SPD Monitor Declares Reforms “Well Underway,” Calls for Body Cams Now

Right on the heels of the Community Police Commission deciding that its Will to Be knows no mayoral boundaries, the Seattle police monitor released his 5th semi-annual report on the status of police reform in the Emerald City. The report praises the city police department’s progress toward reform goals, and—spoiler—recommends body cameras on all officers as soon as possible.

The news, writes federal monitor Merrick J. Bobb, is generally good: “Although significant work on implementing and refining Consent Decree reforms remains, SPD has moved closer in the last six months to where it needs to be. There is still significant work ahead, but the SPD is positioned to be a leader in the national reform effort. While many departments are struggling with where to start, SPD is well underway.”

Bobb is clearly impressed with Chief O’Toole, Murray’s hire. “Over the last six months,” he writes, “Chief Kathleen O’Toole has continued to lead the SPD’s efforts to become that department—and, in doing so, has validated the Mayor’s choice of her as the right person to reform the Department, encourage police proactivity, and fight crime intelligently and efficiently.”

At the same time, Bobb notes that departmental reforms are far from complete. For instance, the report says that some police officers have described the ongoing reforms as “temporary and sure to change once the Consent Decree is done.” (Let’s hope not.) Bobb also describes the Department’s Force Review Board as sometimes “mired ... in convoluted policy and factual interpretations in order to conclude that force was ‘in policy’ or generally ‘reasonable’”—that is, treating reasonableness as the only criterion for use of force (like Walker: Texas Ranger), rather than one among others (like Hill Street Blues).

The report emphasizes improvements in training (the term “de-escalation” occurs 18 times in the main text of the report) and data collection. For example, Seattle cops are now obliged to document “contacts with those in behavioral crisis.” On the other hand, the Early Intervention System (an employee performance monitoring system) has been “a source of substantial cultural anxiety” within the Department, Bobb writes.

Bobb also praises SPD’s co-option of programmer Tim Clemans, whose massive public disclosure requests appeared to threaten the department’s fledgling body camera program. After Chief Operating Officer Mike Wagers talked Clemans into working with the department, the programmer helped create a “hackathon” that lead lead to “automated video blurring technology that allows SPD to post videos from the body cameras in its 12-camera pilot project on YouTube while protecting the privacy and the identities of private citizens,” writes Bobb.

Consequently, Bobb recommends department-wide body cameras ASAP:

More than four years of discussion, public engagement, and collaboration on body cameras in Seattle has now resulted in a sound policy governing body camera use and a widely-praised method for promoting privacy, transparency, accountability, and administrative efficiency. Accordingly, the Monitor strongly believes that body cameras should be rolled out to all SPD officers on a permanent basis as rapidly as possible.13 If adjustments to policy, training, or internal processes are necessary in the area, they should be based on lessons learned from the field going forward.


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