Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Chief Kathleen O’Toole’s department has shown progress over the years. But is it a model for policing nationally?
One of the fortunate invited guests sitting with First Lady Michelle Obama during the President’s State of the Union address Tuesday night will be Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole. After a year of police chiefs in other cities getting sacked for failure after failure to mitigate police violence, the White House hopes to highlight O’Toole as one chief who’s trying to get policing right. With just a year and a half at the Seattle police department’s helm, however, has O’Toole really demonstrated that much progress?
One set of metrics to use in answering that question are the assessments of the federal police monitor, who has been examining police activities in Seattle as part of a 2012 consent decree. The Department of Justice found in 2011 that the Seattle police department had been engaging in a pattern of racial bias and excessive force, a finding that triggered the court-mandated police reforms that O’Toole is helping implement.
The federal monitoring team commissioned a survey that it released last September on how the police department has been improving from a community standpoint. The department received high marks overall in police performance, and growing confidence from Seattle residents since 2013. But it also revealed a number of unresolved problems in the department’s relationship with Latinos and African Americans. One of the survey’s key findings:
Latinos’ and African Americans’ experiences still back up the public’s perception that SPD treats them worse than others. African Americans’ and Latinos’ experiences have gotten better in the last two years, but they are still not the same as whites or Asian Americans. They are more likely than whites to disapprove of how police treat them, they are more likely than whites to say police used force in an interaction, and they are less likely than whites to say police engaged in a wide range of positive behaviors such as treated them respectfully and listened to them. And they are more likely than whites to report being stopped in the first place by SPD. Most Seattleites also think that SPD treats Latinos and African Americans worse than others in the city.
Much of black Seattle’s negative perceptions may have to do with the fact that they have to interact with police more often than people of other races, and more often than they’d probably like to. The report notes that African Americans are “far more likely” to get stopped in their cars (28 percent) than whites (13 percent), Asian Americans (19 percent), or Latinos (18 percent). Those figures are probably under-counts, reads the report, given that Census stats show African Americans spend less time in their cars than the average Seattle resident.
Yet, even as pedestrians, African Americans get stopped by police more often than their peers of other races. Not only that, but their experiences when stopped are different, with 55 percent of black and Latino Seattle residents giving favorable grades to police in these circumstances versus 75 percent of whites.
How the department has advanced in terms of using excessive force and violence against residents is another story. One could say that O’Toole is winning in this category: Seattle seems to be one of the very few cities that has not had a high-profile police shooting or killing making national headlines since she took charge.
Given that excessive police violence was the impetus for the new reforms, that area has been prioritized in the department. It now has a Force Review Board in place to review cases where police have reportedly stepped out of line. This was a necessary measure, as the Justice Department found that Seattle’s police department had “ineffective systems of complaint investigation and adjudication.”
A report issued in November 2015 by the federal police monitor produced evidence that these systems are still somewhat ineffective. For instance, the Force Review Board concluded that officers may have violated department policy in 56 percent of cases brought before it in 2015. Compare that to the period between 2009 and 2011, when only .04 percent of cases “received any significant chain of command scrutiny whatsoever.”
According to the monitor, most of the credit for that improvement is owed to the Force Review Board alone. While the board found possible police misconduct in 56 percent of complaints, those same cases were first reviewed by the department’s regular chain of command, who found possible misconduct in only 2 percent of the cases. Which means police supervisors are still merely passing complaints along, the kind of activity that protects the jobs of bad-apple cops. Reads the report:
[T]he fact that the Board identified possible violations of the use of force policy in significantly more cases than the chain of command is concerning to the Monitor. To reach full and effective compliance, the Department will need to hold the chain accountable for reconciling this disparity. The Board cannot be, and is not designed to be, the sole entity within the organization to identify potential misconduct.
Getting out of the police-policy weeds and into the streets, another vital metric to judge O’Toole’s tenure by is how well her department has handled Black Lives Matter demonstrations, which launched not long after she arrived in Seattle in July 2014. There are mixed reviews on that front. The Stranger reports that when protestors tried to disrupt a Black Friday Christmas-tree lighting ceremony in 2014, that ”police tried to stop them ... by closing off intersections and using pepper spray and blast balls that emitted tear gas.”
Things got hairy during last year’s Black Lives Matter Black Friday protest, as well. Seattle police reportedly deployed similar blast balls on crowds of protestors in May of last year, which drew a somewhat tepid rebuke from the city’s Office of Professional Accountability. When O’Toole called an invite-only meeting last week to discuss police crowd-control methods with specially selected guests, some of the attendees walked away dissatisfied. A Seattle blogger who attended quoted a Black Lives Matter activist also in attendance as saying after the meeting, “O’Toole is just checking the box … ‘cause that’s how it felt.”
Despite these drawbacks, O’Toole is still well-liked throughout most of the city. The community survey on Seattle police performance shows every race giving majority-favorable ratings to the police chief—59 percent for African Americans, which is not far behind the 63 percent rating from white Seattleites. She does not publicly demonize Black Lives Matter activists as many other chiefs have been quick to do, and she’s demonstrated a strong spine when facing police unions.
This may have earned her a seat next to the First Lady, but some in Seattle hope that the spotlight doesn’t send the message that the city has an ideal police force. What worries many community activists, writes Crosscut reporter David Kroman, is a “concern over what they see as a premature celebration of what the department has accomplished.”
Three years ago, Seattle entered a consent decree with the Justice Department to remedy a pattern or practice of excessive force in policing. Thanks to the consent decree and the commitment to change it represented, the Seattle Police Department has adopted policies and instituted trainings to address bias, curtail the use of force and implement new mechanisms of accountability. Those reforms have not only led to positive results in Seattle, but have become a model for similarly situated departments throughout the country.
That sounds like a lot of praise for a department that is still under federal scrutiny, and which is still producing a bit of opprobrium. At best, O’Toole’s selection for the SOTU address tonight can be seen as a signal from the White House on the direction it would like to see more police departments moving toward. Which means the selection is a more of a reflection of the Obama administration’s own recommendations and hopes for “21st century policing.”
However, the actual realities of modern policing best represent the real state of the union. In that respect, someone who’s been on the receiving end of police abuse or violence deserves a seat in the First Lady’s section as well.