Seattle Police Reform Needs More Direct Democracy

by Howard Gale

The birth of Seattle’s Community Police Commission (CPC): an advisory body

In August 2010 First Nations woodcarver John T. Williams was murdered by Seattle police officer Ian Birk, becoming the latest and most egregious civil-rights violation (aka, crime) committed by Seattle police against people of color and marginalized communities in recent memory.  The fact that officer Birk was never prosecuted, or even charged with a crime, added to a pervasive sense of outrage across diverse communities in Seattle. This led the ACLU of Washington, joined by 34 other local organizations (among them the NAACP of Seattle King County, El Centro de la Raza, Central Area Motivation Program, Mothers for Police Accountability, Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, and International District Housing Alliance), to write a letter to the US Department of Justice (DOJ), calling on them to investigate the Seattle Police Department (SPD) for civil-rights violations (1).

The 2010 ACLU of Washington letter led to a DOJ investigation, resulting in a 2011 DOJ report finding that the Seattle police engaged in a pattern of unnecessary or excessive use of force, along with the finding that there were serious concerns regarding “discriminatory policing.” In July 2012 the City of Seattle signed off on a settlement agreement with the DOJ. One of the requirements of this 2012 settlement agreement involved the creation of the Seattle Community Police Commission (CPC), a body of 15 community members appointed by the Mayor and confirmed by the City Council. The CPC had a clear mandate to be the voice of the community, though it had no formal investigatory powers (it could not legally demand documents or investigate specific instances of police abuse) and had no powers to compel action or impose consequences for wrongdoing. The CPC has been, and will remain under newly proposed legislation, an advisory body.


The CPC as community representative and advocate: the limits of mediating people power

The CPC started work in March 2013. In 2013 the CPC had extensive community meetings, stating they met with over 3,400 community members at over 150 community meetings. Since December of 2014, when I first started going to their regular meetings, the CPC has mostly interacted with the public through listening sessions, demographic advisory groups, and Facebook posts. The last CPC open public evening meeting, designed to garner broad public input, that I can remember, was January 24, 2015: a disastrous hearing on the police use of body-worn cameras.

For four years the CPC has mostly tried to quietly negotiate with City power (mostly the Mayor’s Office, the City Attorney, and the SPD) and federal power (Federal Judge James Robart, the DOJ, and the Monitor). During this time, when the CPC felt ignored or slighted (i.e., their recommendations misinterpreted or ignored) they have reached out to the local organizations that originally signed onto the 2010 ACLU of Washington letter, groups that are, for the most part, professional advocacy or service organizations.

 While the organizations that have backed the CPC are crucial and valued advocacy and service organizations, these are not the groups that brought many thousands to the streets for Black Lives Matter or for the women’s march in January. These are not the groups that were central to organizing or bringing folks out to fight the Trump travel ban – though they are certainly the folks instrumental in providing legal and other services to those in jeopardy and to launching legal battles. And these are not the folks who organized opposition to the new King County youth jail or opposition to the Seattle North Precinct police station. These observations are not meant to diminish or disrespect the importance of these organizations, but rather to reclaim respect for grassroots movements and activism, to understand that power exercised in the courtroom, the city council offices, and on commissions has very real limits.

By the CPC negotiating behind closed doors, and mediating direct citizen involvement, they have inadvertently undercuttheir power, their ability to  speak for the community, and community involvement.

May 5th, 2017 was a clear example of how these power-dynamics unfold. There was a meeting of the Seattle City Council Committee on “Gender Equity, Safe Communities, and New Americans (GESNCA),”  the committee responsible for shaping the historic Seattle police reform legislation, legislation which is to be finalized and voted on by the whole Councilon May 22 at 2:00 p.m.At the May 5 meeting, two significant amendments2regarding CPC’s oversight powers were voted down with extraordinarily minimal public input. While a few folks from CPC affiliated organizations spoke at the meeting, I was the only other citizen present to speak on behalf of the CPC amendments.

Current problems with police reform

Rather then delve into the specifics of these aspects of the legislation I will highlight some of the overarching issues which have brought us to where we are. Days away from passing historic police reform legislation – legislation that would hope to serve as a model for other American cities – there is still no real grassroots input into the process and there remain serious problems with the legislation.

The CPC has been operating for over four years – around 216 weeks – whereas the City Council has only formally taken up this legislation for less than 15 weeks. The CPC’s central areas of work, outside of community outreach, engagement, and assessment (feedback), have been in re-shaping Seattle Police Department (SPD) policy, training, and accountability. Despite City, SPD, and CPC public relations to the contrary, there have been significant problems in all three areas. These problems will likely persist, or even worsen, under the currently proposed legislation: in part because the CPC role will remain advisory.

In a May 11, 2016 meeting of the CPC, the SPD’s “Bias-Free Policing Training” (presented the day before) received this review: “CPC and SOCR [Seattle Office of Civil Rights] expressed substantive concerns that they will share with SPD… asking SPD to not roll out this training until the CPC can meet with SPD command staff to recommend changes to improve it.” These were the politic comments fit for the meeting notes. In the actual meeting, which I attended, the consensus was that the SPD bias-free training was itself an example of police bias.

Also in May of 2016 the CPC voted to “To approve sending a letter to SPD requesting suspension of the use of blast balls pending a public review,” due to serious injuries resulting from their use on May 1, 2016. Similar action was taken by the CPC in 2015 with absolutely no consequence. The SPD current policy calls for continued use of blast balls while denying they pose a significant risk to public safety.

In both of the above cases the CPC has failed to make its concerns more public and to rally a grassroots response.

Over the last few years there have been significant changes and improvements to SPD policy and use of force training. These changes in policy and training have unquestionably had positive outcomes. Most notably, an April 2017 report, using SPD data, showed a 60% decrease (when compared to 2011) in the most serious types of use of force by Seattle police. However, this same report shows that racial disparity remains in the SPD’s use of force.

Twenty years of police reform in the US: making it stick

During the early years of police reform in Los Angeles, while use of force complaints fell, complaints about stops, arrests, and racial profiling increased. Most important in the reform process is how to insure positive changes are real and are maintained: the Achilles heel of 20 years of attempts at federal oversight of police reform has been recidivism when federal oversight ends (most notably in Cleveland, Miami, New Orleans, and New Jersey), making it crucial to have robust and fully transparent accountability systems in place. In the case of Los Angeles, police reform had multiple fits and starts over nearly 17 years, with the jury out on how long the latest attempt at reform will last (court monitoring ended in 2013). These accountability systems can only work when there are, as necessary but not sufficient conditions, reliable and transparent documentation, data collection, and adherence to policy (police officers can only reasonably be held to account when they violate a policy that is accepted and fully implemented).

Future SPD accountability, along with the apparent overall reduction in the use of more serious force by the SPD, are endangered by two factors which remain unaddressed in current legislation: (1) that SPD officers believe (as directly expressed in numerous personal encounters3) that official SPD policies are only advisory or for “public consumption,” i.e., reality and officer discretion can trump policy; and (2) that SPD report writing is often designed to conform to policy rather than fact, i.e., an officer’s retelling of their actions will reinterpret the actual event in a way that allows actions not in compliance with policy to appear to conform with policy. This last factor is in large part enabled and hidden from public view because of the way police reports are currently written: typical police reports (“General Offense” or “GO” reports) are written with uncertain attribution as to who actually witnessed or testified to an event (therefore these reports cannot be used to show an officer lied), and the crucially important “Use of Force” (UOF) reports can be endlessly re-written, without any edit trail, before being made publicly available. I can provide recent examples where these factors have produced false accounts of events, left individuals who were injured by SPD officers with limited recourse, and have compromised accountability.

Progress on accountability is harder to evaluate since major improvements to accountability systems are awaiting the passage of City legislation. However, given the above cited concerns with policy understanding/enforcement and report-writing methods by SPD officers, trip points remain in even the best devised system – and Seattle is not even considering the best such system.

The City Council ignores Newark in considering best practices in police reform

Seattle’s current legislation requires the Seattle Chief of Police to meet with the director of the OPA to discuss disagreements concerning officer discipline. If the Chief imposes no discipline, or discipline that differs from the OPA recommendation, the Chief must provide a written statement “of the material reasons” for such a decision, within 30 days, to the executive director of the CPC (and to other relevant city department heads, including the mayor).

In considering the new police accountability legislation, the Seattle City Council GESNCA Committee studied and visited police reform programs in New York City, Los Angeles, and New Orleans. Conspicuously absent from this short list: Newark, NJ. It is beyond the scope of this overview to fully explore the differences in the approach to police reform between Newark and Seattle, but there are two major differences (besides the one noted above) that dramatically contrast with the Seattle approach:

  • (1)Newark has a one-stop-shop approach to accountability, where instead of having a CPC – without investigatory or subpoena powers– for community input and an OPA to  investigate police abuse, Newark has a single community police commission for both roles (making recommendations and investigating police abuse), and
  • (2)Newark has a fully civilianized police commission immunized from political interference: all members of Newark’s police commission come from an established list of community organizations (those organizations get to choose who serves), whereas in Seattle’s proposed CPC the mayor, the City Council, and the CPC each choose approximately one-third of the CPC members (meaning two-thirds are unavoidably political appointees).

In the midst of police reform the City seems to value appearance over reality

We already have signs that members of City government responsible for aspects of police oversight care far more for appearance over reality. At a public event at the University of Washington on May 4th, Ian Warner, Counsel to the Mayor of Seattle, stated that the SPD has achieved important steps in transparency through making videos and Use of Force (UOF) reports publicly available soon after incidents. When I challenged this claim Warner publicly stated I was wrong. After the event I was approached by Marry Perry, SPD Director of Transparency and Privacy, who also assured me I was mistaken. When I asked Perry to show me where and how to access the data she showed me a website that offered a listing of Use of Force reports – with report numbers, dates, etc. – without any access to the actual report. Perry argued that this was, in fact, public access to Use of Force reports. A friend found this dialogue reminiscent of Monty Python’s “Dead Parrot” sketch, where a customer attempts to  return an obviously dead parrot to the pet shop, only to be told by the salesperson that the bird is simply asleep and not dead.

This is not reassuring when City employees, centrally involved in the police reform process, make spurious claims, and when the Director of Transparency doubles down on such claims. The SPD and city officials trotting out “alternative-data” should elicit swift condemnation from the CPC.

Last opportunity for people to make themselves heard: May 22

On May 22 the City Council will be voting on legislation it has been considering for around 3 ½ months and with a total of nine meetings prior to the final vote. While nine meetings may seem like a lot, only two meetings were planned outside of work hours, and all public comment has been limited to “two minutes or less.” At least three of the nine meetings – including the public meeting scheduled for May 3 – were canceled with last minute notice of re-scheduling. All meetings have been poorly attended: except for the evening meeting on March 23, where council chambers were around half-full, all other meetings have had almost no one attending except for City employees, the press, and CPC members. The reason for poor attendance and the lack of public participation is due to a complete absence of publicity and hard-to-find meeting schedules. It is also due to the CPC being more comfortable with mediating public input as opposed to rallying public concern.

Seattle is about to pass historic legislation with less than 2 hours of public comment. This bodes poorly for real police reform and accountability. Contrast this with the two hearings Seattle held in December of 1999 to reflect on the events surrounding the World Trade Organization meetings the month before. The first meeting had eight hours of public testimony, and the second ten hours (ending at 1:55 a.m.).

Your last chance to make your voice heard will be Monday, May 22, 2:00 p.m. at City Council Chambers at City Hall (600 4th Ave. between Cherry and James St.). Get there before 2:00 p.m. to sign up to speak.


1   As a result of the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, the US Department of Justice was allowed to intercede in local law enforcement practices when there existed evidence of civil-rights violations.

2   The amendments concerned CPC’s oversight of the work plan and the performance of the two other new oversight entities to be created by the new legislation (the Office of Police Accountability and the Office of Inspector General).

3   Over the years I have had numerous experiences with the SPD, not as an activist, but as a typical middle-class older white citizen.

I have witnessed numerous assaults between homeless folks in the University District – often with a racial component – where police have refused to intervene or arrest attackers. In three cases, I or others came forward as witnesses, with police refusing to take action, claiming “no one knows what happened.”

I was assaulted in Lower Queen Anne when I tried to intervene in a situation involving a man abusing his wife. After an SPD officer took my statement as a victim, I watched as the attacker walked away. When I questioned the officer who took my statement, he said “there are no charges here because there is no victim.” It was only after a very tense exchange, where I explained I was a victim and I planned on pursuing claims against either the attacker or the officer (white privilege at work), that the officer then changed his report and arrested the attacker.

Twice in recent years a close friend’s under 14 year old daughter ran away from home. The SPD in both cases refused to issue an “A Child is Missing Alert” (ACIM), repeatedly claiming they could only consider an AMBER alert, which all parties agreed was not appropriate. When shown clear SPD policy regarding ACIMs, they worked very hard to either misrepresent policy or explain that ultimately they had “discretion.” In one case, when the child was located by parents and friends, the SPD explained that they would not “put hands on” the child if that was the only way to take them into custody. SPD officers said they would not put hands on a child because “Seattle police are under a consent decree.” Besides being an absurd claim, their refusal directly contradicted both Washington State law and the policies and procedures of the King Count Sheriff and other neighboring police agencies. Their refusal to help regain custody of a troubled and endangered teen put the teen at risk and made the parents feel helpless and hopeless.

Back in 2014 the Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat wrote a couple of columns revealing the SPDs lackadaisical approach  to property theft, even when Westneat had followed the thieves, with a van load of stolen goods, while remaining in contact with the police. It turned out that these particular thieves were among Washington’s Most Wanted, but, despite Westneat having done the investigation and legwork, the SPD couldn’t be bothered at the time.

Similarly, last year a friend – an elderly woman living alone – had her home broken into in the middle of a weekend day, with her bedroom ransacked and numerous items stolen. The officer who investigated made a show of looking around, asking questions, and taking for fingerprinting a jewelry box the thief had gone through. No fingerprints were taken from the homeowner: without elimination prints it is not clear what value the box would be. This was part of a string of dangerous neighborhood break ins with a highly similar modus operandi, yet the SPD never connected or followed up on them. They also never returned the box or followed-up with the victim.

All the above are fairly routine and mundane, but exemplify what many folks, especially in minority communities, understand about policing: violate police authority and you get a beat down, violate the law and you’ll probably be ignored (as long as you abide by the first rule). Policy is enforced when convenient.

4   Currently, when a Seattle officer faces discipline, if that discipline has been upheld by the Chief, the officer still has two avenues of appeal: a Disciplinary Review Board and the Public Safety Civil Service Commission. Under the currently proposed legislation that would be reduced to a single avenue for appeal: a three member Public Safety Civil Service Commission, with two members appointed by the mayor and one by city council. This is a radical change that will certainly be fought by the police unions and will be subject to union contract negotiations (ongoing) before becoming law. It is also possible that this provision will change between now and when City Council votes on May 22. 

2 thoughts on “Seattle Police Reform Needs More Direct Democracy”

  1. Some police are murderers with opportunities. The other police are people just like normal people doing their duty what happens when their fed a bunch of lies by psychotic cops???