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Council Proposes New Police Accountability Measures

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The Seattle Police Department (SPD) is facing significant challenges.  In the last few months, police officers have been murdered in Seattle and other nearby cities.  There have been several recent actions by SPD officers that have raised questions about the City’s accountability system, including abusive activities towards suspects and the death of John Williams, a Native American carver who was shot by a police officer. We rely on our police officers to preserve public safety, and the command staff and the police officers on the street are responsible and competent professionals who take risks for us every day as they face challenging environments.  Given the violence that they have observed towards police officers, it is not surprising that members of the force are nervous about the situations they have to deal with and are concerned about the level of public support that they have.  It is important the community and elected officials give clear and consistent messages of support and confidence to the officers who are doing their duty and providing public safety for our community. The confidence can only be maintained if it is clear that those few officers who commit acts that are not consistent with their duties and oath of office will not be tolerated.  Seattle has worked hard to put into place a strong and sophisticated system that ensures that accountability.  While the decision of the County Prosecutor, citing provisions of State law, was not to charge the officer who killed John Williams, the City’s Firearms Review Board determined that he had violated four City policies and recommended that he be fired (the strongest consequence that we have the power to take).  The other apparently abusive actions are working their way through the system, and we hope that they will be dealt with to the extent of our ability to do so. However, while the system is strong, it could be stronger.  The members of the Council’s Public Safety and Education Committee have advanced 11 new accountability measures that they believe will “strengthen public trust and confidence in our police officers which will enhance the effectiveness of the Police Department in accomplishing its mission of preventing crime, reducing the fear of crime and building peace in our city.”  While the Council will advocate for these measures, it will take some time to implement them, as some of them will and others may be subject to negotiations with our employee unions.  Here are the 11 proposed changes:
  1. “To lessen concerns that there is an inherent conflict of interest when a police department investigates its own officer-involved deaths and to establish a consistent approach to such incidents, a county-wide protocol for investigating all officer-involved deaths should be developed…. The protocol would create a special on- call response and investigation unit of skilled investigators from county police agencies (including Seattle homicide detectives) and representatives of the prosecutor’s office…
  2. “To strengthen civilian oversight and build public understanding and trust of the Police Department’s internal Firearms Review Board, we support the recommendations of the civilian observer to the Firearms Review Board to (a) allow all observers, including the involved officer’s union representative, to be present with the Board throughout the review and decision-making process as non-voting observers; (b) allow observers to participate in the Board’s discussion of whether specific policies were followed; (c) grant the observers the opportunity to review the Board’s final report and recommendations prior to its submission to the Chief of Police; and (d) give the observers the opportunity to share their own views about the findings and recommendations of the Board with the Chief of Police simultaneous with submission of the Board’s report…
  3. “In light of the number of officers currently on the force with three or fewer years of experience, the percentage of officers working in single-officer cars and the evolving nature of best practices in policing, the Department should review and enhance its hiring standards and training as recommended by the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) Civilian Auditor. Particular attention should be paid to training that strengthens the role of first-line supervisors; relevant and readily applicable skill-building exercises in the areas of supervision, coaching and mentoring should be provided immediately to all Sergeants. The Department should also prioritize de-escalation training for all patrol officers with special emphasis on misdemeanor and other low-level encounters, a recommendation of the current and all previous OPA auditors…
  4. “To increase transparency and public trust, the Police Department should include in its monthly OPA reports for each sustained misconduct finding: a summary of the misconduct, the nature of the discipline and identification of the public employee who received the discipline. As the OPA Civilian Auditor has recommended, the Department’s monthly summary should also include changes to policy or procedure or supervisory interventions that have resulted from a complaint so that the public can see the actions taken by the Department whether or not discipline was warranted.
  5. “To expedite the resolution of cases where there is a referral for possible criminal filing or prosecutorial review of the case file, the Department should simultaneously refer the case file to both the King County Prosecuting Attorney and the City Attorney for review and recommendations.
  6. “To improve the effectiveness of training sessions, supervisors should be allowed to use In-Car Video for instructional purposes as recommended by the OPA Civilian Auditor. Videos are a very effective tool for exemplifying best practices, teaching new skills and allowing for training at roll calls or online that can be more cost-effective and completed with more immediacy.
  7. “To ensure that officers are not acting under the influence of intoxicants or illegal drugs, including steroids, the Department should require mandatory and timely testing of all officers involved in all use of deadly force incidents, regardless of whether a death has occurred, and all use of force incidents that result in the hospitalization or hospital treatment of any individual…
  8. “To enhance knowledge sharing and skill building and to promote a culture of learning and innovation, the Police Department should adopt a policy of rotation of officers and detectives on a predetermined schedule. Such a rotation will allow patrol officers and detectives to share their skills, understanding of criminal justice issues and community perspectives throughout the Department. In situations where retaining the expertise of an officer or detective is vital to the success of a particular unit, appropriate waivers could be granted for an extended term of assignment. Mandatory rotation programs are considered a best practice among leading police practitioners and are currently in place with the Bellevue Police Department, Port of Seattle Police, Pierce County Sheriff’s Office, San Jose Police Department, Los Angeles Police Department and many others.
  9. “To better maintain accurate historical perspective, the Department should replace the current records retention schedule for complaints of misconduct, sustained or otherwise, and related investigative files. The current practice to retain these records to the end of the year in which the case is closed plus an additional three years should be replaced by a new retention schedule that keeps these records as long as the involved employee remains a City employee, plus an additional seven years.
  10. 10.  “To increase the education level of officers, the Police Department should give preferential consideration to recruit and promote candidates with post-secondary education. Current policy requires only a high school diploma or GED for police candidates. Candidate and promotional score weighting could take several forms. For example, additional Civil Service ranking points could be awarded for attaining associate degrees, four points for bachelor degrees and six points for graduate degrees. A system of fractional points could be awarded for continuing education classes taken and certificates received in areas deemed to be important to the officer’s education and performance, including programs that focus on writing skills, dispute resolution, crisis management, to name a few.
  11. 11.  “To provide support during a difficult transition period, the Police Department should use the special training and orientation programs recommended by the International Association of Chiefs of Police when hiring military veterans with combat exposure. These programs help to successfully transition such recruits from the very different military culture and practice to the culture and practice of an urban police agency.”
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