Seattle council digs in to OPA report on complaints against SPD from 2020 protests

May 25, 2021, 12:08 PM | Updated: 5:34 pm

Seattle police, complaints SPD...

Seattle police downtown during protests in May of 2020. (KIRO Radio, Hanna Scott)

(KIRO Radio, Hanna Scott)

In 2019, an annual report from the Office of Police Accountability showed Seattle police receiving the fewest number of complaints the department had seen in five years. That year, there were 928 total complaints both from within the department and outside interactions with the public, compared to 1,924 complaints in 2015, a significant decline and ongoing trend over the five-year period.

OPA received over 19,000 complaints against SPD from protests in 2020

Then, on May 25, 2020, George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police officers on camera, in video that sparked the largest uprising for social justice since the civil rights movement. Much of that landed in Seattle, where despite making significant gains over the prior decade on police accountability, SPD was back under the microscope as it faced a level of unrest not seen in this city since 1999’s WTO riots.

SPD’s response to the thousands of mostly peaceful protesters led to thousands of complaints against the department, detailed by OPA Director Andrew Myerberg on Tuesday, who presented the annual report for 2020.

“We saw a huge increase in contacts. When someone writes an email and makes a complaint, we call that a contact and, generally, we receive between 1,300 and 1,500 contacts a year, and this year we got 19,000 contacts,” Myerberg said in an interview ahead of the presentation to the Seattle City Council’s Public Safety Committee, noting how that number only accounted for contacts related to protests.

Ahead of Myerberg’s presentation, he faced criticism from public commenters who questioned his fairness, as well as from some councilmembers who feel they have not had sufficient responses from him.

Councilmember Kshama Sawant pointed to his unstained finding in one of the most controversial and visible incidents to lead to a complaint, when a small child was hit with pepper spray during a May 30, 2020, protest that saw the downtown core smashed up and several SPD vehicles torched.

But before he dug into that, Myerberg and his staff detailed the numbers, noting how those 19,000 complaints were largely the result of many people filing duplicate complaints about the same incident, as was the case with the child who was pepper-sprayed, which went viral and drew 13,000 complaints.

Report rules SPD officer didn’t intentionally pepper-spray child

Microsoft assisted OPA in digging through the data to consolidate duplicate complaints, resulting in a total of 145 protest related cases that OPA opened investigations into so far, and 18 sustained findings contained in roughly 100 completed investigations.

Forty-percent of sworn officers received a complaint last year, along with 30% of total SPD employees — meaning both civilian and sworn — receiving at least one complaint, which OPA notes is fairly standard. While most employees received only one complaint, there were five officers who received seven or more complaints in 2020. OPA also noted that between 20% and 30% of the 200 officers to leave the department had pending complaints against them.

The most common allegations received were related to professionalism, use of force, and bias-free policing. OPA staff noted those are the same top three that the annual reports have shown in recent years as well. However, they said use of force moved up the list significantly this year, logging a 58% increase in total allegations received involving use of force.

Many of the complaints in 2020 were also related to supervisory responsibility during protests, which saw a big increase from just 21 complaints in 2019 to 78 last year.

There was a 20% increase in complaints resulting in investigations being opened year-over-year. Additionally, 36% of complaints resulted in case investigations being opened in 2019, compared to 56% of complaints which prompted investigations in 2020.

The full report can be found here.

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