Report cites plunge in SPD enforcement of low-level crime
The startling numbers presented at a meeting of the Community Police Commission — including a 49 percent drop in misdemeanor crimes filed in court between 2005 and 2013 — set off alarm bells at City Hall.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Seattle police enforcement of lower-level crimes, traffic offenses and infractions dropped dramatically in recent years as officers displayed less willingness to actively seek out illegal activity, according to a department report released Wednesday.
Although the reasons remain unclear, the steep decline came during a period of intense scrutiny of the department over use of force, a federal consent decree requiring sweeping reforms and shifts in prosecution and enforcement standards.
But the startling numbers presented at a meeting of the Community Police Commission — including a 49-percent drop in misdemeanor crimes filed in court between 2005 and 2013 — set off alarm bells at City Hall.
“The preliminary statistics in the Seattle Police Department’s presentation to the Community Police Commission today are deeply concerning to me,” Seattle Mayor Ed Murray said in a statement after the presentation. “They appear to support what many in the community have told us from firsthand experience: that, over a relatively small number of years, there has been a steep decline in proactive enforcement activity in Seattle.”
Neither Murray nor other officials suggested officers might be deliberately declining to enforce laws, a practice known as “de-policing” that has been the subject of broad speculation, anecdotal discussion and a topic in the rank-and-file’s union newspaper.
Murray also expressed concern that the enforcement that is occurring is having a disparate impact on minorities.
“The report also suggests people of color disproportionately make up those who are frequently cited or arrested for certain types of crimes or violations, although we still need a more thorough understanding of what exactly this raw data reflects,” his statement said.
According to the report, African Americans and Native Americans were booked into the King County Jail in 2012 at significantly higher rates than their respective percentages of Seattle’s population.
The data came to light as part of the Police Department’s voluntary collaboration with the commission and its pioneering effort to reduce disparities in enforcement.
The findings, Murray said, deserve more investigation by his office, the Police Department and the Community Police Commission, a citizen body created in the aftermath of a 2012 settlement agreement with the Department of Justice to curtail excessive force and discriminatory actions in the Police Department.
In a statement released later in the day, the Police Department said: “The Department owes it to both residents and officers to provide clear expectations, training and equipment necessary to perform policing that is constitutional and within policy.”
The report focused on misdemeanors, noncriminal infractions and traffic offenses, which force officers to use their discretion far more often than with felonies.
The numbers were outlined in a presentation by Bob Scales, a department compliance official, who showed that while service calls had increased by 9 percent between the first quarter of 2010 and the same period this year, independent “on-view” action, when officers initiate activity, had dropped by 44 percent.
Officers spent 8 percent of their time during the first quarter of this year initiating activity, compared with 15 percent during the same period in 2011, 9 percent in 2012 and 13 percent last year.
Comparing the first quarter of 2010 with the same period this year, officer checks of suspicious people and vehicles dropped about 80 percent, along with steep reductions in traffic and parking violations.
Bookings into the King County Jail fell 51 percent between 2006 and 2013, according to the data, even as the number of patrol officers remained steady.
Between 2007 and 2013, infractions filed in Seattle Municipal Court fell 71 percent, covering unlawful activity such as liquor violations, public urination and noise problems.
More recently, the city has sought to steer some offenders into alternative treatment programs, and the drop in criminal charges might be reflective of changes such as prosecuting fewer prostitutes in favor of customers.
Police also are diverting some arrested for prostitution into social-service programs rather than referring them for prosecution, as well as in low-level drug crimes.
Lisa Daugaard, co-chairwoman of the Community Police Commission but speaking in her role as a public defender, called the information complicated and said it needs to be carefully analyzed before reaching conclusions.
She said multiple causes could be behind the numbers and that some of the reductions stemmed from laudable changes.
“It may not be de-policing in any simple sense,” Daugaard said, noting that some of the downturns occurred before the Police Department came under public and federal scrutiny.
A commission member, Kate Joncas, president of the Downtown Seattle Association, said the results of the report confirmed suspicions.
“We’ve had a sense in downtown for a couple years now that things just were not right,” she said.
Apparently because of the federal scrutiny, some officers “seem to observe more than engage” when dealing with problems such as encampments and open-air drug markets, Joncas said.
Ron Smith, president of the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, said officers were reacting to two factors: Justice Department issues surrounding misdemeanor enforcement and new charging standards in the City Attorney’s Office.
Officers are getting the message to put a lower emphasis on misdemeanors, he said.
“We have officers working smarter now,” Smith said.
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org. OnTwitter @stevemiletich
Information in this article, originally published May 14, 2014, was corrected May 15, 2014. In a previous version of this story, the name of the Downtown Seattle Association contained transposed wording and first name of Seattle Mayor Ed Murray did not appear in the first reference.