Shootings test Seattle police’s new use-of-force policy
A new use-of-force policy, requiring the Seattle Police Department to notify its citizen observation division when its officers use lethal force, got its first tests during two shootings over the holiday weekend.
Seattle Times staff reporter
The Seattle Police Department’s new use-of-force policy, in effect for less than a month, is already being tested after two police shootings — one of them fatal — since Sunday.
The policy, negotiated between the Police Department and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), was crafted in response to 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 DOJ also found disturbing but inconclusive evidence of biased policing.
The policy calls for a representative from the department’s Office of Professional Accountability (OPA), its civilian-led internal-investigations unit, to be dispatched to the scene of every police shooting. The policy went into place Jan. 1.
After each of the two recent shootings, OPA Director Pierce Murphy was notified within minutes, and he responded to the scenes, he said.
Thus far, police have released few details of the shootings.
Early Sunday, police shot and wounded a man in Belltown after an altercation, according to a police account. Gang-unit officers were already in the neighborhood when they saw two men fighting at First Avenue and Blanchard Street.
When detectives saw that one of the men was armed with a gun, they “moved in” and the man ran, police spokesman Jeff Kappel wrote in a news release.
“The detectives gave chase and shot the suspect, striking him at least once in the buttocks,” Kappel wrote. Investigators found the man hiding underneath a parked car.
The 27-year-old man was taken to Harborview Medical Center, where he remained hospitalized Tuesday, Kappel wrote.
On Monday night, police shot a man after he reportedly waved a gun at a bus stop in Seattle’s Sodo neighborhood.
Police reported that the man, 36, waved the gun at a bystander and at responding officers. An officer armed with a rifle shot the man, Kappel wrote in a news release.
No details about the officer or the exact circumstances of the shooting have been released.
The man, who was identified Tuesday by the King County Medical Examiner’s Office as Andrew Law, later died at Harborview Medical Center, police said.
Law has prior convictions for second- and fourth-degree assault, and for felony violation of a court order, according to court records.
Christine Law, the dead man’s stepmother, declined to comment when reached by phone Tuesday.
Murphy said Tuesday that his office was notified about 45 minutes after the shooting in Belltown and about five minutes after the shooting in Sodo.
“Once I was notified, I responded to the scene of both incidents and activated members of my staff to roll out as well,” Murphy said.
Before the policy change, which was accepted by a federal judge last month, the OPA would not have been immediately notified about an officer-involved shooting.
“Idea is to build trust”
Murphy said his only role was to represent the community behind the crime-scene tape. He said that OPA is investigating both incidents.
“I see myself as a representative of the community. I’m just another citizen observer,” Murphy said. “The whole idea is to build trust in the community.”
Seattle police and OPA run their investigations separately.
After the police investigation, the department’s Firearms Review Board will determine whether the shootings were justified.
In the case of a fatal shooting, it will be up to Metropolitan King County Executive Dow Constantine to call for a shooting inquest, a fact-finding proceeding conducted before a jury. At the conclusion of an inquest, jurors are asked a series of factual questions about the shooting.
The King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office reviews the answers to determine whether criminal charges are warranted.
Last year, Seattle police were involved in five fatal shootings.
Merrick Bobb, the federal monitor overseeing Seattle police reforms, harshly criticized the Firearms Review Board weeks before the approval of the new use-of-force policy.
Calling the quality of the board’s reviews “very low,” Merrick wrote in a report that its members continue to operate under the “mistaken impression” that their only job is to decide whether an officer was within policy at the moment of pulling the trigger.
Board members refuse to broadly consider evaluating the tactics, strategy and performance before and after a shooting by an officer, according to Bobb.
New policy more specific
The new use-of-force policy marks the first time officers have been provided an outline for when force is appropriate and when it is not. The policy states that officers shall use force only when necessary and “with minimal reliance upon the use of physical force.”
It also defines “force” (“any physical coercion by an officer in the performance of their duties”) and advises officers 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 also 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.
Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report, which includes information from Times archives.
Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @SeattleSullivan.