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Seattle P.D. in the media crosshairs again

Post by Brian O'Neill on March 25, 2011 at 10:07 pm |
March 25, 2011 10:08 pm

The Seattle Police Department must have the collective sensation of being a large blue media target.

One would think that the last few months of scathing news coverage would make everyone wearing the SPD badge take a deep breath and hide under water until all the reporters go home: the downtown shooting of a knife-wielding individual and videos of heavy-handed arrests and ill-advised comments. In truth, many of Seattle’s Finest are weary of the constant public lashing the 1,200 person department is taking based on the actions of a handful of individuals.

However, as many public and private entities can attest, when the media puts you in the crosshairs collateral damage is all but guaranteed.

Take the latest story of SPD’s DUI squad for example. Seattle TV and print media have reported that the unit’s sergeant and three officers have been reassigned pending an internal investigation into arrest procedures. This statement alone has created enough buzz that the city prosecutor’s office has placed a large number of DUI arrests in limbo. But the real issue behind this report, the violation of a superfluous policy, is exceedingly small and boring.

The Seattle P.D.’s DUI squad apparently requires the presence of the supervisor, i.e. sergeant, on scene to verify the probable cause for each DUI arrest. This policy can be a tall order for what is undoubtedly a very busy unit in a large metropolitan jurisdiction. But while the task may be daunting, policy is policy. The officers and sergeant should have known that a violation could put them in hot water.

By comparison, individual police agencies choose different methods for screening physical custody arrests. Some do not require their officers to notify their sergeants following a custodial arrest. Some require that a supervisor is notified, either by radio or phone, before someone is taken to jail. Until this report I was unaware that any agency required the physical presence of a supervisor during a custodial arrest. To be honest, this particular policy smacks of micromanagement.

Such differing policies typically reflect the geography and culture inherent to each police agency’s jurisdiction. The sprawling areas of some rural counties, which typically staff only a handful of deputies per shift, would make a supervisory visit to each custodial arrest virtually impossible. In addition, every department’s unique blend of leadership, history and tradition will dictate the degree of personal responsibility bequeathed to an officer.

To sum up this non-story, a small group of DUI cops who decided to ignore a cumbersome and micromanaging policy may face discipline. Hopefully,the Seattle prosecutor’s office will recognize that these issues have absolutely no bearing on any past DUI arrests.

Meanwhile, I’ll bet 1,200 cops in Seattle are waiting for the Seattle news folks to find another target.

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