Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole has boosted the department’s relationship with the public, but additional outreach is needed with “isolated communities,” the federal monitor overseeing court-ordered reforms finds in a new report.
By Steve Miletich, Seattle Times (Jan. 27, 2016)
Led by Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole, the Seattle Police Department has woven community-oriented policing into its daily interactions and boosted public confidence in the department, the federal monitor overseeing court-ordered reforms concludes in a new report.
“Rather than accepting that isolated initiatives or scattered community meetings are sufficient engagement with the community, we note approvingly that the chief is driving the SPD to conduct policing in partnership with many of the communities it serves,” the monitor, Merrick Bobb, and his team write in the report filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court.
But the department needs to expand its efforts to include what the report refers to as “isolated communities” — some within minority groups — who, justified or not, feel disrespected by the police and don’t engage in government-driven activities or attend public meetings.
Bobb’s report comes on top of another filed Friday, commending the work of the department’s internal-investigations office.
In what it calls a “remarkable number,” the report notes 39 percent of complaints filed with the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) were generated within SPD, standing in contrast to the U.S. Justice Department’s conclusion in a 2011 investigation that internal complaints were “rare to non-existent.”
The report also raises the possibility of adding broader, departmentwide oversight — potentially with a civilian inspector general — to look beyond individual cases.
The two reports are the latest in a series of assessmentsBobb’s monitoring team began in September.
More will be filed in the coming months, for a total of 15, as the monitor evaluates whether the department is complying with a 2012 consent decree in which the city agreed to adopt reforms to address excessive force and biased policing cited in the 2011 investigation.
For the most part Bobb is measuring specific requirements, while the community confidence and OPA reports represent related examinations. His findings are provided to U.S. District Judge James Robart in Seattle, who ultimately will decide if the city is in compliance with the consent decree.
So far, Bobb has found the department to be moving in the right direction.
In Wednesday’s report, Bobb found that O’Toole and her command staff have pushed programs that define community policing not as “add on,” but as a “core means by which the SPD conducts primary law-enforcement functions on a daily and shift-by-shift basis.”
The department has developed micro-community or neighborhood policing plans; conducted training on bias-free policing and de-escalating confrontations; and forged community partnerships, the report says.
Approval of the SPD increased among Latinos, LGBT residents, Asians and whites between a 2013 survey and another last year, although it remained virtually unchanged among African Americans, a sign, the report says, that “more hard work” is needed.
O’Toole’s efforts are garnering national attention and praise, Bobb notes.
She recently sat with first lady Michelle Obama during President Obama’s State of the Union address, and O’Toole and Seattle Mayor Ed Murray spoke about the city’s police-reform work last week at a standing-room only gathering at the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington, D.C.
“My point was it has to start at the top,” Murray said afterward, citing his hiring of O’Toole in 2014 and her reshaping of the command structure.
In assessing confidence in the Police Department, Bobb’s team interviewed community members and police personnel over several months. While community comments were mixed, officers had the impression relations were “generally and increasingly solid and positive,” according to the report.
But department members “readily admit that the department still has much work to do to realize the full potential” of its strategies and programs, the report says.
Among the “isolated communities” cited in the report, people complained that little has changed and that SPD, like police across the country, has continued a history of violence, disrespect and apathy toward some communities.
Still, the report says, Seattle police have defied “national trends through their own, affirmative efforts toward reestablishing a closer, collaborative relationship with the community going forward.”
One possible benefit has been an uptick in solving homicides, evidence more community collaboration might be enhancing the department’s ability to close cases, according to the report.
While there is no clear proof of the connection, the clearance rate has gone from 35 percent in 2012, when the federal consent decree was negotiated, to 57 percent in 2013; 68 percent in 2014 and 59 percent through early December of last year, the report says.
In Friday’s report, the monitor found, based on a sample of 36 cases, that OPA internal investigations were adequate, above average or superior 86 percent of the time.
The conclusion comes at a time when OPA’s civilian director, Pierce Murphy, has been criticized by the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild over his decisions.
In another key finding, Bobb concluded that Murphy — in consultation with OPA’s civilian auditor, Anne Levinson — properly classified all cases that required further investigation.
The report found weaknesses in the quality of some interviews, including incomplete and biased questioning, while noting in some cases the overall quality of the investigation wasn’t affected.
Murphy called the report “good affirmation” of OPA’s work, with helpful “feedback.”
The report says hiring civilian investigators to assist in interviews would help, adding that Murphy has flagged the exclusive use of sworn investigators as a serious challenge to the actual and perceived independence of his office.
That change would require bargaining with the police guild.
Because of OPA’s “cabined nature,” according to the report, Seattle hasn’t benefited from “progressive innovations” in civilian oversight used by other major cities — such as an inspector general or similar official to go beyond case-by-case review and provide ongoing, systemic evaluations of all aspects of police operations.
The monitor’s mention of an inspector general revives a proposal submitted to Murray in a 2014 police-accountability report.