Survey: Fewer People Report Negative Experiences with Seattle Police

The public’s opinion of the Seattle Police Department has improved over the past two years, with fewer people reporting negative experiences with officers or incidents of excessive use of force, according to a just released survey.

By Mike Carter, Seattle Times (Oct. 1, 2015)

The public’s opinion of the Seattle Police Department (SPD) has improved over the past two years, with fewer people reporting negative experiences with officers or incidents of excessive use of force, according to a wide-ranging surveycommissioned by the federal monitor overseeing SPD reforms.

However, the survey found Latinos and African Americans are still more likely to report negative experiences or use of force by police than whites and Asians, although overall experiences by individuals in these two groups are improved over what they had been.

The survey, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court, is similar to one commissioned by the monitoring team in 2013 and is part of an effort to measure the success of a consent decree signed by the department after a Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation that concluded SPD officers routinely engaged in unconstitutional use of force. The DOJ also found evidence of biased policing, according to the 2011 investigation.

The department’s overall rating improved over the past two years, with 64 percent of residents surveyed saying they approved of the job officers are doing, compared to 60 percent in 2013. Disapproval ratings were “down sharply,” from 34 percent two years ago to 25 percent this year.

The survey found fewer people reporting negative personal interactions when stopped by officers. Seventy percent of those asked approved of those interactions, compared to 65 percent of those questioned in 2013.

When broken down by race, African Americans and Latinos reported a 55 percent approval rating of those interactions this year, up from 44 percent in 2013.

However, the survey found thatrace continues to be a “significant factor in whether people are stopped or not” for either traffic or nontraffic reasons.

Blacks are far more likely to be stopped in their car (28 percent in the past year) than whites (13 percent), Asian Americans (19 percent) or Latinos (18 percent), the survey found.

The figure is particularly significant, the survey pointed out, since African Americans are less likely to own vehicles or drive than whites, making the “per-mile rate” they are stopped even higher than the survey suggests.

Despite this finding, the survey said that “one of the key stories” in the 2015 survey is “how much better interactions between the police and African Americans/Latinos have gone, and how much better in general interactions with police have gone in nontraffic stops.”

Those are important since nontraffic stops potentially are more serious in nature and often involve detentions or arrests.

The SPD is in its third year of federal-court oversight and deep into implementing reforms called for in the consent decree, including the adoption of detailed use-of-force policies and data-driven tracking of problem officers. The department’s police chief, Kathleen O’Toole, has spent a tremendous amount of time in the community.

“The men and women of Seattle Police Department continue to enhance community trust every day,” O’Toole said in a statement. “While much work remains, this latest survey shows measurable progress.”

As with the 2013 survey, the court-appointed monitor, Merrick Bobb, used the national survey firm Anzalone Liszt Grove, which conducted both cellphone and landline interviews with 692 adult Seattle residents. It included “oversampling” interviews with an additional 67 Latinos and 141 African Americans to ensure those groups were adequately represented. The firm said the survey’s margin of error is 3.7 percent overall, and higher for the subgroups.

The survey found O’Toole enjoys high approval ratings across the demographics of the survey, with 61 percent approving of her performance and 11 percent disapproving.

Her efforts at outreach seem to be paying off, according to the survey, although negative perceptions of the department still exist in communities where word-of-mouth remains a prime source of information.

“The bad news still travels faster than the good when it comes to community-police interactions,” according to the survey’s findings. Among African Americans, word-of-mouth is second only to TV as a primary information source.

“We conclude based on the data that bad police interactions have a multiplier effect that flows through the community as people tell their family, friends and neighbors about their experience.”

It could take some time for improved policing to catch up in communities whose relationship with the department has been particularly strained, the survey said.

“It’s very likely that perceptions of police are a trailing indicator, and that there has to be a lot of years of good policing to negate perceptions in some communities,” the survey said.

“Given the positive trend in SPD approval overall and in the SPD’s treatment of people they stop, there’s reason to be hopeful that this process is beginning to occur.”

The “flip side,” according to the survey, is that the department’s efforts at community engagement, including neighborhood/block-watch program and “living-room conversations” with officers, have made a “big difference” in negative perceptions.

Almost 40 percent of those surveyed have attended those meetings, and those residents were more likely to give the SPD a good rating.

A key finding of the survey is that “very few people report personally being victims of excessive force” in the past year.

It found that fewer than 1 percent of those surveyed say they had been victims of excessive force, a number that included findings that 1 percent of blacks and 1 percent of Latinos surveyed had reported being victims of excessive force.

In 2013, those two groups reported excessive-force rates of 9 and 5 percent, respectively.

Even so, the survey found that African Americans have not warmed to the department as a group. In 2013, just 49 percent of blacks approved of SPD and 42 percent disapproved. Those numbers remain essentially unchanged. Blacks remain the only group more likely to strongly disapprove of the SPD than they are to strongly approve.

“According to this survey, there are positive signs that Seattle residents are giving SPD higher marks for its work, and, perhaps most encouraging, there are far fewer people reporting problematic interactions with SPD,” Annette Hayes, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington, said in a statement. “As important, the people of Seattle continue to believe that SPD is keeping them safe. Still, this data helps identify areas where there is work to do, particularly in the African-American and Latino communities, where positive perceptions and improved interactions lag the rest of our community.”