A federal judge has approved new policies aimed at curbing biased policing by Seattle officers and setting rules for how and when they stop and frisk people.
By Mike Carter and Steve Miletich
Seattle Times (January 17, 2014)
In a decision affecting everyday street encounters, a federal judge Friday approved new policies aimed at curbing biased policing by Seattle officers and setting rules for how and when they stop and frisk people.
The policies, effective Jan. 31, represent another major step in the court-ordered reform effort for the Seattle Police Department, setting new standards that will be felt throughout the city.
Combined with a detailed new policy on use of force adopted Jan. 1, the new policies address the key remaining issues outlined in a 2012 settlement agreement between the city and the Department of Justice (DOJ). The settlement followed an investigation that found Seattle police officers routinely used excessive force, most often against people of color and the psychologically or chemically impaired.
“These new policies will set the national standard and are a huge step forward,” U.S. Attorney Jenny A. Durkan said in a statement.
The policies, approved by U.S. District Judge James Robart, were crafted by the city and Justice Department, along with the Police Department, police and civil-rights experts and the Community Police Commission created under the settlement agreement.
Mayor Ed Murray welcomed the changes.
“The perception of racial bias in policing doesn’t just corrode the community’s trust in the police force, it erodes the morale of our officers,” Murray said in a statement that noted the timing of the judge’s order with the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend.
“Addressing this very real issue is among the most serious and urgent reforms the Police Department must undertake in the consent-decree process,” Murray said.
City Attorney Pete Holmes, in a statement, called the steps “real progress” toward reform, and Interim Police Chief Harry Bailey pledged to provide training and, along with his command staff, “modeling” of what they expect from officers.
Robart earlier approved the sweeping new weapon-specific, use-of-force policy and reporting system now being used by the department’s roughly 1,300 sworn officers.
Robart’s court-appointed monitor, Merrick Bobb, wrote in a memorandum that the bias and stop policies “will guard against the risk of discriminatory policing, as well as stops and searches, without the requisite suspicion or probable cause.”
Importantly, Bobb wrote, the policies for the first time require the SPD to collect data on police interaction with citizens, “from which assessments can be made as to the existence of discriminatory policing or disparate impact.”
The policies stem from a December 2011 Justice Department report on its civil-rights investigation into the SPD, which in addition to the level of unconstitutional use of force, found disturbing but inconclusive evidence that Seattle officers engaged in biased policing.
Despite the ambiguity, the DOJ insisted the settlement agreement require the city to address the issue. Federal civil-rights attorneys have said the collection of detailed data on every citizen stop and search was the only sure way to do it.
At issue are so-called “Terry stops,” named after a landmark 1968 U.S. Supreme Court case, Terry v. Ohio., that gives police the right to briefly detain a person, without arresting them, if they reasonably suspect the person is involved in criminal activity.
The Justice Department, in its findings, said the Police Department’s old policy and practices “blur the line between a social contact or casual encounter, and a temporary investigatory detention” under Terry.
Bobb wrote that the new policy requires that officers must be able to document their suspicion “using specific articulable facts.” Officers are required to limit the stop, and must be able to justify every action they take that impacts an individual’s freedom, such as taking someone’s driver’s license away, ordering a motorist to get out of their car, putting someone up against a wall or patrol car or frisking them.
The policy specifically states that “merely because a Terry stop occurs in a high-crime area is not by itself sufficient to justify a frisk.” It also specifically bans pretext stops — when an officer finds a reason to investigate unrelated crimes for which the officer doesn’t have cause to look into otherwise.
In another provision, the policy says not every reasonable suspicion of a crime may legitimately lead to a stop. “For example, a reasonable suspicion of misdemeanors may not give rise to a stop unless the suspect’s conduct itself poses a public-safety risk or has the potential to escalate.”
The new policy requires a sergeant or supervisor to approve the documentation of a Terry stop at the end of a shift “to determine if they were supported by reasonable suspicion” and consistent with the law.
Officers who hear a complaint of discriminatory policing must call a supervisor to the scene to conduct a review and determine the appropriate action.
The new blueprint to address biased policing replaces a short policy that was adopted in 2012.
Bobb, in his memo to the judge, said the policy defines “expansively on persons and characteristics, which may not be discriminated against.” They include: age, disability, economic status, familial state, gender, gender identity, homelessness, mental illness, national origin, political ideology, race, ethnicity or color, religion, sexual orientation and status as a veteran.
Jennifer Shaw, deputy director of ACLU of Washington, which pushed for the DOJ investigation, called the bias and stop policies a “positive move” toward ensuring constitutional policing in Seattle.
“The next important step will be to train every officer on the new policies,” she said in a statement.
Training is being developed and is to begin by the end of the summer.
“The Monitor and the Monitoring Team considered at length whether these new policies dealing with stop and frisk and discriminatory policing will increase community trust and public confidence in the police,” Bobb wrote. “We determined they would.”