Police Accountability

Where Police Reform Could Be Heading in Seattle

Could Seattle implement a policy for external investigations?

By Hayat Norimine July 3, 2017

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In the past month, there have been two fatal shootings from officers in Seattle, and both involved people of color described to have held knives. (And in one case, it turned out to be a pen.)

The death of Lyles, a 30-year-old black mother of four, sparked outrage and conversations about how police are taught to de-escalate incidents. Tommy Le—a 20-year-old Vietnamese American—was also killed by a King County sheriff's deputy on the night of June 13, hours before his high-school graduation, according to The Seattle Times. (And it took the sheriff's office 10 days after his death, after published stories said Le held a knife, to correct that he was carrying a pen.)

What's changing now? Several council members said they would encourage U.S. District Court Judge James Robart to speed up approving the city's police reform legislation. The Office of Professional Accountability is currently investigating officer Jason Anderson for leaving his Taser in his locker during Lyles's call. And Crosscut reported SPD is making it easier for officers to access Taser batteries. 

But council member Kshama Sawant demanded more, circulating a petition that urged an independent investigation for Lyles's shooting. And within a few days, she said thousands of people signed it. 

It's likely too late for a thorough independent investigation into Lyles's shooting. Her death occurred on June 18, two weeks ago, and responders have already come and gone at the scene. There's also no policy or precedent in place to guide what that independent investigation would look like, who would conduct it, and how. 

But looking forward, an independent body to investigate deaths in officer-involved shootings could be up for at least a serious discussion. (Though it has a huge set of challenges.) Members of the public have long been skeptical, and resentful, over policy that puts law enforcement in charge of investigating itself. And council member Lorena González mentioned the third-party investigation at a council briefing—that it had been part of police accountability discussions, but at the time, it was too complex and wasn't ready to implement. 

"I think that there's a lot of interest in exploring what that could look like and whether we could have a model here in the city of Seattle," González told reporters before the city council's public hearing on Lyles's shooting. The concern is, she said, who would conduct that investigation on the Seattle Police Department—the largest law enforcement agency in the state that other departments have used when they don't have the resources or training?

Lisa Daugaard, director of the Public Defender Association and member of the Community Police Commission, told PubliCola discussions around the incident investigations—which use highly technical skills and forensic evidence, and are different from a misconduct investigation referred to the OPA—centered around incidents involving critical use of force. It would not only ease civilians' concerns but also help investigations hold more weight if they were referred to an external oversight body, she said. 

"I think there's no doubt that that conversation has to happen in order to increase the legitimacy," Daugaard said. "If we're really asking the community to have an open mind about facts, there needs to be a process that supports that whatever conclusion comes out of the investigation, people give it some breathing room and a chance. And that's just not going to be the case when it's an internal process."

Robart in May also approved using body-worn camera to fill out police reports involving low-level use of force, and according to The Seattle Times, a police union is currently negotiating for wage hikes for those who wear the cameras. 

There are unanswered questions in crisis intervention and events leading up to Lyles's death, but González said her focus now is whether more could be done to train police on non-lethal options involving knives. 

"The crisis intervention aspects are dealt with in policy, not in legislation, so those have been thoroughly vetted by our federal monitoring team and by the judge and have been sanctioned by the court," González said. "My bigger concern is, what does our policy say about disarming and de-escalating a situation in which a person is holding a knife?" 

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