Blue Byline

A cop's perspective of the news and South Sound matters

Answering the SPD question

Post by Brian O'Neill on Jan. 3, 2012 at 8:51 pm with 10 Comments »
January 4, 2012 10:42 am

Over the last few weeks several people have asked me pointed questions about what they perceive as a disturbing phenomenon in Seattle. The issue they were pondering was what, exactly, is going on with the Seattle Police Department.

Seattle police officers push protesters back/ AP Photo

In the last year or more SPD has been the target of an ongoing series of allegations involving excessive force and unprofessional behavior by rank and file officers. These incidents, most of which have been captured by cell phone video cameras, have drawn the attention of department critics, the media, and more recently, federal investigators at the Department of Justice.

These factors piqued the curiousity of friends who would not normally question the actions of law enforcement. Needless to say, it got my attention.

To give the matter some perspective, complaints involving excessive force by officers are routine at any police department. Let’s face it, when your job is to put your hands on people, take them someplace they don’t want to go and then lock them up, you’re bound to have a few dissatisfied customers. The reality is, however, that most such complaints are deemed to be unfounded.

A recent Trib report on the SPD controversy outlined the Department of Justice’s probe into the matter. The feds are not only concerned with what they frame as an ongoing pattern of excessive behavior, but (and possibly more alarming) they are also concerned that SPD’s supervisors, commanders and administrators are doing a poor job investigating excessive force complaints.

Which leads back to the question: what’s going on at SPD? The answer, as in many issues involving numerous individuals and large entities, is far from simple.

On one hand, there is a strong smell of politics in this situation. Seattle’s reputation as a “left of center” municipality makes it less willing to accept overt police authority. Recent examples include: Seattle’s quick and early support for the Occupy Wall Street protesters; the city’s history of tolerating tent cities within its jurisdiction; its stance in support of marijuana legalization. These observations are not mentioned as an indictment of city politics but instead are a reflection of its political and cultural mindset.

The assumption I am suggesting is that this more liberal mindset carries a lower tolerance threshold for the use of force by police,, justified or not.

The federal government’s motives must also be considered. In just the last three years, Homeland Security officials with whom I’ve worked have twice changed their policy on deporting illegal aliens who also were active members of criminal street gangs. The explanation for these policy reversals was simple: politics. It would not, therefore, be a stretch to suggest that the current probe reflects some political bias.

One last mitigating factor is the increasing level of violence police officers face on the street. Recent DOJ statistics show a 14% increase in fatal assaults against police officers, a statistic which leaves out a much larger number of non-fatal assaults. Whether this factor has played a role in the perceived increase in SPD’s use of force is unknown, but there is no doubt that the streets are getting more dangerous for cops.

All of which is mere background to the numerous videos that have popped up on local media. Some of these purported excessive force incidents strike me as either questionable or downright false. Much as it pains me to admit, however, there is simply no denying that several of these videos expose police officers behaving like bullies.

Difficult to accept as it may be, the fact remains that the litany of video and audio recordings of Seattle cops behaving unprofessionally has struck a civic nerve. TV and print journalists, opinion writers (including yours truly) and now officials from the Department of Justice have turned up the heat on this issue. This opportunity was too delicious to pass up  for people who have little love for the police in the best of times. If you listen to any news reports on this topic, you’ll hear their collective response,”Fire the chief!”

Is it time to take that step? That subjective question would better be phrased thus: If the citizens of Seattle truly believe they can no longer depend on their police officers to behave with professional restraint, then perhaps it is time for a change in leadership.

Nevertheless, I wish that I had more information to refute critics of the Seattle Police Department. I wish I could believe that city politics was not a factor in the rhetoric. I wish I could believe that the mission of the federal probe wasn’t”Whose a– do we pin this one on?”

Mostly, I just wish that, in the future, when people video cops in Seattle there will be no reason to see the results on the evening news.

Leave a comment Comments → 10
  1. BlaineCGarver says:

    “This opportunity was too delicious to pass up for people who have little love for the police in the best of times”

    I’m on your side, but don’t whine when people are caught red-handed on videos.

  2. Juneaunative says:

    Brian, the problem with giving an honest answer in your blog is that people will attack you if it deviates even slightly from their perceived point of view. There is no dialog on the internet, just attack. Somehow in the end it all comes down to being either Bush’s or O’Bamas fault :) (Thats sarcasm for the dull witted)

  3. Brian O'Neill says:

    Thanks for the comment, Juneau. I had noticed that particular phenomenon.

  4. Or maybe Seattle PD really has a problem as evidenced by the videotaped footage. Sorry you don’t have any facts to support your position that it must be political. Maybe it’s just a few bad cops that need to be fired versus protected by their guild. Remember that moron that waved his gin around wasted outside the nightclub accusing the girls of stealing his jacket? Lol they initially charged the good Samaritans that got involved. Breathalyzer, arrest for being intoxicated on duty(once he pulled his badge and gun he became on duty). Nope just anther coverup from the spd and their police guild. Glad you at least made one accurate statement…that hopefully there won’t be a videotaped negative reason for them to be on camera next time. It’s time to clean up the ranks and get rid of all the poliical(union) protections of those not worthy of carrying the heavy responsibility of protecting the public with integrity.

  5. Cops are workaholics?
    Tired, irritable and grumpy?

  6. I have lots of liberal friends as well as conservative ones. I think that it is overgeneralization (at best) to say that the “liberal mindset carries a lower tolerance threshold for the use of force by police.”

    What I find is that the justified use of necessary force is supported by all law-abiding citizens and all are concerned about unjustified or excessive force, especially organization-wide tolerance for such.

    Remember that conservatives still rave about Waco as an unjustified and excessive use of force.

    I’ve lived in very conservative places and very liberal places and I don’t find the difference you are trying to make between liberals and conservatives on this issue.

    I do think there is a difference in trust level of internal-only investigations. There is generally more trust in police oversight conducted internally by conservatives. My liberal friends support more community involvement and oversight of police actions.

  7. Brian O'Neill says:

    Fair point, Tuddo, but I still disagree. My anecdotal observations, both on the job and in casual conversation, suggests that the more liberal a person’s politics, the lower their threshold is for identifying force as excessive. The legal definition of necessary force does not come complete with a million examples; it’s simply one long sentence. That makes it open to interpretation by people with broadly different mindsets.

    But such is life in a free country.

  8. cocaman says:

    I lean to the left of center, and would place myself from moderate to liberal. I do, however, believe in law and order and tend to take the side of the police in most matters. But I do find what I see happening in Seattle very disturbing. My belief is that there are a minority of officers who overstep their bounds. I think their supervisors tend to try to cover it up. I see videos of people getting stomped on when there are four or five officers standing there. That seems to be excessive force. I do think city leaders should look at a possible change at the top. I am happy to live in Tacoma where there on not these kinds of problems constantly making the news.

  9. Brian O'Neill says:

    Yet one more reason to appreciate T-town, I guess. Thanks for the comment.

  10. LOL, now as of today the SPD union is filing an unfair labor practice complaint over random dash cam footage review!!!! What an idiotic department and union/guild. This was a suggestion from the DOJ, and from minority leaders in the city of Seattle. Seems like SPD sure doesn’t want their officers actions reviewed or scrutinized.

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