A new private study conducted by Seattle University Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice Matthew Hickman and Loren Atherly of Northwest Justice Solutions calls into question the results of the DOJ report that found that 20 percent of SPD's uses of force are excessive or unconstitutional.
While noting that more research and analysis is needed, and relying solely on SPD use of force reports has obvious limitations, the study finds that SPD's use of force "is a statistically rare event," and that "In the context of total arrests ... [there is] about 1 potential use of excessive force for every 1,180 arrests in Seattle."
In compiling their study, Hickman and Atherly utilized the same SPD use of force reports used to generate the DOJ's report, which spanned from January 1, 2009, through March 25, 2011 - and totaled 1,240.
While the authors acknowledge that relying solely on SPD use of force reports - which "contain an inherent bias toward police" - fails to paint the full picture, they hope their efforts - carried out through a research agreement with SPD, but not affiliated or funded by the agency - at least provides a good starting point for further research and analysis.
Here's how the study's authors describe their effort:
A finding that 1 out of 5 uses of force are unconstitutional [as the DOJ report found] should be taken very seriously, for if true, it suggests a very serious problem. For the two and a quarter year period studied by DOJ, this would amount to approximately 250 use of excessive force incidents. Such a finding demands careful scrutiny to ensure a thorough understanding of the problem so that police reform efforts will be meaningful and long-lasting. Unfortunately, the DOJ report does not contain a description of their methodology that would permit one to directly replicate the analysis.
Absent a clear methodology, we sought to replicate this finding using common social science methods. In addition, and perhaps more important, we provide a thorough descriptive analysis of use of force incidents in Seattle. It is our hope that those involved in police reform efforts will use these data to better understand police use of force in Seattle and move forward with reform efforts from a rational basis.
And here's a summary of the study's key findings:
When, where, and how often do the police in Seattle use force?
Police use of force in Seattle is a statistically rare event. The police in Seattle use force at the rate of about 2.4 incidents for every 100 arrests. Use of force is more frequent on weekends, and during the late evening/early morning hours. The West Precinct has the largest share of use of force incidents, with about one in three uses of force reported in that precinct. (See Table 3 & Figures 1 - 3)
What are the underlying offenses in use of force incidents?
Officers indicated the type of incident on the use of force reporting forms. This describes the general nature of the dispatch or on-view incident and associated incident characteristics. These characteristics are not mutually exclusive, so several type characteristics may be indicated for a particular incident. Forty percent of the incidents were reported as involving some type of felony matter, and fights or disturbances were indicated in 30% of incidents. About 1 in 5 involved violent crimes and/or were drug related. Eighteen percent were characterized as involving mental/suicidal suspects.
Domestic violence was indicated in 15% of use of force incidents. (See Figure 4)
What are the characteristics of a typical suspect in use of force incidents, and what do they do?
The vast majority of force incidents involved a single subject upon whom force was used. The median age for all suspects was 29 years, they were most frequently male (87%), and most frequently white (45%) or black (40%). The race distribution for suspects in use of force incidents is roughly equivalent to the race distribution for all arrestees during the study period. Half of suspects exhibited signs of intoxication (either drugs or alcohol), and nearly 3 in 10 exhibited signs of mental illness or were suicidal or delusional. Suspects fled from officers in about one quarter of incidents. Maximum suspect resistance levels were typically in the form of defensive resistance (48%) or active resistance (25%). Suspect resistance resulted in WACIC Officer Safety reports being filed in 19% of the incidents. Suspects complained of injury in about half (51%) of incidents. (See Figures 5 - 10)
How many officers are typically involved and what do they do?
About 8 in 10 use of force incidents involved either one (48%) or two (33%) officers who used force on suspects. Overall, the 1,240 incidents involved 650 officers who used force, one third of whom were involved in a single use of force incident during the study period. Thirty-one officers (about 5% of all officers involved in use of force incidents) were involved in 10 or more incidents during the study period as either first responding officers or as backing officers, including three officers (about 0.5%) who were involved in 20 or more incidents. The most frequently reported tactics were hands, elbows, and arms (used in 80% of incidents), followed by feet, knees, and legs (28%), and Tasers (23%). Less frequently reported were OC spray (7%), batons (4%), and canines (3%). Maximum officer force levels were typically in the form of defensive force (41%), followed by intermediate weapons (29%), and offensive force (24%). (See Figures 11 - 14)
How are the interactions distributed in terms of both suspect and officer actions?
Results of static force factor analysis (i.e., the maximum officer force level, minus the maximum suspect resistance level) indicate that resistance and force levels were matched in about 36% of use of force incidents, and officers used one or two levels of force higher than suspect resistance in another 45%. Officers used a lower level of force compared to suspect resistance in about 14% of cases. Officers used three or more levels of force higher than suspect resistance in about 6% of incidents. Results of dynamic force factor analysis indicate that most incidents ended by the fourth dyadic officersuspect interaction. Officers on average operate at a force deficit during the first two iterations, transitioning through balance to a force surplus thereafter. Dynamic force factors are consistent with application of a force continuum. (See Figures 15 - 18)
How often might the use of excessive force occur in Seattle?
Filtering all use of force cases by relevant Graham factors and static force factors results in a pool of 43 cases (or 3.5% of all use of force cases during the study period) that were selected as potentially excessive. We strongly caution that further research is needed to determine the overall utility of our approach, and in a broader sense, whether it is possible to identify the use of excessive force from administrative records. In the context of total arrests, this would equate to about 1 potential use of excessive force for every 1,180 arrests in Seattle. Incidents identified as potentially excessive were more balanced between 2nd and 3rd watches (as compared to all force incidents), and were more frequently on-view incidents as opposed to dispatched calls. All but two cases involved a single suspect, and typically involved either one (54%) or two (35%) officers. The race distribution for suspects in potentially excessive cases decreased for whites, and increased for suspects in the Asian and "Other" categories. Officer tactics (hands, elbows, arms, etc.) were similar in distribution to those for all use of force incidents. Subjects were booked in about 60% of these incidents, and some common charges listed
were obstructing, assault, resisting, trespass, and warrants. (See Figures 19 - 21)
How is police use of force geographically distributed in Seattle?
Police use of force is distributed across the entire city; however, there are areas of clustering and noticeable spatial patterns within the city. Higher densities of use of force incidents were noted in the general vicinity of the following locations: In the North Precinct, there are higher densities of use of force incidents in the general vicinity of: (1) NE 125th St & Lake City Way NE; and (2) NE 45th to 50th Sts & University Way NE. In the East Precinct, there are higher densities of use of force incidents in the general vicinity of: (1) E Pine to E Pike Sts & Broadway to Boylston Aves; and (2) 23rd Ave to MLK Way & E Cherry St to E Yesler Way. In the West Precinct, there are higher densities of use of force incidents in the general vicinity of: (1) Belltown; (2) Pioneer Square; and (3) International District. Finally, in the South Precinct, there are higher densities of use of force incidents in the general vicinity of: (1) Rainier Ave & S Genesee St; (2) Rainier Ave & S Ferdinand St; (3) MLK Way & S Webster to S Othello Sts; and (4) Rainier Ave & S Henderson St. (See Maps 1 - 2)
While Hickman and Atherly's study paints a less-troubling picture of SPD than the one created by the damning DOJ report, the authors seem well aware of the limitations of their findings, and call the effort "In many ways, just the beginning."
As the study notes in its conclusion:
... despite the relatively benign picture that emerges from empirical data, the public outrage and calls for a DOJ investigation cannot be ignored. We entrust our public servants, especially in law enforcement, with tremendous powers of coercion. When a law enforcement officer uses force against a citizen it is disturbing. From a psychological standpoint the impact can be dramatic for bystanders, let alone the subjects of violence themselves. We cannot ignore the reality of violence simply because it occurs rarely. However, we would hope that those engaged in police reform efforts would do their best to ensure that such reforms are rooted in a rational understanding of police use of force, so that their efforts are truly meaningful and long-lasting.
You can find Hickman and Atherly's full study in PDF form on the following page ...