Illustration depicting a silhouette of a man with his head lowered and shattered, portraying mental health crises.

OPINION: A Simple Change Could Save Lives. Our Police Reform System Ignores It.

by Dr. Howard Gale


The Seattle Community Police Commission (CPC) began meeting more than nine years ago in March of 2013. This commission was created following the tragic murder of John T. Williams by the SPD in 2010. As we will see below, the number of SPD killings has actually increased by 38% during the nine years after the CPC started meeting when compared to the nine years prior. The situation is even direr when it comes to the SPD killing of people experiencing a behavioral health crisis. This increase suggests that the CPC’s work has done nothing to curtail the worst consequence of police violence and abuse.

The numbers are sobering: From March 27, 2004, to March 26, 2013, the SPD caused the deaths of 21 people, whereas during the nine-year period after the CPC started meeting that number was 29, a 38% increase from the prior nine years. In every case since March of 2004 — except for the murder of John T. Williams — internal investigations by the SPD and, when carried out, investigations by the supposedly independent Seattle Office of Police Accountability (OPA) have determined that these killings were “Lawful and Proper.” In none of these cases has the Seattle Office of Inspector General (OIG) — designed to oversee and audit the entire accountability system — deemed any of the OPA investigations or conclusions to be flawed. In almost all of these cases the CPC has remained muted or silent, sometimes condemning the SPD for a killing, but never finding fault with the system of investigations and accountability.

The numbers become more sobering when we look at people killed by the SPD while experiencing a behavioral health crisis (who were not possessing a real or replica firearm): During the nine years prior to when the CPC started meeting, SPD actions killed six people (in one case it may have been questionable as to whether an officer could have known there was a behavioral health crisis and in a second case the cause of death was undetermined), whereas during the nine years after the start of the CPC, that number rose to 12 (similar to the pre-2013 group there were two uncertain cases regarding cause of death or ability to discern a behavioral health crisis at the time). That is, during the nine years after the CPC started their work there was a 100% increase in the SPD killing people experiencing a behavioral health crisis (who were not possessing a firearm) when compared to similar SPD killings during the prior nine years. The increase would be 250% if I excluded the questionable cases.

In two recent cases of the SPD killing a person experiencing a behavioral health crisis and not wielding a firearm — Terry J. Caver and Derek J. Hayden — the OPA came to the conclusion that, despite SPD officers failing to abide by policy and training, and with officers acting in ways which escalated instead of de-escalating the situation, it was the actions of the murdered individual experiencing a behavioral crisis that caused their death because the individuals were wielding knives. And again, the CPC has remained muted or silent, having internal discussions and/or releasing perfunctory press releases that no one sees. The CPC completely ignored the murder of Terry J. Caver for three months during the summer of 2020 when the George Floyd protests erupted, only responding after it became a news item.

Over the last few years, some CPC commissioners have publicly stated, without any pushback from other commissioners, that we should look at the thousands of successful interactions between the SPD and people in crisis as a success (jump to 01:12:46 in this video of a Seattle Community Police Commission meeting from May 4, 2022, and notice the false claim that no one experiencing a behavioral health crisis was killed by the SPD in 2019 when, in fact, two were). These statements are made without any analysis as to the actual outcome of those supposedly successful interactions, ignore well-established flaws in the data, and indicate a disturbing perspective that serves to undercut tragedy with large and meaningless denominators. No one minimizes school shooting tragedies by pointing out how many people brought a gun to school without causing a shooting or an airline tragedy by pointing to the millions of flights that didn’t crash. It should be disqualifying for anyone on a community police oversight body to make statements downplaying these avoidable tragedies. People serving on such a body and remaining silent when hearing such attempts to minimize tragedy should rethink their reason for serving on that body.

A list of police killings of people with an edged, a blunt, or no weapon in the UK from 2000 to 2021 reveals eight total incidents (not including incidents involving terrorism, a hostage situation, or where the person killed was actively involved in harming others with a weapon at the time of police intervention). For Seattle, this number is 27 over the same time period (see this list and this list). Adjusting for population, the UK would have to have had 2,448 such killings by police to match Seattle’s rate.

Discussing how police in the UK deal with knife crime, Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) director Chuck Wexler in 2017 noted that “A knife in Glasgow is the same as a knife in downtown Washington DC, so why are they able to do it without shooting?” Since 2014, PERF has been working with U.S. police departments to train them in the methods used by UK police when confronting people with edged or blunt weapons. Police in the UK combine multiple tactics to de-escalate and gain time and distance using multiple officers, distraction, natural shielding, collapsible shields, batons, pepper spray, and Tasers. All these products and tactics have been available for decades. Here is a curated list of articles discussing how knife crime is dealt with in the UK.

The UK pattern and practice is similar in other countries where the majority of police do not carry firearms (Iceland, Ireland, New Zealand, and Norway). Although police in Japan do carry guns, they very rarely use them, even when confronted by people wielding edged weapons: In 2018 Japanese police killed two people. Japanese police use sticks, martial arts, and huge futons to contain people acting violently.

None of the above is new information for people working within Seattle’s police accountability system. Since Charleena Lyles’ murder by SPD in June of 2017 I have noted at CPC meetings, during private conversations with CPC commissioners and staff, in various public forums, and in public comment at Seattle City Council meetings, that police in the UK almost never kill people who are armed with knives. The response from the CPC and City Council has been silence. Never has the CPC, or any other police accountability body, ever publicly cited or discussed these facts.

Discussing more less-lethal weapons for police — such as the questionable BolaWrap that the SPD and the CPC have become enamored with (see this video at 47:48) — is an unnecessary distraction because, as discussed above, the UK has successfully dealt with this problem for decades without new or complex technology. The SPD has had access to Tasers, bean bags, pepper balls, pepper spray, batons, “blue nose” projectiles, etc. for well over 20 years. In 1997 the SPD famously subdued a man experiencing a behavioral crisis and wielding a samurai sword with a ladder. Police in the UK, Japan, and occasionally even in Seattle, have demonstrated the ability to safely gain control of people wielding edged weapons with simple existing technology.

Seattle needs to have public safety alternatives to police confronting people experiencing a behavioral health crisis, such as the much cited and lauded CAHOOTS model in Eugene, Oregon. However, removing police from situations where people are wielding a weapon will prove problematic. The CAHOOTS model forbids its teams from responding when there is “any indication of violence or weapons” (see link above). It is difficult to imagine non-armed individuals who would work for the city and be willing to face off against folks who are armed. In attempting to section off and limit the kinds of interactions we want police to deal with there may be an unintended consequence: We may inadvertently fuel the belief that police can only respond to situations requiring a gun, with the implied expectation that it will be necessary to use it. By limiting the circumstances under which we call out police, we could actually increase the proportion of police calls resulting in shots fired and people killed.

The fact that police in the UK, Japan, and many other countries can confront people with non-firearm weapons and not kill them indicates that the answer is not removing police from those situations, but rather changing the policies, training, and culture of policing in the U.S. In the U.S. police are told repeatedly that the most important thing is that they go home safe at the end of the day versus (as quoted in the PERF document linked above) “In Scotland, the culture is that the police officer’s safety is in fact very important, but it’s no more important than the safety of everybody else.” It has been a mistake to believe that police policy and training can change how police interact in the real world without truly independent and civilian-based police accountability. I have noted above that every single police killing in Seattle over many decades, save one, has been deemed “Lawful and Proper” by our existing accountability systems. Even in the most egregious circumstances, where our accountability system has recognized serious failures of training and failure to act in accordance with policy, SPD officers were still deemed to have acted properly when using deadly force. Without real independent accountability, police have no incentive to follow any new policy or training. Without real independent accountability, the current culture of policing simply cannot change.


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Dr. Howard J. Gale is a founder of SeattleSTOP.org, a Seattle group working towards full civilian control of policing policy, police discipline, and investigations of police misconduct. He is a research psychologist and Seattle-based activist. Find him on Twitter @bessarabia1 and read more analysis at his blog.

📸 Featured Image: Photo by solarseven/Shutterstock.com

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