Results of Seattle Police watchdog agency’s 2010 excessive force probes: 120 allegations, but no smoking guns found
by Matt Rosenberg August 19th, 2011
According to information obtained by Public Data Ferret from the Seattle Police Department’s Office of Professional Accountability, OPA in 2010 completed 77 investigations into use of force complaints against SPD personnel, including 120 related allegations, and none of the cases or allegations resulted in a finding of “sustained,” meaning supported by a preponderance of evidence. Investigations of some high profile cases in 2010 such as the SPD shooting of the late John T. Williams, and the resulting determination of excessive force, weren’t resolved until 2011, and so are not included in the 2010 findings.
Overall, reported cases involving allegations of unnecessary force, or other force-related complaints such as failure to report use of force, are a tiny fraction of all police activity. SPD officials disclosed that department personnel had a total of 454,564 public contacts in 2010, including almost 200,000 dispatched calls, more than 140,000 “on view” interactions in communities, more than 90,000 traffic stops, and 22,883 arrests.
In response to an information request by Public Data Ferret on excessive force cases and allegations for which investigations were completed in 2010, the findings provided by OPA’s Civilian Director Kathryn Olsen were:
- In 73 of the 120 allegations, police were exonerated (a preponderance of evidence suggests the conduct alleged did occur, but it was determined to be justified, lawful and proper);
- 31 of the 120 allegations were unfounded (evidence suggests the alleged act did not occur as reported, or the report was false);
- seven allegations were administratively exonerated or administratively unfounded (complaint is significantly flawed, i.e. recanted by complainant, wrong employee identified);
- one was administratively inactivated (investigation can’t proceed due to insufficient information or another pending investigation);
- one went to mediation (complainant and officer agree to resolution by credentialed third-party mediator);
- two earned supervisory interventions (there may have been a violation of policy, but it wasn’t willful, and/or didn’t amount to misconduct);
- five were classified as not sustained (allegation of misconduct is neither proved nor disproved by a preponderance of the evidence).
These results dovetail with data on the previous year of 2009, when 105 investigations into excessive use of force by Seattle Police, including 318 specific allegations, were completed, and no allegations were sustained.
A few did prompt supervisory intervention for missteps such as failing to activate in-car video recorders, which are used to provide an objective record of police-citizen interactions into use of force complaints stemming from traffic stops.
Prior to 2009, since the founding of OPA (in 1999), two excessive force complaints against Seattle Police were sustained, both in 2008 (pp. 17-18, OPA 2008 report).
However, complaint investigations completed by SPD supervisors or OPA in 2010, as in prior years included more than those related to use of force, and some were sustained. In a June 2011 report (which did not include any specific breakout on 2010 completed investigations into use of force complaints) OPA noted that investigations into a total of 183 complaint cases, of all types, against Seattle Police were completed in 2010.
There were “sustained” findings in nine percent of total complaint cases, versus 12 percent in 2009 and 13 percent in 2008. Supervisory intervention occurred in another 14 percent of cases, versus 12 percent in 2009 and 19 percent in 2008. Final discipline actions in 2010 complaint cases included suspensions, written reprimands, oral reprimands, and alternative disciplinary measures such as retraining. Frequent types of allegations against Seattle Police involve attitude, use of force, enforcement discretion, searches, service quality, violations of the law, and in-car video usage.
In an e-mail interview OPA Director Olsen said, “it’s rare that SPD officers use force and when they do, it is usually found to be well documented and necessary under the circumstances. However, any use of force should be closely scrutinized and the Department has several systems in place” including “review by the line of command, monitoring through the Early Intervention System, and investigations by OPA when complaints are made.” Olson said she expects a slight increase in the number of sustained findings in Seattle excessive force investigations completed during 2011, due to 2010 cases. (There is often a lag of at least several months between when a complaint is made, and the completion of the investigation.)
K.L. Shannon, Police Accountability Chair of the Seattle King County NAACP, bristled at the OPA data on completed 2010 use of force complaint investigations. “I would find it preposterous that they would put that out there,” she said. “It would be really interesting to go into communities of color and ask if there is a problem” with unwarranted use of force, she added. Some of the complaints the regional NAACP here receives are deeply concerning, Shannon said. Shannon asserted that at the same time, many minorities choose not to pursue such complaints against police because they perceive it will lead nowhere, and that this depresses the total number of force complaints made and sustained. She also stressed that news headlines in the last year – the Williams case and others – clearly indicate a problem, one she called “an epidemic” across Washington state and the nation.
Though force is used infrequently according to Olsen, OPA and SPD are “always looking for new and better ways to study use of force, to ensure it is applied within legal parameters and only when necessary.” She said this effort includes new training to help officers de-escalate situations that might otherwise lead to use of force, and involving Training Unit members in case reviews. Olsen said she is also reviewing SPD’s in-car video system in part to help ensure it’s used to best advantage in evaluating use of force complaints.
RELATED: OPA monthly reports for 2011 published online to date are for January, February, March, and April/May, and include summaries of commendations from citizens and monthly completed complaint investigations. In the 2011 reports published to date there is one “sustained” finding for excessive force, in the April/May report, which clearly refers to the John T. Williams shooting, and several complaints in other categories that were also sustained.
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