Seattle Police Chafe Under New Marching Orders
City Reins in Prosecution for Minor Crimes, Sends Some Offenders to Social Services Instead of Criminal Courts
SEATTLE— Kathleen O’Toole, this city’s new police chief, recently visited some of her department’s stations to deliver an unusual message: It’s OK to arrest people who violently break the law.
Ms. O’Toole, who became head of the 1,350-officer force in June, said police showed admirable but excessive restraint when pelted with stones and bottles at a protest related to the death of Michael Brown, the Ferguson, Mo., black teen shot by a white officer. “If you get agitators who threaten the police or the public, you have to arrest them,” she said.
That a police chief felt the need to issue such instructions is a signal of the turmoil that has beset American law enforcement. After decades of aggressive policing and prosecution practices, combined with tough-on-crime legislation, there is increasing debate over whether those policies need to change. In recent months, that has taken an angry and at times violent turn, including the shooting of Mr. Brown and the execution-style killing of two New York City policemen.
The tactics many believe helped reduce American crime rates and make violent cities more habitable now appear to be at odds with a different set of consequences. Almost 80 million people, or nearly one-third of adult Americans, have an arrest or conviction record, according to Federal Bureau of Investigation data. Among minorities, in particular, there is a mistrust of law enforcement.
These tensions are playing out in Seattle, a fast-growing city of more than 600,000 that is home to corporate giants such as Starbucks Corp. and Amazon.com Inc. The police department is under the scrutiny of a court-appointed monitor, the result of a 2012 Justice Department complaint accusing it of a pattern of using force that denied people’s constitutional rights.
Seattle’s political leadership, including City Attorney Peter Holmes, has moved to rein in police tactics and cut down on prosecutions for minor crimes.
Many police officers have chafed at the restrictions. Earlier this year, one officer cited dozens of people for smoking marijuana in public and wrote some of the tickets to the attention of “Petey Holmes.” Rates of serious crime have started to tick up.
Out of this contentious debate has emerged a possible third way, the joint brainchild of civil-rights activists and law-enforcement officials. The three-year-old program gives beat officers the option of diverting some offenders into social-service programs rather than the criminal courts.
Other locales are trying similar experiments. In Durham County, N.C., prosecutors, defense attorneys, police and judges are working to give youthful first-time offenders an option other than adult court and a criminal record. Authorities in New York, Philadelphia and some other cities have stepped away from making arrests for minor pot possession. Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn has directed officers to limit searches during traffic stops, which in the past produced arrests.
The collateral consequences of an arrest and conviction—which can include difficulty in getting a job, scholarship or loan many years later—are now “definitely on our radar screen,” said Steven Jansen, vice president of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, a group representing thousands of prosecutors. “In the end, we have to ask, ‘Is this fair?’ ”
Seattle’s yearslong efforts to deal with the countervailing pressures were intensified by the 2012 Justice Department initiative, one of more than a dozen similar actions the department has taken against city and county police departments. Alleging unreasonable force, the federal-court complaint asserted that one Seattle officer had shot and killed a Native American wood carver carrying a knife who posed no immediate threat, and that officers once pinned a Latino robbery suspect to the ground, kicked his head and threatened to “beat the…Mexican piss” out of him.
The complaint said more than half of excessive-force incidents examined involved nonwhites. Seattle’s population is about 70% white, according to the 2010 census.
The city, denying wrongdoing or a pattern of unconstitutional policing, filed a joint settlement agreement with the U.S. in court the same day as the complaint. The agreement called for the city to make changes in police procedure and training, including how and when to use weapons, even flashlights.
In May, more than 100 officers sued in Seattle federal court seeking to overturn the rules, saying they hampered officers’ right to self-defense and endangered the public. “Patrol officers have retreated from and avoided acting in response to clear threats to their own safety and that of the public for fear of accusations of violating some provision” of the new procedures, the suit said.
A judge dismissed the suit in October. An appeal is pending.
Even before the Justice Department action, local prosecutors had begun shifting gears. They demoted drug-possession offenses to misdemeanors from felonies and stopped prosecuting some infractions altogether.
“Imprisoning people who had a drug problem doesn’t help,” said Daniel Satterberg, the prosecuting attorney for King County, which includes Seattle.
Under Mr. Holmes, the Seattle city attorney, the number of criminal-case filings related to misdeeds such as urinating in public or drinking alcohol in public has fallen sharply. Those who do such things are typically “homeless, chemically dependent or mentally ill,” he said, and briefly locking them up “isn’t going to give any lasting relief.”
More than 650 misdemeanor cases involving this sort of activity were filed in the two years before Mr. Holmes took office in 2010, about half involving nonwhites, according to city attorney records. In the first three-plus years of Mr. Holmes’s tenure, 14 were filed, two involving nonwhites.
Last year, the then-chief of police asked Mr. Holmes to take criminal action against 28 people. Mr. Holmes responded in a letter saying the police hadn’t adequately explained whether there had been “efforts to either address the underlying human services problems or stop the behavior short of criminal charges.” The city attorney’s office said it eventually filed a criminal case against one of the 28 after determining that other options had been tried. Mr. Holmes said he has, among other initiatives, gone after people who solicit prostitution, with the view that female prostitutes are often victims.
The new approach chafes with a generation of police whose training and outlook were based on the notion that no infraction was too small. Going after “street civility” infractions was by the mid-1990s viewed nationally as a major crime-fighting tool that made urban areas safer and more livable.
There “are people who are alive today and who aren’t maimed today because of those arrests,” said James Pasco, executive director of the 330,000-member Fraternal Order of Police, referring to the national picture.
Mr. Pasco said he is hearing of incidents around the country where officers don’t make arrests for fear of being criticized, or worse. It is an “alarming and totally understandable trend,” he said.
Terms such as “de-policing” and “discouraged-officer syndrome” have entered the vocabulary in Seattle as crime rates have moved up. Police statistics show the number of what the department calls major crimes was up 13% this year through August, versus a year earlier. Some of the biggest jumps came in property offenses such as car theft.
This compared with generally falling or essentially flat crime numbers in several prior years.
Ms. O’Toole, the police chief, said several factors probably underlie the increase, such as the city’s growing population, a rising homeless count and lingering effects of the deep recession.
She said less-aggressive policing also could be a factor. “It has been a really difficult time for the department,” she said, describing the situation as improving but with much work remaining.
Some local activists don’t think officers have always been as restrained recently as Chief O’Toole suggests. Peaceful protesters have sometimes been intimidated or roughed up, according to Jesse Hagopian, a high-school teacher active in police-protest activities. He said when it comes to police dealings with the community, “there is a long way to go.”
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Leaders on both sides have sought to find common ground. One is Lisa Daugaard, policy director of the Public Defender Association in Seattle, a nonprofit that has done work on indigent defense and criminal-justice reform. She and colleagues spent years fighting to get charges against clients dismissed because of what they called racial discrimination in policing. “Lisa was a sharp thorn for a long time” to law-enforcement officials, said Mr. Satterberg, the county prosecutor.
In 2011, their discussions led to a program called Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD. It was initially funded by foundation money and now gets city dollars, too.
Begun near the city’s downtown core, the program has expanded and now has about 250 participants. Its target population tends to be the homeless and people with long records related to drug use.
Instead of being sent into the criminal-justice system, they are offered an array of social services. Those who subsequently use illegal drugs or are arrested for another crime aren’t kicked out, in contrast to some rehab programs, said Ms. Daugaard. The goal is to put them “on the same footing as middle-class people with addiction” problems, she said, with the hope they can turn their lives around and stop committing crimes. Other cities have studied the program, she said.
An unusual aspect is that eligibility determinations are made initially by police. An officer who stops someone for certain kinds of offenses can decide whether to send the person into the criminal-justice system or, instead, to an assessment by a LEAD case manager. If the person successfully completes this process, he or she is deemed to be in the program, and no criminal charges are filed.
Sgt. Bill Edwards, who leads a group of officers that focus on street-level drug crimes, was initially very skeptical. “My first thought was this was just another feel-good program,” he said. He retains doubts about how much effect the program will have on city crime problems, but he believes it could be helpful to certain individuals and has referred candidates to it.
One is Johnny Bousquet. In an interview, the 37-year-old described a rap sheet reaching back to his early teens. By the time he was taken into custody in May for drug dealing, he said, he had reached the point where “I didn’t want to die, but I didn’t want to live.”
The LEAD program got him into drug treatment, found him housing and even bought him underwear, shoes, shaving cream and toothpaste. Mr. Bousquet said he has been drug-free for months and is hoping to pursue a career as a music producer and writer.
“He is going to make it,” said his case manager, Mikel Kowalcyk.
Sgt. Ryan Long said he recently encountered a program participant who confessed he had joined LEAD to avoid jail and planned to keep using drugs.
Still, Sgt. Long, who oversees a squad of bicycle-mounted officers who patrol downtown, counts himself as a LEAD fan.
On a drive around downtown three days before Christmas, Sgt. Long pointed to a drugstore he said was regularly hit by shoplifters who sell the stolen items on the street and use the money for drugs. One of the people, a woman, became one of his LEAD referrals.
During the drive, Sgt. Long came upon another potential candidate in a back alley at a loading dock. The man was sitting on the ground under a sign that said no loitering or trespassing. Dressed in stained and frayed pants, a green knit cap and four layers of jackets and sweatshirts, he was staring at the ground, intently ordering a row of half a dozen cigarette butts and repeatedly sweeping the pavement for what he said were bits of marijuana.
Sgt. Long got the man, whose first name was Dale, to show him an ink-stained driver’s license, and the officer punched the information into his hand-held computer.
“You can’t stay here, Dale,” said Sgt. Long, pointing to the sign above the man. Dale slowly loaded his possessions—a granola bar, milk, crushed beer cans, tiny marijuana bits and the cigarette butts, except for one he put between his lips—into a plastic bag. He talked nearly nonstop, not always coherently. Three times, the police officer had to say, “Time to leave, Dale,” before the man moved on.
Sgt. Long, a veteran of nearly two decades as a Seattle officer, said he considered Dale for the LEAD program but in checking his record found he had some violent outbursts in the past. The officer won’t expose counselors to potentially violent individuals.
In years past, Sgt. Long might have arrested Dale for trespassing. He said he was taught that if you are going to err, err on the side of taking people into custody.
Times have changed, he said. “We can’t arrest our way out of problems.”