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.
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.