Seattle sticks to Obama-era police reforms amid review

July 8, 2017 at 4:20 PM EDT
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has ordered a sweeping review of police reforms initiated under the Obama administration, suggesting a potential rollback in federal oversight of police nationwide. One city still committed to reform is Seattle. Special Correspondent Joanne Elgart Jennings reports on how the reforms, five years in the making, have been received.
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JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: The retraining of Seattle’s Police Department was sparked by this fatal police-involved shooting in 2010.

John T. Williams, a Native American woodcarver, seen in this patrol car video crossing the street, was ordered to drop a knife he was carrying for his craft.

Police officer Ian Birk gave Williams, who was hard of hearing, just four seconds warning before opening fire.

POLICE OFFICER: Hey! Hey! Hey! Put the knife down! Put the knife down! Put the knife down!

JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: It was the 8th fatal police-involved shooting by Seattle police in five years and the 25th in a decade.

Birk resigned from the force, but was not prosecuted. The U.S. Justice Department launched an investigation. It found that Seattle police had engaged in a “pattern or practice of using unnecessary or excessive force” and raised “serious concerns about biased policing.”

In 2012, the city of Seattle settled the probe with a consent decree — agreeing to court-monitored reforms to minimize use-of-force incidents — not only with guns, but with tasers and batons. For the past five years, Seattle police officers have retrained how to approach someone in crisis or showing signs of mental illness.

In this scenario, they’re trying to stop a man from running through traffic.

POLICE OFFICER: Sir, Officer Stevens here, Seattle Police Department. What’s your name?

JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: At times, it sounds more like a psychology class.

CITIZEN: This is just too much.

POLICE OFFICER: Hey brother, it sounds like you’re incredibly overwhelmed. I think job loss is tough for all of us.

JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: The goal here is to de-escalate the situation.

ANDREW MARVEL: “You got to analyze it from both sides.”

JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: Trainer Andrew Marvel says slowing things down reduces the chances of a violent encounter.

ANDREW MARVEL: If we have situations that potentially could go bad and could potentially result in some type of lethal force being used. If our officers can recognize that ahead of time, those situations, use good tactics, use good verbal skills, and incorporate some teamwork in there, we end up reducing those situations.

JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: All Seattle police officers are required to take this four hour crisis intervention training once a year. That’s on top of an eight hour course now mandated for all rookie officers in Washington State.

Some Seattle officers volunteer for an extra 40 hour course to join special crisis intervention teams dispatched in these types of situations.

RUSS: You guys don’t even know what’s going on.

OFFICER 2: I’ll feel more comfortable if we can talk without you holding the knife, because it is a little scary.

JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: The Seattle Police Department’s Chief Operating Officer, Brian Maxey, says better data collection about police encounters shows the training is working.

BRIAN MAXEY: What we’re finding out is that with the 10,000 contacts we have with people in severe crisis every year, officers are only using force 1.6 percent of the time. That is remarkably low cuz this is the most volatile population that officers engage with. Of that 1.6%, only about half of that is any kind of serious use of force

JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: This April, the court-appointed monitor overseeing Seattle’s consent decree found a 60 percent reduction in use of force by police between 2014 and 2016. Just a week before that report, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered a review of all Obama Administration consent decrees, which he says vilify police and reduce their morale.

ED MURRAY PRESS CONFERENCE: “For Seattle, Sessions threat is an empty threat.”

JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: Seattle’s Democratic Mayor, Ed Murray, says Federal oversight has been essential.

ED MURRAY, SEATTLE MAYOR: The idea that the Justice Department would step back from being, basically, an honest broker between communities of color and police departments in cities has the potential to be explosive. This is a role that they’ve played since the 1960s, and I think that our police department today is a better police department because the Justice Department came in, because the federal monitor was appointed.

“So if other commissioners could come tomorrow morning.”

JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: Seattle’s consent decree also created a community police commission to advise the court on progress implementing reforms.

The trust Seattle Police have been trying to build was shaken last month by the death of Charleena Lyles, a 30-year-old black single mother who, according to her family, had a history of mental health issues. On sunday morning, June 18th, Lyles called 9-1-1 to report a burglary. When two white Seattle police officers arrived at her apartment, the conversation at first was calm, as you can hear in this police recording.

CHARLEENA LYLES: Someone broke into my house and took my things

JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: The situation deteriorated rapidly when Lyles allegedly brandished two kitchen knives.

OFFICER 1: Hey, get back.

OFFICER 2: Tase her.

OFFICER 1: I don’t have a taser.

OFFICER 2: We need help. We’ve got a woman with two knives. Hey, get back.

OFFICER 1: Get back.

OFFICER 2: Get back.

JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: With three of her four children in the next room, both officers fired their guns, hitting Lyles seven times. The Police Department says neither had a taser. But they were carrying either a baton or pepper spray. And both had undergone crisis intervention training. Though the investigation into Lyles’ death has just begun, the outrage has been immediate.

DEMONSTRATORS: “Charleena! Charleena!”

DEMONSTRATORS: We will stand up one and united to pressure this city to change its behavior in policing.

JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: For community activist Andre Taylor, this protest was all too familiar. Last year, Seattle police shot and killed his brother, Che, whom they had suspected of illegally possessing a firearm. Police dash cam video shows three white officers approaching his vehicle. Che was facing the open passenger door. The officers ordered him to put his hands up. Then they shot him. 18-Months later, the shock of the incident has not lessened for Andre Taylor, as he showed us around the South Seattle neighborhood where he grew up.

ANDRE TAYLOR: It wasn’t even a matter of seconds before they killed him. It was devastating as some of the other shootings I’ve seen.

JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: Taylor says despite reforms, distrust of police remains endemic in the city’s African-American community. He introduced us to a group gathered at a community center, commiserating over their interactions with police.

17-year Jahila Moody says she often gets stopped by police.

JAHILA MOODY: You don’t even have to have any type of altercation with police. You can just be walking down the street and they’ll pull up on you and be like, “what are you doing?”. A lot of the time, police feel threatened by us because they are scared, not because we are scared.

JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: Taylor says another frustration is the leniency the law affords police officers involved in fatal shootings like his brother’s. Dan Satterberg is the prosecuting attorney who decided not to file charges against those officers. That’s because police who reasonably believe their lives are in danger cannot be convicted. That’s the legal standard across the country. But in Washington State, prosecutors must also prove an officer showed malice.

DAN SATTERBERG: Malice is not a word we use a lot in conversation, but It means an evil intent, a dark heart. When you look at that tape, that videotape. When you talk to the officers, look into the investigation, certainly questions arise. Could they have done something different? Could they have made a decision, strategically, tactically, to intercept Mr. Taylor somewhere other than right at the door of the car? I think that was originally their plan to do so, and when he didn’t walk away from the car they felt they were already committed. Was this perfect? No. Could it have been done better? Yes. Is there malice? There’s no malice in there.

JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: It turned out Che Taylor was not holding a gun, though police say they later found this 45-caliber pistol under the vehicle’s passenger seat.

DAN SATTERBERG: It’s hard to imagine a set of facts that would meet the malice standard; you’d almost have to have a personal animosity between the officer and the civilian that pre-existed the moment. Even then, we still have to prove that self-defense was not a motivating factor and that the officer lacked all good faith to believe that force was necessary.

JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: As a result, a Seattle Times investigation found, of 213 police-involved killings in Washington State between 2005-2015, not one officer has been convicted of wrongdoing. Seattle Police Crisis Intervention Trainer Andrew Marvel says the high legal standard is justified.

ANDREW MARVEL: Officers do have a higher threshold for prosecution than the average citizen. That’s because we have officers being asked to make very difficult decisions in a very short amount of time. Nobody wins if we get it wrong. So that’s why we train as much as we do and that’s why we get the level of protection that we do.

JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS: Andre Taylor is now leading an effort to pass a ballot initiative next year called “De-escalate Washington” It would amend state law to remove the “malice” threshold, trying to hold officers accountable if they kill a citizen in the line of duty.

ANDRE TAYLOR: We demand, that as each and every person has a job and has someone to look to, to be accountable to, that officers must also have someone to be accountable to. In 30 years, in this state, they haven’t been accountable to nobody. That’s a problem.

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