The New Wave of Police Reform in Seattle

Knute Berger considers Seattle’s long history of citizen-police clashes
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Tucked away on a sliver of Third Avenue near Jackson Street in Pioneer Square is the Seattle Metropolitan Police Museum, where exhibits offer a quick course in how law enforcement has worked in Seattle since the first marshal was hired in the 1860s. You’ll see badges, uniforms, guns, nightsticks and the mustachioed faces of the men in Stetsons or blue helmets who kept order back in the day. You’ll see the antique shackles, rubber hoses and black jacks (batons) that were common tools of the police trade in the days before drones, armored vehicles and SWAT teams. You’ll walk through a 150-year chronology of Seattle policing, from the anti-Chinese riots of the 1880s to the anti-WTO demonstrations of 1999.

You’ll be left to draw your own conclusions about how effective—and humane—our city’s policing has been. It was far from perfect—at times, it was downright medieval. But thanks in part to Seattle citizens who have stood up and demanded change, real reform has occurred over time. One of those times is now. The Seattle Police Department (SPD) is under a federal mandate to reform its use-of-force behavior. The new chief, Kathleen O’Toole, a former Boston police commissioner hired earlier this year, is tasked with reshaping the culture and organization of the department, improving police oversight, upgrading technology and regaining public confidence—all under the watch of an impatient federal judge.

And an impatient public, too. The events this past summer in Ferguson, Missouri, are a reminder of the urgency of reform. The violent protests that followed a police shooting of an unarmed black man in that city exposed a toxic national racial divide and the problem with police departments armed with Pentagon hand-me-downs. Those issues are relevant here, where SPD has been criticized for being too quick to shoot, too quick to buy drones, too often showing a bias against minority citizens. Ferguson showed the dangers of a department that falls out of touch with the people.

In Seattle of the early 1900s, the booming city was a den of corruption—vice districts flourished, and the police and politicians made lots of money from gambling and prostitution payoffs. Prisoners were caged in terrible conditions under City Hall, a place infested with vermin, drugs and disease. In 1906, The Seattle Times wrote, “It is doubtful if there is another prison as cruelly brutal in the United States.” “Confessions” were routinely obtained through beatings. The city was growing fast. Crime was rampant and seemed to demand a firm hand, or fist.

But during the Progressive Era, a civilizing Seattle found the harsh treatment of criminals less tolerable. The city’s growing population of middle-class women formed clubs that took up causes, petitioned the City Council, used their voices and, from 1910 on, their votes to make change. They helped recall a corrupt mayor (Hiram Gill), prosecute a corrupt police chief (Charles Wappenstein, who was sent to the state pen in Walla Walla) and forced the retirement of a brutal jailer (John Corbett). The jail was condemned and replaced in 1909 (that structure still stands at 400 Yesler Way). The reformers insisted that the city jail improve conditions and hire female matrons and more officers to deal with families in crisis, from runaway children to abused wives. It took a number of election cycles, but the result was policing more suited to a modern city.

Another wave of reform swept the city in the late 1960s and early ’70s, when reporters revealed that the Seattle police and politicians were still taking protection money from gambling interests—a so-called “tolerance policy” that harked back to the turn of the century. Bingo parlors, taverns, gay bars and nightlife joints were threatened if they didn’t pay up. The police were in cahoots with illegal operators, who paid protection money that worked its way up the thin blue line from beat cops who picked up bags of cash to top officials who collected monthly checks. The public was outraged, and the press called for investigations and change (which was mightily resisted by SPD leadership). The old system was finally broken, however, and some cops went to jail or were retired. An implicated King County prosecutor was voted out of office.

Instead of payoffs and outright corruption, today’s concerns involve tackling the deeper problem of social equity and policing. They involve employing modern techniques in tracking the performance of officers and detecting bias in arrests or use of force. They involve reshaping the “us versus them” mind-set of police and public. The challenges of policing haven’t changed much, but public expectations have. History shows that the guardians of public safety must evolve along with the city they serve.

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