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caption: Seattle Police Officer Louis Chan, center, talks with a man in Ballard about his erratic and threatening behavior. Chan is partnered with a social worker to help deescalate volatile situations.
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Seattle Police Officer Louis Chan, center, talks with a man in Ballard about his erratic and threatening behavior. Chan is partnered with a social worker to help deescalate volatile situations.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Kara McDermott

Seattle mayor candidates agree: There's still work to be done in Seattle policing

When it comes to policing, there’s a lot of history in the race for Seattle mayor.

Two of the candidates, Jenny Durkan and Mike McGinn, have faced off before. They negotiated the city’s consent decree between the Justice Department and the city of Seattle.

At the time Durkan was the local U.S. attorney and McGinn was mayor.

Five years into that decree, Durkan said SPD is a leader in dealing with people in crisis.

“The statistics show that we’ve come a long way. There is no question that the number of times now that force is used in those situations is less,” Durkan said. “It’s having an impact on the streets. Lives have been saved.”

This spring, Seattle’s independent monitor praised the city’s police officers for reducing their use of force. The assessment found that moderate and higher level uses of force have declined 60 percent compared to the DOJ’s 2011 investigation.

The monitor has also found improvements in the ways Seattle police approach people in mental health crisis.

But the shooting of Charleena Lyles by Seattle police in June has the city’s candidates for mayor asking what has really changed and what can be learned now.

Police say they shot Lyles after she threatened them with a knife. The new question is how Lyles’ death squares with these statistics.

“It was just an incredible tragedy, this shooting,” Durkan said. “I think it shows that no matter how much you can accomplish on police reform, there’s always more you can do. And you must learn from the incidents where there’s a tragedy or things go wrong.”

Mike McGinn said the confusion about whether an officer should have had his Taser when he answered Lyles’ call raises larger questions about Seattle’s reform process.

“All of this tells me that the training and the use of force decisions and policies really aren’t where they should be,” McGinn said. “And that gives me just a great degree of concern when I’ve heard our elected officials and the DOJ saying, ‘Everything’s going great!’”

McGinn said he’s not putting his hopes on the federal consent decree, which is temporary, but on the city’s now-permanent community oversight group.

“What we need is a strong and independent Community Police Commission, with some of the strongest community advocates on it,” he said, “who are challenging the elected officials as to whether progress is really being made and holding them accountable.”

When McGinn ran unsuccessfully for reelection in 2013, he and Durkan sparred publicly over who should get the credit for creating the Community Police Commission.

Some of the reforms approved under the consent decree, like the use of body cameras, are still subject to collective bargaining.

Members of the Seattle Police Officers Guild have been without a contract since the end of 2014. Members rejected a tentative contract last year.

Reform advocates have supported making contract negotiations between the mayor and the police officers’ union more transparent.

Mayoral candidate and state Sen. Bob Hasegawa said negotiating in public doesn’t work, but you can bring community representatives to the bargaining table.

“I believe that there should be trusted advocates for stakeholders in those negotiations. If you just open things up to a media show, people are playing more to the microphones and cameras than actually trying to come to solutions,” he said. Hasegawa is a former leader of the Teamsters union.

Mayoral candidate Nikkita Oliver said the Lyles case has highlighted the need for more civilian oversight of police.

“When we look at the Charleena Lyles killing, we still lack an effective way for civilians to be a part of the investigation,” she said.

Oliver has opposed plans to build a new North Precinct as well as King County's new youth detention center.

She said the city has made strides under the consent decree, but Seattle is in something of a “gray area” right now. The city has passed -- but not yet implemented – new police accountability legislation which will lead to more civilian oversight by a new Office of Inspector General.

But for now, Oliver said lack of civilian oversight and stalled labor negotiations with the union pose obstacles to her vision of policing “transformation"

"What I’m calling for is transforming how the institution of policing works and how we hold that institution accountable,” she said.

While Oliver said civilians need a stronger role in police oversight, another candidate for mayor said rank-and-file police officers feel ignored too. James Norton is a Seattle Police officer in the West Precinct who took a leave of absence to run for mayor. He said the consent decree, which followed the police shooting of John T. Williams in 2010, led to a top-down reform plan with little input from officers.

“It comes from the wrong place. The place should be, ‘Oh my God this is a tragedy, how do we not let it happen again?’,” he said. “Instead of, you know, ‘You’re going to do this, this is the way we think it should be done.’ That’s not fair to anybody.”

Norton said some of the new training imposed under the consent decree is only offered online, so officers have no opportunity to respond or ask questions.

In addition he said SPD’s crisis team is understaffed. He’d like to expand the number of mental health professionals teaming up with police officers to answer crisis calls. Norton said those professionals could increase public trust by providing their own account of each incident.

Other candidates for mayor include former state representative Jessyn Farrell, who gave up her legislative seat to run for mayor, and urban planner Cary Moon. Both candidates said the Lyles shooting raises major concerns around police officers' ability to de-escalate situations.

"More work needs to be done," Farrell said. "[SPD has] moved through many elements of the consent decree. But there is still a big question around de-escalation and around lethal use of force. And those things are going to have to be looked at very closely."

Moon echoed those concerns, but said she would also support efforts to hire more police officers.

"Make sure that we fund officers at the level where they can afford to spend time out in the community building trust, talking to folks," she said. "Because that’s also part of the problem, they spend most of their time on 911 calls and helping people in crisis.”