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Survey finds racial disparities in views toward Seattle police
In a telephone survey, 60 percent of Seattle residents said the Police Department is doing a good or excellent job, but the poll revealed starkly different views among blacks and Latinos.
Seattle Times staff reporters
Nearly 50 percent of Seattle residents believe police routinely discriminate against people of color and almost half think officers use excessive force “very or somewhat often,” according to a survey commissioned by the federal monitor overseeing police reforms.
Only 35 percent believe police treat people of all races and ethnicities equally.
At the same time, 60 percent of residents believe the Seattle Police Department (SPD) is doing a “good or excellent job” overall, while three-quarters of residents think police do a good job at keeping people safe, according to the phone survey of 900 adult residents by the Washington, D.C., firm Anzalone Liszt Grove.
While whites and Asian Americans gave the highest ratings, the monitoring team found the overall approval numbers of the SPD concealed “sharply lower views among African Americans and Latinos.”
“These two groups are more likely than whites or Asian Americans to report negative interactions with the police including excessive force, racial discrimination, and verbal abuse,” the survey’s authors concluded. “They are also less likely to report being treated respectfully by the police and have their questions answered. And they are far more likely to report being stopped by SPD.”
The survey, which was presented by the monitor, Merrick Bobb, to the Seattle City Council’s public-safety committee on Wednesday, found experiences in those two minority communities “back up the public’s perception that SPD treats them worse than others.”
Just 44 percent of African Americans and Latinos surveyed who had interactions with police approved of the way it was handled, compared with 77 percent of whites, according to the survey.
“Fully 27 percent [of Latinos and blacks] say the officer used physical force other than handcuffing, compared to 5 percent of whites,” the survey found.
Interim Seattle Police Chief Jim Pugel, speaking after the presentation, said that the results are consistent with research that has shown similar dissatisfaction or suspicion nationwide among some racial groups over issues such as housing and other services, both public and private.
“I am not denying what it is,” Pugel said.
Noting that Asian Americans gave his department the highest approval rate — 67 percent — Pugel said he plans to have his staff study that result to determine what can be learned from it.
Bobb told the committee that he had commissioned the survey to get a read on public perceptions of the SPD in the wake of a Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation that found officers routinely use excessive force, most often against minorities, the mentally ill and the chemically impaired.
Bobb is overseeing the implementation of a settlement agreement, reached last year, between the city and the DOJ to overhaul the department.
The DOJ’s investigation also found inconclusive but disturbing evidence of biased policing, and insisted — over the city’s objection — that the issue be addressed in the settlement agreement.
The survey covered cellphone and landline users 18 years and older, apportioned geographically by police precinct as well as race, age and demographics to match the city’s population.
It found that the “stops and mistreatment” of people of color has a corrosive effect on public opinion, and its authors concluded that “it will be hard for SPD to improve community relations” in the African American and Latino communities. The SPD has engaged in community-outreach programs, and a memo written by the survey group encouraged them.
However, the group concluded that “it is hard to see those improving opinions of the police themselves: the amount of people who have had these type of experiences or know someone who has will have to go down before views of the police improve.”
A key piece of that reform effort is the adoption of a proposed new use-of-force policy, negotiated between the SPD, the DOJ and the monitor. It is a sweeping policy that calls on the SPD to accomplish its mission “with minimal reliance upon the use of physical force.”
The proposed policy encompasses the forceful use of every tool on an officer’s utility belt, from flashlight to Taser to firearms. If adopted, it will for the first time categorize the pointing of a firearm as a reportable use of force.
The policy was originally to be implemented on Aug. 31. But the Community Police Commission (CPC), created as a result of the settlement agreement, asked the federal judge overseeing the reform effort to postpone implementing the policy because the community and the department’s rank-and-file had not had time to review it.
U.S. District Judge James Robart extended the deadline for the CPC to provide comments until Oct. 30.
But the CPC and the city of Seattle determined the deadline was insufficient, and the DOJ moved to extend the deadline until Nov. 15. Robart granted the motion on Monday.
The depth of the CPC’s desire to be heard was so intense that members of the commission, which currently has 13 members and is working to fill two vacancies, signaled they were willing to resign en masse if they didn’t get adequate time, sources familiar with the matter revealed Wednesday.
The committee’s co-chairs, Diane Narasaki and Lisa Daugaard, declined to comment.
But Narasaki said, “We felt very strongly the extended time was necessary,” and Daugaard noted that the commission strongly believed that unless it played a role in the formulation of the policy it would not be useful to have a community-based commission.
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Information in this article, originally published Sept. 18, 2013, was corrected Sept. 19, 2013. A previous version of this story misstated the percentage of people who believe police discriminate against people of color. It is nearly 50 percent. The survey found 35 percent believe that police treat people of all races and ethnicities equally, with 17 percent responding that they didn’t know.