:

  • SPD officers exhibit confusion between a casual, social contact and an investigative detention (a “Terry” stop). SPD must ensure its officers understand that, unless they have a sufficient factual basis to detain someone, a person is free to walk away from police and free to disregard a police request to come or stay. Officers should also understand that in such circumstances, the decision to “walk away” does not by itself create cause to detain. A person on the street is not always required to comply with police orders. While not conclusive, some data and citizen input suggest that inappropriate pedestrian encounters may disproportionately involve youth of color.
  • Of the cases that we determined to be unnecessary or excessive uses of force, over 50% involved minorities.
  • Analysis of limited data suggests that, in certain precincts, SPD officers may stop a disproportionate number of people of color where no offense or other police incident occurred.

We further find that SPD’s ability to maintain the trust of the community is hindered by SPD’s: (1) deficient policies that address the risk of biased policing and or govern pedestrian stops; (2) inadequate supervision and training of its officers on (a) how to avoid biased policing practices, (b) how to conduct proper pedestrian stops, and (c) tactical communications skills; (3) a failure to proactively and consistently engage the community; and (4) the failure to keep meaningful data that would permit SPD to evaluate and take action to address allegations of biased policing.

SPD appropriately encourages its officers to be proactive and engage with the community and people on the streets in a number of ways. Good policing requires regular and sustained interactions between police and the community. However, SPD must ensure that its officers understand the constitutional restrictions that guide pedestrian encounters.

In light of the problems that we found, it is incumbent on SPD to take reasonable measures to correct these deficiencies, prevent the risk of discriminatory policing, especially in the context of pedestrian encounters. Of the deficiencies we identified, perhaps the most important is SPD’s failure to collect and analyze data that could address and respond to the perception that some of its officers engage in discriminatory policing. We recognize that there are a number of issues raised when a government agency collects data relating to someone’s racial, ethnic, or other minority status. However, other police departments have succeeded in developing effective and reasonable protocols for obtaining such data.

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