What Changes Do the Feds Want to See At SPD?

The Seattle Police Department is still reeling from last week’s devastating Department of Justice report, which says SPD’s officers frequently use excessive force, and calls the SPD’s accountability system “broken.” The DOJ has given the city until the start of 2012 to respond to findings of the federal probe—which could lead to a series of court mandated changes at SPD.

On Friday, the department’s top brass seemed blindsided by the DOJ’s report. SPD Assistant Chief Clark Kimerer said the department “initially disagree[s] with the report, citing questions about investigators’ methodology, and sources tell PubliCola the department is looking at legal options to prevent the DOJ from locking the department into a major overhaul.

However, some city officials seem to believe SPD should accept the DOJ’s findings and move forward with changes.

“While we can spend an inordinate amount of resources refuting the criticisms and conclusions reached in the report, I do not believe that is a recommended approach,” council member Bruce Harrell said in a statement Friday. Council member Burgess also urged SPD to ”embrace this informed, constructive criticism and work quickly to implement fundamental and sustainable reforms.”

So what exactly do those reforms look like?

Contained in the DOJ’s 66-page report is a long list of proposed changes—or “recommended remedial measures”—for the department, which includes everything from creating more rigid rules on how officers use pepper spray and Tasers, to sending fake complaints to the department’s internal investigators to test SPD’s internal investigators in the Office of Professional Accountability.

First and foremost on the DOJ’s list of demands is a revision of SPD’s use of force policy, which dictates how, when, and how much force an officer can use on someone when they resist or fight with police.

The DOJ wants SPD officers to more thoroughly document the force they use—including everything from handcuffing to physical confrontations, and “active pointing” of firearms—as well as implementing a response team of OPA investigators, training officers, and prosecutors to immediately investigate any serious uses of force, like an officer-involved shooting.

The DOJ also says SPD needs to create stricter guidelines for each of the weapons/tools officers have access to—including pepper spray, flashlights, Tasers, batons, and guns—and better prepare officers to interact with people with mental health or under the influence of drug and alcohol. According to SPD, 70 percent of all use of force incidents involve someone with a mental illness, or under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

In addition to revamping how officers use force, the DOJ has called for an overhaul of the department’s internal investigation unit, the OPA, which would include independent audits of how OPA is handling cases, additional precinct-level reviews of use of force cases, and  filing  “dummy complaints” with the OPA for quality control of the department’s police oversight process.

On paper, many of the DOJ’s “remedial measures”  seem reasonable, and there doesn’t seem to be much SPD would oppose on principle. In fact, the department had already begun making some of the DOJ’s recommended changes weeks before the report’s release.

While SPD Chief John Diaz told PubliCola last week that he didn’t “want people to get the idea we’re resisting working with DOJ,” sources in the department say SPD is concerned about the impact the DOJ’s blistering report—and any legally mandated changes through a consent decree—could have on SPD’s reputation, recruiting, morale, criminal cases, and the practicalities of new use of force guidelines, there’s also the financial costs associated with consent decree.

It’s not yet clear what a consent decree could cost Seattle, but in the eight years the Los Angeles Police Department’s spent under consent decree, the city had to pay an independent auditor $2 million a year, and faced $125 million in lawsuits against the LAPD.

The DOJ has also entered into similar agreements with police departments in a number of other cities, including Detroit, Pittsburgh, and New Orleans.