In the ongoing debate over police procedures throughout the country, the case of Seattle provides some powerful insight. A report issued last week demonstrates that federally mandated changes to the department’s processes have led to a precipitous drop in the use of serious force by officers, with no increase in crime or injuries to officers.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions should take note. Sessions recently declared that the Department of Justice would reconsider consent decrees negotiated between the federal government and police departments in which problems had been found. The foundation for this is a belief that such agreements hamper police. But until Sessions can provide evidence in support of this trope, his office would be wise to support examinations of departments and efforts at serious police reform.
In Seattle, those reforms followed a 2012 agreement between the Department of Justice and the Seattle Police Department. The report found that during a 28-month period beginning in 2014, officers used what is deemed as serious force 60 percent less than a similar period ending in 2011. A department that formerly “would escalate even minor offenses … has changed in fundamental ways.” Equally important, a Department of Justice monitor determined there was no foundation for concerns that crime would rise or officers would be less assertive.
Nationally, 12 consent decrees are in place, having been negotiated after a police department was investigated and found to frequently violate the constitutional rights of citizens. Sessions’ preference, apparently, would be to allow departments to operate in a vacuum, which is a misguided application of President Trump’s promise to be the “law and order” president. Law and order does not mean unfettered power for police; it means that even officers are subject to constitutional constraints.
This has been a subject of much recent discussion. The Black Lives Matter movement formed out of a desire to bring attention to questionable police shootings of unarmed black men while highlighting the public divide over the role of police in a community. Meanwhile, several high-profile ambush shootings of police officers — including the assassination of five in Dallas — have exacerbated the tension.
Despite this climate, it is inaccurate to suggest that consent decrees amount to an attack upon the vast majority of officers who perform their jobs with aplomb. The fact is that all government agencies should be subject to scrutiny and that, sometimes, reforms are necessary. This is particularly true for agencies whose duty involves direct contact with the public, such as law enforcement.
Meanwhile, Sessions also questions the role of the federal government in seeking reforms. This argument is easily dismissed through a comparison with the civil rights movement. When citizens’ basic rights were being violated by a power structure that had no interest in protecting those rights, it was incumbent upon the federal government to get involved. The same holds when a police department is found to systematically violate rights. Suggesting that a local department will unilaterally enact necessary reforms is to turn a blind eye to the situation.
In the end, the Seattle situation provides the final word on the value of consent decrees. A survey found that the public’s approval of the department has risen from 60 percent in 2013 to 72 percent in 2016. Holding police accountable reinforces the public’s trust and actually makes it easier for officers to do their jobs.