Seattle Police Chief Touts Department’s 2019 Successes, Says Issue Of Officer Accountability ‘Will Be Brought To The Table’

Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best hopes to address issues of officer accountability in upcoming negotiations with the Seattle Police Officers Guild but said Tuesday she did not have a “definitive answer” on what those changes might look like or how they will be accomplished.

Best, at a news conference Tuesday intended to highlight the department’s successes in 2019, said there will be “more discussion on how to move forward” when it comes to holding officers accountable when they abuse their authority.

“All of these issues will be brought to the table at some point,” Best said, as the department prepares to negotiate a new contract with the powerful police officer’s guild. Negotiations between the city and the police union are set to begin again this year, as early as March.

“I’d love to give you a definitive answer if I had one,” the chief said.

The chief at Tuesday’s news conference touted lower crime statistics and advances the department has made in hiring and retaining new officers. Twice she mentioned that the department last January achieved full compliance with the consent decree negotiated in 2012 with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), but she did not bring up that the judge overseeing the settlement agreement in May found the department had fallen out of compliance in matters specifically related to police accountability.

“Not everything went as we wanted,” Best said. “But we really are striving to make sure that we are continuously improving and innovating.”

Seattle police and the city have not yet given the court a definitive plan that has satisfied the judge’s concerns, which were raised after the department was forced by an arbitrator to reinstate an officer fired after he was caught on video punching and breaking the cheekbone of an intoxicated and handcuffed woman.

The consent decree was negotiated after a 2011 DOJ investigation that found the department’s officers routinely used excessive force. 

Best also said the department was prepared to conform to a new state law that requires officer-involved shootings to be investigated by an outside agency. The new law, brought on by the passage of a citizen’s initiative, I-940, has proved a frustration for the Seattle Police Department, which has developed its own Force Investigation Team (FIT) that has been touted as a model for departments nationwide. Now, it appears SPD won’t be able to deploy the FIT model — developed as part of the consent decree — to investigate its own officers, but rather it will have to rely on an outside agency.

“That’s the law, and we will follow the law,” the chief said.

Best said 2019 ended with major crime in the city showing a 5% decrease overall, with drops in the numbers of homicides, robberies, aggravated assaults, burglaries and thefts. Both rapes and reports of shots fired showed increases.

Also in keeping with the court-ordered training requirements contained in the consent decree, Best said 65 percent of patrol officers have now received a 40-hour course in crisis-intervention training. The DOJ in 2011 found that excessive force was routinely used against people who were in crisis or intoxicated, and that officers frequently escalated the amount of force used. As of the end of the year, Best said, force of any kind was used in less than .15% of all dispatches. Last year, SPD officers used so-called “Type III” force — capable of causing serious injury or death — just 20 times, the chief said.

The DOJ also had criticized Seattle police for stopping and detaining suspects without legal justification. Best said an independent review of these interactions over the past year has found that 98 percent of the stops reviewed would pass constitutional muster.

The department, which has struggled with retaining officers and has been understaffed, hired 104 new officers last year, amounting to a net gain of 16 new officers on the street.

Looking forward, Best said 2020 will witness the deployment of a cadre of civilian Community Service Officers to help bridge the gap between law enforcement and social services on the streets, and the implementation of an officer-wellness program to address the stresses of police work and help prevent officer suicides.