A federal judge today approved new policies for Seattle police officers aimed at addressing the Department of Justice (DOJ)’s concerns over biased policing and how and when officers stop and frisk people.
The policies, effective Jan. 31, represent another major step in the court-ordered reform effort, setting new standards that will be felt throughout the city.
“These new policies will set the national standard and are a huge step forward,” U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan said in a statement.
The new policies, combined with a detailed new policy on use of force adopted Jan. 1, address the remaining issues outlined in a 2012 settlement agreement between the city and the DOJ. The settlement followed an investigation that found SPD officers routinely used excessive force, most often against people of color and the psychologically or chemically impaired.
“The perception of racial bias in policing doesn’t just corrode the community’s trust in the police force, it erodes the morale of our officers,” Seattle Mayor Ed Murray said in a statement. “Addressing this very real issue is among the most serious and urgent reforms the Police Department must undertake in the consent decree process.”
Today’s order was signed by U.S. District Judge James Robart, who earlier approved the sweeping new weapon-specific, use-of-force policy and reporting system now being used by the department’s roughly 1,300 sworn officers.
Robart’s court-appointed monitor, Merrick Bobb, wrote in a memorandum that the two new policies “will guard against the risk of discriminatory policing, as well as stops and searches, without the requisite suspicion or probable cause.”
Importantly, Bobb wrote, the policies for the first time require the SPD to collect data on every police interaction with citizens, “from which assessments can be made as to the existence of discriminatory policing or disparate impact.”
The policies stem from a December 2011 DOJ report on its civil-rights investigation into the SPD, which said there was disturbing but inconclusive evidence that Seattle officers engaged in biased policing. Despite the ambiguity, the DOJ insisted that the settlement agreement require the city to address the issue. Federal civil-rights attorneys have said the collection of detailed data on every citizen stop and search was the only sure way to do it.
At issue is what police officers refer to as “Terry stops,” named after a landmark 1968 U.S. Supreme Court case, Terry v. Ohio. It says that police may briefly detain a person, without making an arrest, if they reasonably suspect the person is involved in criminal activity. The DOJ, in its findings, said the department’s old policy and practices “blur the line between a social contact or casual encounter, and a temporary investigatory detention” under Terry.
Bobb wrote that the new policy requires that officers must be able to document their suspicion “using specific articulable facts.” Officers are required to limit a stop and must be able to justify every action they take that impacts an individual’s freedom, such as taking someone’s driver’s license away, ordering a motorist to get out of a car, putting someone up against a wall or patrol car, or frisking them.
The policy specifically states that “merely because a Terry stop occurs in a high-crime area is not by itself sufficient to justify a frisk.” It also specifically bans pretext stops — when an officer finds a reason to investigate unrelated crimes for which the officer doesn’t have cause to look into otherwise.
In another provision, the policy says not every reasonable suspicion of a crime may legitimately lead to a stop. “For example, a reasonable suspicion of misdemeanors may not give rise to a stop unless the suspect’s conduct itself poses a public safety risk or has the potential to escalate.”
The new policy requires a sergeant or supervisor to approve the documentation of Terry stops at the end of shift “to determine if they were supported by reasonable suspicion” and consistent with the law.
The new biased-policing policy replaces a short policy that was adopted in 2012.
Bobb, in his memo to the judge, said the policy defines “expansively persons and characteristics which may not be discriminated against.” They include age, disability, economic status, familial state, gender, gender identity, homelessness, mental illness, national origin, political ideology, race, ethnicity or color, religion, sexual orientation and status as a veteran.
“The Monitor and the Monitoring Team considered at length whether these new policies dealing with stop and frisk and discriminatory policing will increase community trust and public confidence in the police,” Bobb wrote. “We determined they would.”