Feds Reinforce Urgent Need for Change in SPD
Two communications from federal officials over the past week reinforced for me the urgent need for change in the leadership ranks of the Seattle Police Department. I know Mayor Murray shares this view and he has taken bold and decisive steps in recent months to initiate change, but the selection of the next permanent police chief will be the most important of all.
The new chief will set the tone for the entire department and will face enormous challenges and opportunities to change the way SPD operates.
On Monday, Merrick Bobb, the federal monitor overseeing our reform efforts, sent a 10-page memorandum to city officials about a new police data management system that must be implemented before the City can achieve compliance with the federal court-mandated consent decree.
The opening paragraphs of this memorandum are a stunning indictment of current practices and systems:
“The Seattle Police Department (‘SPD’) currently lacks data to access officer performance; manage constitutional violations; identify misconduct; manage the risk of litigation and liability; hold supervisors and managers accountable; and identify and reward those who are best at community based policing, communication, and constitutional, respectful, and effective law enforcement… Furthermore, SPD’s existing database platforms make data retrieval and analysis time-consuming and frequently unreliable.
“As such, the SPD is approximately 20 years behind major law enforcement agencies . . . that have computerized, relational databases for tracking, managing, and analyzing officer performance.” (Emphasis added.)
For such a high-tech city, this is unacceptable. It reflects a major failure of the Police Department’s leadership for many, many years.
The Monitor’s memorandum goes on to describe various uses of a modern management system, including capturing data on officer training (there is no database today that tracks whether officers have completed required training courses), complaints, use of force, stops, searches and arrests.
Observing that SPD does not systematically track litigation filed against the Department or its officers, the memorandum recommends a “litigation module” to analyze whether problematic behavior patterns are observed among particular squads or units of officers. It also recommends an “integrity module” to record instances when a court suppresses evidence because of constitutional violations or finds that an officer’s testimony is not believable. None of these key indicators of policing management or compliance with the law are tracked today.
This isn’t the first time the Department has been alerted to this problem. Similar shortcomings in data-driven management were highlighted in 2012 when the City Auditor published a Council-requested review of the Police Department’s data analysis capabilities.
The other communication came last Thursday from the Justice Department. In many ways, the letter was a “shot across the bow,” a warning that the foot-dragging, misleading information, sloppy and inadequate reform work of the past administration must stop.
The letter opens with frustration: “[W]e were deeply disappointment [sic] with the work product provided to us by SPD on December 31, 2013 in the crucial areas of (a) training on the policies recently completed and (b) ensuring there is proper supervision of officers, including a realistic ‘span of control’ required to make sure the first-line supervisors (typically the Sergeants) have a manageable workload so they may oversee their line officers and comply with the new policies. The relationship between first-line supervisors and line officers is recognized as one of the most critical elements of a well-functioning and accountable Department. The materials produced on that date . . . were not serious attempts to move reform forward. They dug us in a deep hole, from which we have had to climb out over the past two months.” (Emphasis added.)
The letter also raised concerns about financial accounting by the former Mayor’s administration related to reform efforts: “It is unclear whether this was the result of sloppy accounting, or a purposeful attempt to stack costs and attribute them to the reform process. Regardless, the result is to inflate the financial costs of reform which could erode public support and trust for the process.” Ouch.
Mayor Murray responded to the Justice Department yesterday in this letter.
These highlighted deficiencies in leadership and management are similar to matters that have frustrated the Council for years. The widespread and long-lasting mismanagement harms both the people of Seattle that need effective, constitutional policing and the police officers who yearn to provide it.
I feel deeply for the women and men who police our city. These public servants deserve leaders (in management ranks and in their unions) grounded in integrity and driven by innovation; leaders who inspire and challenge the old ways of doing things; leaders who know how to manage a large organization; leaders who understand just how far Seattle could go in reforming its Police Department.
Mayor Murray has identified three primary goals related to policing: (1) appoint a new Chief of Police as quickly as prudently possible, (2) gain full compliance with the federal court consent decree, and (3) make the Seattle Police Department the nation’s model police agency, known for its crime prevention capabilities and its community-based policing partnerships and strategies. These are laudable and achievable goals.
I am honored to represent the Council on the Mayor’s police chief search committee along with Councilmember Bruce Harrell. I am also encouraged to work with a Mayor who is not satisfied with the status quo and who sees what the Police Department can become.
It takes a mighty effort to change the course of an organization the size and complexity of our Police Department, especially after so many years of entrenched, reform-resistant management. But it can be done. The Department’s employees and the people of Seattle are waiting.