By Guy Oron
A preliminary report released by the Seattle Police Monitor shows that Seattle Police Department (SPD) officers committed violence against Black people in 2021 at a disproportionate rate, consistent with previous years. The report also suggests a small decline in minor uses of force by police officers and an increase in higher severity use of force.
Community advocates have questioned the SPD’s numbers, saying that the data is inaccurate due to a “malfunction” and could be undercounting racial disparities.
The monitor was established through the city’s consent decree with the United States Department of Justice, intended to decrease instances of excessive use of force and racist disproportionality by the department.
According to the report, between 2019 and 2021 Seattle cops committed 22 percent of non-protest-related force against Black people compared to 40 percent of force against white people and 32 percent of people where the person’s race was unknown. According to 2020 census estimates, non-Hispanic white people make up 63 percent of the city’s population, while Black residents make up 7 percent.
The report also suggests that 2020 was an exception to the rule, with more than 1,200 documented uses of force related mainly to the protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, a Black man who was murdered by Minneapolis police. In 2021, there were only seven uses of force related to protests.
When excluding protests, the report shows a small decline in uses of force. Police used force 1,032 times in 2021 compared to 1,136 times in 2020. However, for type three use of force — which encompasses police shootings and other serious cases of police brutality — non-protest use of force increased from 12 cases in 2020 to 20 cases in 2021.
The report also says that most allegations of misconduct related to the use of force were not upheld by the Office of Police Accountability (OPA). According to the report, 56 percent of OPA complaints ruled that officers acted in a lawful and proper manner while 24 percent were considered unfounded. Only eight percent of the OPA cases resulted in management action, while 12 percent resulted in a referral for more training for the involved officers.
Some community members are critical of the narrative that there was a decline in use of force at all in 2021. Justin Ward, a researcher who runs the Divest SPD Twitter account, is skeptical about the fact that the data relies in part on SPD officers reporting their own uses of force.
“There’s personal incentives, like officers don’t want to get in trouble,” Ward said.
“A lot of times, the line between what is reportable and what isn’t can be very unclear.”
The report says that the majority of OPA cases relating to use of force originated from victims of police brutality, as opposed to police officers self-reporting their own violence.
Meanwhile, the Community Police Commission (CPC), a governmental watchdog group composed of some local community leaders, cast doubt on the validity of the SPD’s use of force data. In an April 20 statement, the commission leaders said that they had learned that the dataset “omitted certain data points due to a malfunction.”
The CPC was also critical about the fact that nearly a third of victims of police violence were classified as “race unknown,” potentially obfuscating the racist impacts of police force. They called for SPD data to be managed by an independent body to ensure better transparency and trust.
Ward is wary of the media narrative that police use of force in Seattle is declining. He said that many of the SPD officers who are now tasked with reporting misconduct were socialized to not report themselves or fellow officers, being brought up in a “culture of absolute impunity prior to the consent decree.”
“I don’t trust the data,” Ward said. “I’m just very skeptical of it.”
Guy Oron is Real Change's staff reporter. A Seattleite, he studied at the UW. Guy’s writing has been featured in The Stranger and the South Seattle Emerald. Outside of work, Guy likes to spend their time organizing for justice, rock climbing and playing chess.
This article has been updated to include the Community Police Commission statement.
Read more of the Apr. 20-26, 2022 issue.