Judge approves new SPD policies on stops & detentions, 'bias-free policing'

SEATTLE -- A federal judge on Friday approved new Seattle Police Department policies on "stops and detentions" and "bias-free policing" that were created by the city in conjunction with the U.S. Justice Department.

U.S. District Judge James L. Robart signed off on the document.

The Justice Department’s investigation of the Seattle Police Department in 2011 found that SPD officers often exhibited confusion between a casual, social contact (where a person is free to leave) and an investigative detention short of an arrest, also known as a Terry stop (where a person is not free to leave).

"Some data and community input suggested that this confusion – as well as other problems with training and oversight – led to inappropriate pedestrian encounters that may have resulted in a disproportionate number of people of color - in particular youths - being stopped where no offense or other police incident occurred," a news release by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Seattle said.  Incidents of overt discrimination and the fact that excessive force disproportionately occurred against minorities also gave the department concern and led to the inclusion of these issues in the (SPD use-of-force)  settlement agreement."

The new "Stops and Detentions policy," among other things, makes clear that a Terry stop occurs any time an officer has restrained the liberty of a citizen; must be based on reasonable suspicion; must be reasonable in scope and duration and has certain limits imposed by law; and must be documented with clearly articulated and objective facts, the news release said. It said there were also be improved oversight by requiring supervisors to review the documentation of Terry stops before the end of their shift.

The new "Bias-Free Policing policy" will give officers clear direction by identifying expressly prohibited acts and reporting obligations when an officer observes a prohibited act, and improving oversight by requiring a supervisor to go to the scene of any complaint of bias-based policing to investigate, analyze and document such encounters.

The new policies will go into effect on Jan. 31.  "Officer training is currently being developed in consultation with the CPC (Community Police Commission) and will be implemented by the end of summer 2014," the news release said.

“These new policies will set the national standard and are a huge step forward,” said U.S. Attorney Jenny A. Durkan.  “They give police the certainty they need while addressing some of the most consistent and damaging concerns raised by community members.  We want proactive policing; yet negative street encounters and any real or perceived bias can significantly undermine the trust necessary for effective policing in every corner of our community."

Interim Seattle Police Chief Harry Bailey said, “This is another major milestone as we move forward in our reform efforts. The new policies, when coupled with proper training and supervision, will ensure that our police department will be able to deliver the quality police services that our residents deserve and expect.”

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray added, "“The perception of racial bias in policing doesn’t just corrode the community’s trust in the police force, it erodes the morale of our officers. Addressing this very real issue is among the most serious and urgent reforms the Police Department must undertake in the consent decree process."