As U.S. Attorney, I was a driving force behind the historic consent decree that required major reforms in the Seattle Police Department to protect the civil rights of all our citizens. The resulting reforms were the product of active engagement from community groups, President Obama’s Justice Department, civil rights attorneys, policing experts, our elected leaders (from Mayor to city council to city attorney), and police leadership and rank and file officers.
The consent decree required real reforms to be enacted—new use of force policies and training that emphasize de-escalation, a new approach to how officers interact with people in mental crisis, robust supervision and oversight with meaningful community input. These changes were necessary to drastically improve our police department. Working with the state Criminal Justice Training Center we worked to move a model where police are trained to be guardians, not warriors.
Real progress has been made. Our DOJ investigation found that 70% of the time force was used it involved individuals in crisis or under the influence of substances. So the first focus was to fundamentally change training and procedures on dealing with people in crisis. Working together with mental health providers, SPD created whole new training that is required for all officers.
The federal Monitor recently documented that it is working. His report showed that the mid-level and more serious levels of force dropped 60%. New training and tactics for crisis intervention and de-escalation have also had significant positive results. With approximately 9,300 crisis responses reported last year, 149 (1.6%) involved any use of reportable force. And in 99.6% of those cases, officers used only the lowest level of force. Overall, uses of force against people in crisis represented 15% of all incidents in which SPD officers used force, compared to 70% during DOJ investigation.
Because of reforms enacted under the consent decree, for first time SPD’s use of force policy—developed and refined with the community—requires officers to de-escalate a situation if they are able. De-escalation is now part of every use-of-force training that officers receive, and officers are required to show that de-escalation was used if feasible and to carry a less-lethal alternative. These are things the community has been asking for 25 years and we delivered.
These reforms have made the department better without sacrificing effective policing. As use of force has dropped, the Monitor found there has not been an increase in crime or injuries to officers.
But we also know that community trust can be earned or lost with every officer interaction. We must keep pushing and evaluating if policies, training and oversight are working in practice and to make sure the community has a voice in that process.
I am proud to have helped lead the police reform effort in Seattle. But the job is not finished. This is heart-breakingly clear in the aftermath of the tragic death of Charleena Lyles.
A central element of the reforms I worked so hard for is more robust accountability to the residents of our city. No call for help should be answered by death. Why this happened demands a thorough, transparent and credible investigation. We need to know whether this tragedy could have been avoided. We need to know what type of crisis training these officers received and whether de-escalation tactics or less-lethal weapons could have been used. We will get answers to improve the department because of reforms, increased transparency by the Chief and the police department, and oversight by federal Judge Robart (who was the judge that struck down Trump’s Muslim ban).
But we know we still can do better.
As Mayor, I will be vigilant and bring laser-like focus to ensuring that the promise of these reforms are made a reality on the ground in our neighborhoods and on our streets. I am well-positioned to monitor progress on the reforms and will take swift and strong action if the implementation of these reforms does not yield real change in the lives of Seattle residents. This is urgent work and requires strong leadership. Critical self-evaluation by the police department and the City’s leaders needs to happen today and every day, especially when the federal Monitor is gone and the consent decree with DOJ is over.
We will not go backwards on my watch.
— Jenny Durkan