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Seattle police praised for making significant improvement in reducing use of force

After years of criticism and operating under the microscope of the Department of Justice, the Seattle Police Department is getting high marks for a significant turnaround in its use of force.

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The federal monitor assigned to oversee SPD has given the department glowing reviews in a new report issued this week — the same week attorney general Jeff Sessions said the DOJ should back away from engaging in consent decrees with local departments because they could hamstring cops.

“In the vast majority of instances, officer force appeared necessary, proportional, and objectively reasonable under the circumstances – with a number of incidents featuring superior examples of officers strategically de-escalating situations in order to minimize the nature of the threat while potentially mitigating the severity of force that needed to be used,” wrote Federal Monitor Merrick Bobb in a formal assessment filed Thursday with the U.S. District Court in Seattle.

Of perhaps equal significance, the Monitor found there was no increase in crime or officer injuries, as was feared by critics of the oversight.

Bobb left no ambiguity about his report, saying “the significance and importance of his finding cannot be understated.”

That’s welcome news to Deputy Chief Carmen Best, a decades-long veteran of the department.

“I’ve really seen a major shift in both the training and the work the officers have put in. And this wouldn’t have happened without their buy-in and their diligence,” Best said.

“At the end of the day, a policy is only a piece of paper unless it’s implemented appropriately and we feel very good about the fact our officers have done the work that’s needed to be done.”

The monitor analyzed use of force for a two-and-a-half year period.

Among the findings are that officers used force far less frequently, especially when compared to the several years prior to the consent decree.

Chief Operating Office Brian Maxey admits there was plenty of initial skepticism and criticism from the rank and file, especially regarding the emphasis on so-called “de-escalation.”

“It doesn’t mean that you’re not ever going to go hands on with someone or never have to resort to force, especially in defense of yourself or others, but that the policing needed to become a lot more thoughtful and you needed to use time, distance and shielding just to slow down events and deal with them very thoughtfully,” Maxey said.

The report comes the same week US Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the Department of Justice should back away from entering into consent decrees with local police departments in large part because they could prevent cops from doing their jobs.

But Maxey admits it’s unlikely SPD would have changed without it.

“I would like to think that the department could have done this on its own without the guiding hand of the DOJ and the monitor and the court but realistically I think it was the catalyst, I think it forced change to happen rapidly. I think it provided a structure to address the issues in the department and to tackle them head on,” Maxey said.

While the department brass is thrilled with the monitor’s findings, they’re far more gratified with the public’s perceptions of department changes.

Surveys have shown a significant increase in citizen satisfaction and confidence with SPD across all demographics, with a 72 percent approval rating in a 2016 report, according to Maxey.

“That’s just huge,” Maxey said.

There is one important caveat here – the Monitor still found racial disparities in the population officers used force against, although there were no significant disparities in the type or severity of force used.

And since the consent decree was driven in part by a pattern of racial disparity, he’s conducting a more specific review on that front and will issue a subsequent assessment. The federal judge overseeing the consent decree could remove the federal oversight of the Seattle Police Department as soon as next year if the Monitor determines the department is in full compliance and has made all necessary systemic changes.

But both Maxey and Best insist the department is committed to increasing diversity and continuing to eliminate biased policing, with or without the federal microscope.

“Certainly this is a good start … we’re going to continue to work and continue to improve the agency as we move forward,” Best said.

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