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Seattle is proving Jeff Sessions wrong about federal police oversight

Years ago, the Seattle Police Department agreed to work with the federal government to improve its use of force. And despite Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ dim opinion of those types of reforms, new numbers show they were rather effective at curbing officers’ use of serious force.

Sessions announced earlier this week that the Justice Department would review its consent decrees, or court-enforced agreements that bind law enforcement agencies to implement reforms, like the one in effect in Seattle. Cities including Baltimore, Cleveland, and Miami are also under these decrees. “Local control and local accountability are necessary for effective local policing,” Sessions wrote in a memo about the reviews Monday. “It is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies.”


But at least in Seattle, federal oversight brought results — the police department’s use of serious force has dramatically fallen, even as the city’s crime rates have remained level, a Department of Justice report found Thursday.

“This reduction in the use of force cannot be attributed to anything other than what can now be statistically shown: Officers in the field are de-escalating volatile situations with regularity and skill,” Seattle Police Department Chief Kathleen O’Toole said in a statement.

Seattle’s police department has been under a consent decree for years, following a 2011 investigation into its use of force and alleged biased policing. The report tracks a 24-month-long period between 2014 and 2016 and contains several significant findings:

  • Incidents of officers using moderate-level force — involving less-lethal weapons, like batons — to higher-level force, like using guns, have fallen by 60 percent, compared to a similar period in 2009 to 2011.
  • Not only did crime rates stay level, but officer injuries also didn’t rise.
  • Minorities are more likely to face force from the police, but they aren’t likely to be exposed to more serious force than white people. However, police were much more likely to point guns at minorities.
  • 8 percent of Seattle PD officers were involved in more than 40 percent of force incidents. Still, those cops were not more likely than other officers to use more serious levels of force.
  • Before reforms went into place, Seattle cops’ use of force often went unreported. If it was investigated, it was “typically incomplete or inadequate.”
  • All these reforms have also had an impact on the public perception of Seattle police officers. Approval among black Seattle residents spiked from 49 percent in 2013 to 62 percent in 2016.

While the report is promising, Seattle Police Department’s use of force isn’t completely without controversy. The February 2016 police shooting of Che Taylor, a black Seattle resident, drew outrage. Though the officers were ultimately cleared in an inquest a year later, the case has helped propel a movement to reform Washington state’s deadly force statute.