How Seattle Bridged the Community-Police Divide


Having a voice in police policy-making has been a major demand of community groups since the 1960s. But various reforms have provided only a very limited voice at best, or have been largely window dressing.

Recent events in Seattle, however, represent an important step toward establishing a genuine community voice in police policymaking—and may offer a model for cities elsewhere.

I believe they have broad significance for the future of American policing.

The demand for a community voice in policing arose in the 1960s, in response to the urban riots of the period. Civil rights activists charged the police with widespread use of excessive force, unjustified shootings, discrimination in stops and arrests, a lack of adequate citizen complaint procedures, and racial discrimination in officer hiring.

Community groups demanded citizen review boards that could act as independent agencies to review citizen complaints against officers. At best, however, civilian review provides only limited community input in only one aspect of policing.

In a partial response to these demands, police departments created special police-community relations (PCR) units, which undertook speaking engagements, ride-along programs, and other outreach activities. PCR units, however, involved the department speaking to the community with no meaningful community input over policies and practices.

Many police chiefs also created community advisory committees with representatives from African-American communities. These committees, however, were criticized for having members hand-picked by the chief, and also for having no impact on police policymaking.

Beginning in the 1980s, many community policing programs provided some meaningful community input through partnerships designed to identify neighborhood problems and develop appropriate police responses. Nonetheless, these programs did not address the major sources of community grievances such as excessive force, fatal shootings and racial profiling.

The community voice issue took a new turn with Department of Justice (DOJ) investigations of patterns of civil rights violations by police departments.

Recent settlement agreements have included formal procedures for a community voice in implementing the mandated reforms. (It is important to add that the 2002 Collaborative Agreement settlement in Cincinnati involved the greatest-ever community voice in policing, but that subject deserves a separate detailed analysis.)

In 2012, the Seattle Settlement Agreement, mandated the creation of a Community Police Commission (CPC), which would be broadly representative of the community and have a voice in a designated list of issues—but not the use-of-force policy.

Editor’s Note: “Settlement Agreements” were formerly known as Consent Decrees.

Early in the implementation of reforms, the CPC demanded a voice in developing a new use-of-force policy. The result was a confrontation involving the CPC, the court-appointed Monitor and the City.

Members of the CPC developed a strong consensus, arguing that denying the commission a voice over the critical use-of-force policy would reduce it to “window dressing.” When they threatened to resign en masse, the other side backed down and granted them a formal voice in the decision-making over the new policy.

Protracted negotiations ensued, and the end result was a new policy on police use of force that included a strong de-escalation component. Community groups had previously demanded a de-escalation policy, which is widely recognized as a “best practice” in policing. The formal de-escalation policy included mandated training for all officers on the purposes and tactics of de-escalation.

Two aspects of the conflict described above deserve comment. First, the CPC process is undoubtedly the first time in American police history where community representatives have had a direct voice in police policymaking. It should be emphasized, moreover, that the use-of-force policy is the most critical of all police policies.

And as already mentioned, the outcome of the process—the addition of de-escalation—was an extremely positive development.

Second, the CPC included representatives from community groups, such as the local affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, and representatives from two Seattle police unions. These traditional antagonists found common ground in the CPC in part because the union representatives felt that they had always been excluded from police-community relations controversies, and that this was their chance to have a voice.

Finding common ground between the community group and the union was itself a remarkable development.

The events of the past year clearly indicate deep divisions between the police and communities of color across the country.

The question is whether the events that led to the Seattle CPC are unique and not likely to be replicated elsewhere—or whether having community representatives and the police as equal partners around the same table, for discussions and decision-making over key law enforcement policy issues, might succeed in bridging the historic divide between the police and communities of color.

Samuel Walker is Professor Emeritus of Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and the author of 14 books on policing, civil liberties and crime police. The essay above is a summary of his article, “The Community Voice in Policing: Old Issues, New Evidence” published in Criminal Justice Policy Review. He welcomes comments from readers.

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