Police Accountability in Seattle: 1955-2020

World War II dramatically grew Seattle's African American population, from 3,800 in 1940 to 15,700 in 1950. Black people in the city faced discrimination in housing and employment, and had a tense relationship with the police. After repeated allegations of police brutality, calls were made for the formation of some mechanism of police accountability beginning in 1955. Incremental progress has been made since then with the formation of various boards and offices, but the nationwide racial reckoning in 2020 highlighted the work still to be done in examining the role and structure of police departments.

1955-1966: A Police Review Board Denied

The first organized attempt by the city to study the problem was the Mayor's Advisory Committee on Police Practices, which met from May 1955 to January 1956. The committee investigated complaints that had been made against the Police Department, and found that "the great majority" of these concerned the Black community. Along with better training, increased salaries, and the hiring of minority officers, their final report recommended the establishment of a "Hearing Board" made up of citizens and one member of the Police Department. This was the first of many times a board was suggested but not created. Allegations of police brutality continued, and in 1962 the Seattle Urban League, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) again brought up the idea of a review board. Mayor Gordon Clinton, when reminded of the 1956 recommendation, said that he believed such a board "would be incompatible with [the police chief's] responsibility to manage his department." He also believed it would encourage complaints and hurt morale in the department.

The groups did not give up. In 1964, the ACLU filed a petition requesting establishment of a police review panel, citing recent incidents of alleged misconduct including a man being kicked by a policeman while he was writing down the license number of an automobile involved in a minor accident, and another who said he was pulled from his car and arrested because his passenger was a white female. On January 22, 1965, City Council held a hearing to investigate the need for an accountability panel; a hearing for SPD to respond was held on February 19th. Mayor Dorm Braman was not supportive of the request for a review board, saying that "the administrative channels now existing" were sufficient. The City Council agreed, voting unanimously to reject the petition.

On June 20, 1965, after an altercation between off-duty policemen and a group of African Americans, Robert Reese was killed by an off-duty officer in Seattle's International District. According to the police report, when Reese and his friends arrived at the restaurant, they claimed to have heard the policemen refer to them in a derogatory way (this was denied by the officers). After a fight broke out, the group left and the officers pursued them, shooting at the car and killing Reese, a passenger in the car. The coroner's jury found Reese's death was found to be an "excusable homicide." Reese's estate appealed the ruling to the Washington State Supreme Court but the initial finding was upheld.

CAYAC members with Mayor Braman
CAYAC members with Mayor Braman
in his office, Aug. 25, 1965
Photographer unknown

Reese's killing sparked a large amount of attention and controversy. Citizen letters to the Mayor's Office ran the gamut from calling the coroner's finding "pure nonsense" and "a whitewash," to claiming that complaints of misconduct were overblown and that critics of the Police Department were "troublemakers." Mayor Braman requested that Judge Charles Smith of the Municipal Court and John Spellman of the Civil Service Commission investigate "the effectiveness of police training in the field of human rights." The ad hoc committee made recommendations for "human relations" to be emphasized in training and hiring, but did not recommend the establishment of a review board. Mayor Braman still did not feel that an official mechanism for accountability was necessary, saying "there is no intention of letting this incident trigger another consideration of a police review board." The Police Department did establish a Community Relations Unit in 1965 and included race relations training, continuing the trend of emphasizing training over outside review.

Seeing no movement toward police accountability coming from city government, the Black community developed their own initiatives. One of these involved "freedom patrols," in which community leaders walked behind and observed police officers in the Central District in July 1965. In August of that year, the Central Area Youth Action Council (CAYAC) sat outside Mayor Braman's office for several days. They sought penalties for the officers involved with Reese's death, and also demanded the establishment of a police review board. The mayor met with the group but denied their requests.

Another police shooting revived the debate over accountability in 1966. 19-year-old Eddie Ray Lincoln was fatally shot by police on November 30th at First and University downtown. He was unarmed and fleeing after attempting to steal a car; he had a cigarette lighter shaped as a pistol. The coroner's jury ruled the shooting to be justifiable homicide. Seattle's Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) said the jury ignored medical and other testimony, and the ACLU responded to the verdict by stating that the process did not afford due process of law. The Mayor wrote back to the ACLU stating that he was "disturbed...at an attempt to make a civil rights incident out of any police action in which a Negro is involved."

A Seattle Times editorial stated that although the newspaper held to its position of being against police review boards, this case advocated for one, and that "if such action is not taken locally, we suggest that the Legislature review the basic statute on justifiable homicide." This may have been one of the first suggestions by the city's "establishment" that a review board might be needed.

1967-1979: Use of Force

IACP report
IACP report, 1968
Published Document 13142,
Seattle Municipal Archives

Racial tensions ran high nationwide in the late 1960s, resulting in riots in Los Angeles, Newark, and Detroit. Fears of a similar uprising in Seattle led to the creation of a Police Liaison Committee in July 1968. Mayor Braman made clear that the group's function was to promote better communication and understanding between citizens and police, not to review the department's actions. The committee, which included police and citizen members, created a complaint form, encouraged recruitment of Black police officers, and promoted outreach to the community. These functions were folded into the Human Rights Department upon its creation in 1969.

Meanwhile, the Police Department was also undergoing scrutiny for charges of bribery and payoffs. These were investigated first by a Blue Ribbon Committee in 1967 and then with a six-month study by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) in 1968. The IACP report focused on the need for restructuring to enable internal investigations, and a new Inspectional Services Bureau was created within the department as a result. The head of the unit was present at a 1969 meeting of over 300 people called by the newly formed Concerned Central Area Citizens (CCAC) at Mount Zion Baptist Church. One of the ten demands presented to City representatives was an external review system to handle complaints against the police.

CCAC flyer
CCAC meeting flyer, 1969
Wesley C. Uhlman Subject
Files (Record Series 5287-02),
Seattle Municipal Archives

After complaints about police actions at a September 1969 demonstration at the University of Washington, the Human Rights Commission held public hearings and concluded that the police used excessive force. (The commission had been established in 1963 as a response to organized protests related to employment and housing discrimination.) They issued a report with recommendations including that all officers should have their name and badge number visible while on duty and that physical confrontations should not be initiated by police "except for strong and compelling reasons." The Seattle Police Officers Guild charged the commission with attempting to become a de facto police review board.

STOP mailing
STOP mailing, 1975
Wesley C. Uhlman Departmental
Correspondence (Record Series 5287-01),
Seattle Municipal Archives

The next few years saw several more high-profile police killings, including those involving Larry Ward, Louis Alton Jones, and Joe Hebert. Additionally, there were frequent charges of police brutality and excessive use of force during this period. In 1972, for example, the Internal Investigations Division received 165 complaints of physical abuse, only two of which were sustained. Over the next couple of years, a group called Seize Time for Oppressed People (STOP) urged the formation of a civilian review board and also considered a class-action lawsuit charging consistent violations of civil rights by the police.

The Police Department took a small step toward greater oversight in October 1974 by changing policy to allow citizen observers on the Police Department Disciplinary Hearing Panel, or what became known as the Complaint Advisory Board. This board was part of a process that was meant to provide for the resolution of allegations of misconduct made by citizens against members of the Police Department.

In the late 1970s, City Council conversations shifted to focus on the use of "deadly force." After years of discussion, a measure passed in May 1978 that would narrow the circumstances in which deadly force could be used. In response, the Seattle Police Guild introduced Initiative 15, which would allow police greater freedom in using weapons. The initiative passed at the November 1978 election, preventing the new City Council policy from being enacted.

1980-1996: An Uphill Struggle for Justice

Police outside Robert Baldwin residence
Police outside Robert Baldwin residence,
March 28, 1984
MOHAI, Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Collection, 2000.107.013.04.01,
Photo by Grant M. Haller

After the 1984 fatal police shooting of Robert Baldwin was ruled as justified, Larry Gossett, director of the Central Area Motivation Program (CAMP), said, "My 16 years of experience in being an activist in Seattle has been that the jury always falls on the side of the police, and it's unfortunate and unfair. This means the Black women and men of Seattle have an uphill struggle for justice and fair play." The Seattle Times reported in March 1988 that between 1980 and 1988, twenty-three people were shot by SPD officers and twelve died; six of the deaths involved individuals with mental health issues.

National attention on the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police in 1991 again put the spotlight on the treatment of African Americans by police. That year, Mayor Norm Rice and Councilmember Jane Noland collaborated to create a new Civilian Auditor position to examine complaints of excessive force. The Auditor would decide if the Police Department was following its own rules and regulations but would not have the power to discipline officers or make recommendations. The chair of the Human Rights Commission called it a good first step, and the police chief said, "We have high hopes that this will allay the fears of police critics." It was a small move towards police accountability, and the first one independent of the Police Department. However, calls for a civilian review board continued.

1997-2020: A Consent Decree and Accountability

In early 1997, in part due to the fatal shootings of Edward Anderson and Bodegard Mitchell the previous year, a Citizen Observer position was added to the Firearms Review Board. This body reviewed every instance in which a police officer fired their gun, and the new position (first held by Jenny Durkan) marked the first time a civilian had a seat on the board. The Citizen Observer's role was not to determine whether a shooting was justified but instead to report to the public on whether the process was fair.

Protest of John T. Williams shooting
Protest of police shooting of
John T. Williams, Sept. 16, 2010
Image 165235,
Seattle Municipal Archives

Mayor Paul Schell convened a Citizens Review Panel in 1999 to study SPD's policies and procedures relating to accountability and the reporting of police misconduct. The panel recommended the creation of an Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) to replace the Internal Investigations Section in the Police Department. Legislation to create the office was passed in 1999, a major step in the quest for accountability measures. An OPA Review Board was also established to review how complaints were handled and advise the City on police policies and practices.

The OPA did not hire its first director until January 2001. Thirty-six-year old Aaron Roberts was shot and killed by the police on May 31, 2001, at 23rd Avenue and East Union. After the Roberts family filed a formal complaint alleging the shooting was part of a pattern of harassment, the OPA agreed to be involved, although the OPA Review Board still did not exist. In October 2001, an internal police review found the shooting of Roberts to be justified and the King County prosecutor said he would not pursue legal action against the officers. Changes and clarifications continued to be made to the roles and positions in OPA through 2007.

In April 2010, an officer used a racial slur and kicked robbery suspect Martin Monetti in the head. Then in August, an officer shot and killed Native American carver John T. Williams. In December of that year, 35 civil rights and community organizations cited these two incidents, among others, in a request for the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to investigate the Police Department. The DOJ conducted a 9-month investigation in which they found a pattern and practice of excessive force warranting federal intervention. This led to the City entering into a consent decree that included federal court oversight to ensure the City implemented required improvements and corrections to SPD policies, practices, training, and systems. An independent monitor was to oversee the process.

June 3, 2020, Black Lives Matter protest outside City Hall
On June 3, 2020, while thousands of people
wearing face masks sat outside City Hall
chanting "Black Lives Matter," Mayor
Jenny Durkan and Chief Carmen Best
met with community activists inside.
Image 195731, Seattle Municipal Archives

The settlement agreement included the creation of a Community Police Commission (CPC) to review the police accountability system and make recommendations to the mayor and City Council. In April 2014, the CPC provided a set of accountability system recommendations developed with input from civilian oversight experts and community leaders. After resulting legislation was approved by the federal judge overseeing the consent decree, a new three-pronged oversight system was established in 2017: the existing OPA (renamed the Office of Police Accountability), a new Office of Inspector General for Public Safety (OIG), and a newly permanent CPC.

As of 2021, the City is still under the federal consent decree, largely due to questions about whether new contracts with police unions rolled back the required reforms. Meanwhile the accountability system is still working through the thousands of complaints about police behavior during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, which resulted in the resignation of Police Chief Carmen Best. Taking the long view, it is apparent that progress has been made in terms of independent oversight of the Seattle Police Department, but the story is still being written.