Monitor: SPD Improves on Paper, but Rank-and-File Not All on Board

A report by Merrick Bobb, the federal monitor overseeing Seattle Police Department changes, says significant strides have been made but that “much work remains.”

By Steve Miletich
Seattle Times (June 16, 2014)

The Seattle Police Department has made significant strides in adopting policies to fix problems with excessive force, biased policing, routine street encounters and contacts with people in mental-health crisis, the federal monitor overseeing the changes reported Monday. 

But putting remedies written on paper into practice will require more building blocks, including a crucial new computer system to fully track the progress of reforms, more sergeants on the street and a broader acceptance of change throughout the department, the monitor, Merrick Bobb, said in a 95-page report filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle.

In a footnote, the report cited the recent federal lawsuit filed by more than 100 officers, detectives and sergeants seeking to block new use-of-force policies mandated under a 2012 consent decree between the city and the U.S. Department of Justice. 

“Much work remains to ensure that the objectives and goals of the Consent Decree have been understood and internalized by all officers — whether command staff or the rank and file,” the report said.

At the same time, Bobb and his monitoring team reported that Mayor Ed Murray, since taking office in January, has taken on “hard issues,” showing a willingness to fulfill the requirements of the consent decree.

“Perhaps the most hopeful turn of events in the last six months has been the active involvement of the Mayor’s Office in its oversight of the SPD,” the report said, noting Murray appears to recognize the department needs a “deep and thorough cultural change” to earn public respect.

Murray’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment. 

The report, the third semiannual update since Bobb was appointed in 2012, represents the most detailed and comprehensive assessment so far of where the department stands, pointing to major successes and stark failures. It was submitted to U.S. District Judge James Robart, to whom Bobb reports. Robart has previously chided the Police Department for mismanagement and missed deadlines.

The report makes clear the difficult challenges facing Kathleen O’Toole, the former Boston police commissioner who is expected to be confirmed as Seattle’s new police chief next week. O’Toole declined to comment on the report Monday, saying she needed time to read it.

O’Toole has previously said she will evaluate the command staff, which includes Assistant Chief Nick Metz, who now heads patrol but oversaw technology during the time the report describes it as lagging.

She also will find a department that has made accomplishments. The report singles out the department’s Use of Force Review Board, created as part of the reform effort, as a “central driver of the Department’s critical self-analysis.”

Signs of progress

For the first time, the report said, the board has found certain uses of force out of policy and referred four matters in the past six months to the department’s internal-investigation unit, the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA). No examples were cited.

Nonetheless, the board tends to do so only as a “last resort,” according to the report.

Another unit, the related Force Review Section, on its own, developed new procedures to gather “rigorous data” on the use and review of force, the report said.

The report commends the department for developing a nonpunitive mentoring program for problem officers, and offers “high praise” to the department’s Education and Training Section, saying it has thoughtfully embraced new approaches to designing and conducting interim and long-term training programs to address use of force.

Trainers are currently developing a promising program on bias-free policing and routine stops and detentions, the report said. 

The department’s new Force Investigation Team has sent dedicated investigators to examine the most serious uses of force, with a willingness to improve its work, the report said.

Reviews of shootings by officers, which have been handled by the Firearms Review Board, will be merged into the Use of Force Review Board, although much improvement is needed in the way those incidents are handled, according to the report. Bobb has previously criticized the firearms board for focusing on the immediate legal justification for a shooting, not the totality of circumstances. 

The report also praised the department for adopting new approaches to dealing with people in crisis, including enhanced training and working with mental-health experts, social-service providers and the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission.

Data system weak

But other segments of the department have been less open to collaboration and slow to make changes, particularly in the collection of computer data used to track improper policing and hold officers accountable, the report said.

Comparing the department’s use of analytic data to the Oakland Athletics baseball team’s use of data as documented in the book and movie “Moneyball,” the report concluded: “SPD is a long way from playing Moneyball.”

“It must, in many ways, transition from paper-driven to electronic processes,” the report said, adding, “Compared to many other law-enforcement agencies, SPD is flying blind.”

Efforts to improve data collection have been hampered by bungled efforts to produce a stopgap computer program and foot-dragging on developing a new business intelligence system, according to the report.

“In short, SPD’s approach as of late April calls for the Department to fire first and aim later, if at all,” the report said of the department’s plan to build a business system. 

Although the stopgap program has been installed, the department has appeared to put priority on “simply getting the system running” over making sure it functions well, the report said.

Still, the report said, the monitoring team is encouraged at the prospect that the mayor’s office, the new police chief and experts within and outside the department will fix the problem.

The report said the department likely will miss a June 30 deadline for a plan to deploy an adequate number of full-time sergeants to provide critical guidance and oversight of street officers.

Longstanding problems with the use of in-car video in patrol cars — technological issues and getting officers to comply with policy — have largely been corrected, although failures by officers have been detected in use-of-force reviews, the report said.

Critical of reversals

On officer discipline, the report cited the need for changes to a “byzantine and arcane” process that allowed Interim Police Chief Harry Bailey earlier this year to reverse misconduct findings against several officers who had appealed their cases. 

“If all of the investigation and analysis conducted by the OPA can be negated with the stroke of the Chief’s pen, and without regard to the opinion of the OPA, the fairness, thoroughness, and rigor of investigations below are rendered meaningless,” the report said. 

OPA has improved its own procedures, the report said.

“Whereas OPA was considered by some for the last few years to be a cat’s paw of SPD executives, this perception has seemed to change markedly under the leadership of OPA’s current Director, Pierce Murphy,” the report said.