After years of hating on the Seattle Police Department, I was pleased to hear Mayor Ed Murray tell the public he’s taking major steps to rebuild the department. Unfortunately, the mayor is missing an opportunity to rebuild the police force based on actual public feedback and police accountability. Instead, he seems to be pandering to police unions by supporting a demand for police abolition.
It was refreshing to see Mayor Murray acknowledge Seattle has a problem. But he blames the Linn County Sheriff’s Office for the turmoil. From the beginning, the mayor asserted that the police union, representing less than one percent of the overall force, had a knee-jerk reaction to a policy on crisis intervention. Rather than try to settle the policy with the Seattle Police Department, the Linn County Sheriff’s Office said its policy was more effective and it sought to enforce it.
The problem is not the response of local law enforcement. It’s the failure of Seattle’s political leadership. Mayor Murray talks about new policies, but has not followed up on any of them. Instead he’s continued the mistreatment of Seattle citizens by sending the Sheriff’s Office to bring their notoriously abusive policies to the SPD. Meanwhile, the mayor continues to turn a blind eye to many of the other problems facing the SPD. As such, this mayor cannot lead a police reform effort if he keeps supporting and allowing bad police practices to go unchallenged.
Seattle is hardly unique in this respect. Local governments seem to be practicing “hands off” policing on police reform. I have studied such in my book Bad Police: What’s Really Behind the Rampant Abuse of American Policing. In nearly every situation, the local government either does not understand or pretends not to understand the problem.
And it’s not just Seattle. In 2012, the Fraternal Order of Police, representing 4,000 LAPD officers, announced it was taking part in a “community coalition.” The next year, the Metropolitan Life Foundation invited us to interview police officers on behalf of the LAPD, yet the police officers interviewed felt little remorse about their jobs and no need for reform.
More recently, however, police departments are beginning to heed the public and politicians. We’ve had the Police Foundation in New York start promoting proactive policing on their website, and New York City’s Independent Commission on Police Reform gained traction as a product of public feedback. Even in Ferguson, Missouri, the police department is responding to public feedback. The federal government has mandated some reforms as well.
Why can’t Mayor Murray show a similar willingness to hear the views of the people in Seattle? He could do that by requiring that the Seattle Police Chief and the department’s rank and file consult with their neighbors on how best to implement the mayor’s reform efforts. That way, SPD would truly be rebuilding based on the views of all Seattle citizens. What’s more, a city-wide survey of officers should be done to help the SPD get a better handle on public complaints about their tactics. Mayor Murray’s reaction to the Seattle Police Union’s intransigence thus far is telling: He continues to hide behind the SPD’s watchdog instead of letting the Department of Justice get to work.
Mayor Murray could have a positive effect on the SPD’s future by focusing on public security rather than street policing. But he seems intent on going in the opposite direction.
Jeremy Rifkin is president of the Foundation for Economic Education.