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Monday, June 16, 2008

Seattle Police Brutality Statistics

NOTE: For the latest police misconduct statistics, refer to the April 2009 National Police Misconduct Report or for realtime information on police misconduct refer to the National Police Misconduct News Feed on Twitter.

During the contentious contract negotiations between the city of Seattle and the Seattle Police Officer's Guild, representatives of the guild repeatedly asserted that the Seattle Police Department was one of the cleanest in the US, insisting that the complaints against officers were very low for a city of it's size as justification for why they deserved an unprecedented pay raise without having to accept police accountability improvements that had been suggested by the Police Accountability Review Panel.

Reviewing the reports from the Office of Professional Accountability and compiling the numbers paints a different picture of the Seattle Police Department, however. The numbers add up and appear to indicate that while Seattle's police department may not be the worst in the US, it's definitely not the cleanest... and it may be getting much worse.

A recent University of Chicago Law School study determined that the national average for complaints of excessive force against officers within mid-sized to large police departments was around 9.5 complaints per every 100 law enforcement officers according to the latest statistics available from the US Department of Justice and US Department of Labor.

The Seattle Police Department currently numbers around 1,200 sworn officers, so if they were to be better than average they would need to have less than 114 complaints of excessive force per year.

SPD OPA statistics for years 2005-2007:

2005 Use Of Force Complaints: 110 (09.1 per 100)

2006 Use Of Force Complaints: 112 (09.3 per 100)

2007 Use Of Force Complaints: 124 (10.3 per 100)

While statistically hovering around the average for 2005 and 2006, the brutality complaints against the SPD in 2007 clearly jumped higher than the national average. (additionally, this may be under-reported since civil rights lawyers in Seattle had started to advise clients against filing official complaints in use of force incidents because it was becoming clear the accountability system was flawed and biased).

The national average also maintains that departments generally sustain complaints of abuse and issue discipline in 8% of complaints made.

Percentage of abuse complaints sustained:

2005- 7.29%

2006- 6.53%

2007- 3.48%

Sustained complaints were halved in 2007, and even then those sustained complaints only resulted in one known actual disciplinary action; an early retirement with full pension that is currently being fought by the Seattle Police Officer's Guild. While one might first think this is a sign of a clean department, think again. It actually points to an apparent unwillingness of the police department to hold it's officers accountable for misconduct. (see more recent research into OPA records that discovered a shift from investigating complaints to discretionary findings here to see why sustained findings have dropped for use of force as well as all other complaints)

Because of the suddenness of the dramatic drop in sustained rates, the jump in number of complaints over the same time period, and the number of administrative exoneration that countermanded recommendations of disciplinary action by internal investigations means that the small number of sustained use of force complaints appears not to indicate that the department is "squeaky clean" but that the oversight and accountability mechanisms have failed. Recent news articles depicting problems with internal investigations and administrative exoneration appear to back this up as well on a per-case basis.

Those same stories of problematic accountability and investigatory mechanisms that were bypassed in the Seattle Police Department spurred the creation of two different panels (the SCCPAP and OPAPARP) that were tasked to review the civilian oversight program that was supposed to monitor police discipline and make recommendations to fix it. However, the resultant recommendations from both panels were fought by the police union and several were overturned or just dropped by the city. So it appears as though the numbers will only get worse, or they will just go unreported in the foreseeable future.

This dire prediction of the accountability program failing seems especially likely now since ex-police officer councilmember Tim Burgess has been dismantling the previous experienced civilian review boards and restaffing them with inexperienced candidates in order to make them less willing to go public with problematic findings like the previous members did when they identified problems and since the only real accountability proponent on the city council, Nick Licata, has been rumored to be considering retirement after his latest term on the council.

The numbers and recent developments make it clear that the problem with misconduct in the Seattle Police Department is getting worse, and is likely to continue getting worse into the foreseeable future. Stay safe out there, because it's becoming clear that the system in place now is only designed to protect the city from lawsuits and bad cops from discipline, it is no longer designed to help protect citizens from bad cops.

Comparisons that were available for other cities don't stack up well for Seattle:

Seattle: Pop Est 582,454: PD Size 1,200
2007 Use Of Force Complaints: 124 (10.3 per 100)

San Jose: Pop Est 929,936: PD Size 1,400
2007 Use Of Force Complaints: 117 (8.4 per 100)

Washington DC: Pop Est 581,530: PD Size 3,800
2007 Use Of Force Complaints: 101 (2.7 per 100)

San Fransisco: Pop Est 744,041: PD Size 2,100
2007 Use Of Force Complaints: 186 (8.9 per 100)

UPDATED: 09/06/08- referenced newer sets of statistics.

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