Beginning Jan. 1, Seattle police officers will be operating under new rules when it comes to using force.
A federal judge accepted a new and comprehensive use-of-force policy that will, for the first time, outline for officers when force is appropriate and when it isn't, and provide for detailed reporting requirements.
The policy, negotiated between the Seattle Police Department (SPD) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) with the guidance of federal monitor Merrick Bobb, is key to addressing the findings of a 2011 DOJ investigation that concluded Seattle police resort to force too quickly and routinely use too much when they do. The Justice Department also found disturbing but inconclusive evidence of biased policing.
Approval of the policy by U.S. District Judge James Robart came two years and one day after the DOJ announced its findings.
The new policy marks a major milestone for the city toward compliance with a settlement agreement reached with the Justice Department 18 months ago to reform the Police Department. The agreement, which still requires additional reforms and training, provides a five-year time frame for the city to implement reforms, with an early out after three years if the city meets its requirements.
New policies addressing biased policing and the proper use of temporary police detentions are due Dec. 31.
Mayor-elect Ed Murray, who takes office next month, has said early compliance with the agreement is a priority, along with the selection of a permanent police chief to oversee the changes.
Departing Mayor Mike McGinn, who helped craft the settlement agreement, said in a statement, "We are glad to see that the Monitor, SPD and DOJ have achieved this milestone, and that they involved the Community Police Commission."
"This is a major milestone in the reform process that will help rebuild trust and foster greater accountability," U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan said in a statement.
Interim Police Chief Jim Pugel issued a statement Tuesday, saying, "Today, the Seattle Police Department took another step forward in our efforts to provide effective, humane and constitutional policing to our city."
The new 10-page policy -- accompanied by nearly 70 pages of new procedural manuals -- replaces a five-page policy that was in place during the time the DOJ conducted its investigation. For the first time, it defines "force" ("any physical coercion by an officer in the performance of their duties") and advises when it can be used and how much is appropriate under the circumstances. It requires that officers report all but the most minimal use of force to supervisors.
It states specifically that officers shall "use only the force necessary to perform their duties" and "with minimal reliance upon the use of physical force."
It requires them, if circumstances allow, to attempt to de-escalate tense situations through "advisements, warnings, verbal persuasion, and other tactics" to reduce the need for force.
When using force is unavoidable, the policy cautions officers to use only the force necessary to make the arrest, and says that their conduct before force was used may be considered by the department in determining whether force was appropriate.
The policy also requires all officers be armed with one "less-lethal" tool, such as a Taser, pepper spray or a "beanbag" shotgun, in addition to their sidearm.
The procedural manuals lay out weapon-by-weapon guidance, new reporting guidelines and the policies for the new Force Investigation Team (FIT), which will roll out on incidents involving the highest levels of force and officer-involved shootings.
In approving the policy, Judge Robart wrote in a three-page order that the role of the court and the monitor assigned to oversee the reforms "is not to dictate policies to the SPD, but rather to insure that the Proposed Policies conform to the requirements" of the settlement agreement, the U.S. Constitution and judicial decisions interpreting the city's constitutional obligations.