Police use of force has been a big topic of conversation in Seattle since the shooting death of Native American woodcarver John T. Williams prompted a Department of Justice investigation. The results of the investigation suggested that SPD officers showed a pattern of violating the Constitution in use of force, in about 20 percent of cases where force was used. That statistic shocked a Seattle University professor, so he’s been conducting his own review.
“If it’s true, that would be an indicator of a very serious problem,” says Matt Hickman, an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Seattle University. “But everything that we know about use of force from the research literature, tells me that number is extraordinarily high.”
Hickman tells KIRO Radio’s Ross and Burbank Show that he and a group of students are trying to duplicate the DOJ’s investigation results.
“We want to try and replicate it and see, is that possible?”
According to his research, Hickman says use of force is very rare, and the Seattle Police Department is not high on the spectrum compared to other departments.
“One thing to keep in mind about this is that in general the use of force is an extremely rare event, and if you want to talk about excessive use of force, that’s even more rare,” says Hickman. “What we know about the rates of use of force in Seattle […] is that it’s about two and half percent of all arrests in the city of Seattle actually involve reportable use of force.”
Hickman says with the rise in release of police dash-cam videos, the public is beginning to think this kind of thing happens all the time, but that’s really not the case.
“The available research literature on arrest based rates of use of force range from about 1 percent up to about 16, depending on how force is measured.”
How use of force is measured can also vary, which makes determining the severity of the problem a difficult task.
“Force means different things to different people,” says Hickman. “For members of the public, if an officer just touches them they might consider that to be excessive force, when in fact that’s a routine interaction. The police departments and the courts have very different definitions of what constitutes force.”
In evaluating use of force cases, Hickman also says the dash-cam video can’t be relied on to show the whole picture. In evaluating a video that drew a lot of press attention this week, showing a suspect apparently spitting on an officer to which the officer responded with a punch, Hickman encourages people to consider what is not shown.
“What events transpired prior to the interaction on the front of the car?” asks Hickman. “No information about that is in the video. We don’t know anything about the status of the suspect. In most use of force incidents, drugs and alcohol are a key factor.”
Hickman is conducting his own research of the Seattle Police Department to see just where his research comes out compared to the DOJ results.
The Seattle Police Department has already reached an agreement with the DOJ to make changes based on the results of the review. But Hickman plans to continue in his own review.