Public Safety Committee Recommendations: A Welcome First Step

Monday, March 7, 2011

The string of highly publicized incidents involving Seattle Police officers has resulted in community anger and mistrust as well as frustration on the part of the many excellent police officers who serve our city every day.  But the attention also gives City leaders a unique opportunity to make significant improvements in the policies and practices of the Department to ensure that all officers are able to maintain the public peace. 

The ACLU appreciates the City Council’s Public Safety Committee members’ leadership in directing the discussion to positive changes in the Seattle Police Department. In particular, the recommendations to strengthen the accountability of officer-involved deaths investigations, improve the training of officers and first-line supervisors, and increase the transparency of the disciplinary system will help to regain the trust of the people of Seattle. 

Investigations of Officer-Involved Deaths

Creating a county-wide protocol for investigating all officer-involved deaths is a necessary step to ensure a full, fair, and impartial investigation and to avoid the appearance of bias.  Many departments in this state currently require outside agencies to lead these kinds of investigations.  No matter how skilled an investigator may be, the public will always question the results of an investigation conducted by a Department of its own officers.  Just as it is a business-wise practice to engage outside auditors to assure stockholders that a company is following the best accounting practices, Seattle Police Department should allow outside investigators to conduct the investigation of all officer-involved deaths to assure the community that the results are not biased toward the officer.

 Improved Training

We agree that the SPD should take immediate steps to strengthen the training for all officers and in particular first-line supervisors.  These supervisors are the first contact that an officer has with the SPD chain of command.  They are responsible for ensuring that the officers comply with the Department’s policies and procedures, and they should be the first to know if an officer is struggling in carrying out his duties to the public.   These supervisors need specialized training to ensure that they have the skills needed for this difficult work and to be able to carefully mentor the next generation of supervisors. 

Additionally, we support the use of in-car video images for training purposes even if the events captured by the videos do not result in disciplinary actions.  The videos can offer valuable lessons to officers on how to conduct themselves in difficult real-life situations. 

Increase the Transparency of Discipline

The public has an interest in knowing what kinds of complaints have been made against officers and whether the officers have been disciplined.  Regularly disclosing the information about these complaints will increase the public trust in the SPD and demonstrate that the Department expects all of its officers to follow the rules.  Additionally, keeping the disciplinary records for longer periods will provide the Department, oversight staff, and the general public with valuable historical perspective on trends in discipline.

A well-disciplined and accountable police department requires three essential qualities: strong leadership that holds all employees to the highest standards of professional conduct and seeks to maintain a respectful environment within the department and throughout the city;  independent, professional oversight to ensure that officers who violate the rules are held accountable and that the department’s policies are carefully crafted to protect the public and maintain the peace; and finally, high-quality and responsive training that prepares peace officers to protect our safety while enforcing the laws. 

The Committee’s recommendations are a good start toward achieving these essential qualities.  The Department of Justice, should it decide to begin a full investigation, should adopt these recommendations as a starting point as it considers additional changes and improvements to the Seattle Police Department.

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