Urban Politics #233: Seattle’s First Survey of Police Officers


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By City Councilmember Nick Licata.

Urban Politics (UP) blends my insights and information on current public policy developments and personal experiences with the intent of helping citizens shape Seattle’s future.

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CONTENTS:

  • BACKGROUND
  • METHODLOGY & PARTICIPATION
  • MAJOR FINDINGS
  • NEXT STEPS

 

BACKGROUND

In early 2006 I commissioned a survey of Seattle Police Officers from David Brody, WSU Spokane Criminal Justice Program Coordinator and Nicholas Lovrich, Director, WSU Division of Governmental Studies and Services of Washington State University. They’ve worked extensively surveying police departments, most recently those in Spokane and Olympia. In looking for a professional consultant with police survey experience, I found that while police officer opinion surveys are common, less than half a dozen in the nation have focused on their attitudes toward civilian oversight.

While the City conducts citizen surveys of perceptions and experiences with the police, I wondered why we hadn’t asked the police what they thought. I firmly believe police departments should include civilian oversight in the handling of complaints. Yet, to be effective, officers must accept civilian oversight as a useful and necessary condition of their work, otherwise issues within a police department may go unresolved and public confidence in the police force may suffer. My goal in commissioning a survey of officer opinions and experiences is to make improvements that benefit both police officers and the public.

The Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) oversees the investigation of complaints of police misconduct. At the conclusion of an investigation the Police Sergeants assigned to the OPA recommend a finding to the civilian Director. That Director will either accepts this finding or recommend another to Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske, who has the final word in the matter. The OPA receives about 1000 complaints per year.

 

METHODLOGY & PARTICIPATION

The survey questionnaire was distributed with a pre-paid business reply envelope addressed to Washington State University at each precinct’s roll-calls, in a manner determined by the officer in charge. A roll-call is a pre-shift gathering of patrol officers in the precinct station to receive news and instructions for the day. About 600 officers are required to attend a roll call. In some roll calls, surveys were left on a table for officers to pick up and in others surveys were handed to each officer. Officers not attending roll-calls were either hand delivered the questionnaire or told of their availability near their work areas.

Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske and the Police Guild President Rich O’Neil distributed a jointly signed letter encouraging officers to complete the questionnaire. In addition, the Guild newspaper ran an editorial supporting the survey.

Despite these efforts, a meager 23%, about 280 officers out of a work force of 1,200, completed the survey. This rate is far less than the 78% return from City Light workers in 2004 to their employee survey. Seattle City Light’s department is the second largest in the City, next to the Police Department. The Legislative Department, which is a much smaller department, recently conducted an employee survey which also garnered more than a 70% return, but unlike the other two surveys this one was conducted through the internet.

This low return rate may be due to any number of conditions. The Unfamiliarity of management in conducting employee surveys may have resulted in an inefficient questionnaire distribution and many officers may not have seen the survey or been encouraged to complete it. Or, officers may not give credence to employee surveys and therefore discounted its importance. Or, most officers are satisfied with OPA’s performance and did not consider it important to respond. There could be other factors as well.

Forty-six percent of the respondents reported being subject of an OPA investigation during the previous three years while only 13% of the police force has had a complaint filed against them. In other words, while the survey’s respondents matched up well with the Department’s age, race, gender and rank demographics, the respondents were more than three times as likely to be the subject of a complaint than the average police officer. Perhaps, many of those completing the survey were motivated because they had themselves been investigated.

This characteristic of the respondents does not invalidate their responses, but may reveal the core group within the Police Department holding a negative attitude about OPA because of their personal experience. If we can address the concerns of this core group then opposition to OPA within the department may decrease.

 

MAJOR FINDINGS

Ninety-four percent of the respondents said they were knowledgeable about OPA. Fifty-one percent base most of their knowledge on personal experience, while only six percent of the respondents learned about OPA from OPA outreach. More than 30% of the respondents knowledgeable about OPA got most of their information from the Police Guild. It is likely that the 46% of the officers with complaints filed against them are a subset of the 51% knowledgeable of OPA from personal experience. Taken together with the fact that the Police Guild has opposed OPA in the past, a negative view of OPA would be expected to be revealed by the survey findings.

In fact, this is the next major survey finding. More than half of the respondents do not believe OPA works well. Ninety percent believe OPA investigates frivolous complaints too often. Although 65% of the respondents believe that OPA has a negative impact on police morale, nearly two out of three would report serious officer misconduct to OPA.

While a majority of those investigated by OPA felt that they were treated with respect, that their rights were protected, that the investigation was thorough, and that the findings were fair and appropriate, fully two of three officers felt that OPA investigations were not completed in a timely manner; timeliness is a concern that is also shared by citizens filing complaints.

With respect to this last problem, I sponsored a budget proposal to hire an additional investigator for OPA. The Council supported this proposal in the 2007-08 budget. Chief Kerlikowske initially thought this additional investigator was unnecessary, but agreed subject to a six month review by the new OPA director taking office in May.

In addition to the problem of investigation length, there is also evidence of poor communication during investigations. Only 7% reported receiving updates and two-thirds had not received a sufficient explanation regarding the investigation’s ultimate disposition. Again, this is a similar complaint that is heard from citizens who have filed complaints with OPA.

Nearly 80% of the respondents favored a system of internal investigations conducted by sworn personnel. However, OPA investigations are being conducted now by sworn personnel in OPA. The role of the civilian director is only to review the investigations and their findings. Thus one conclusion may be that officers completing the survey oppose any civilian oversight component in the investigation process.

Other police surveys across the nation have found similar attitudes. The researchers report that on a broad scale police officers are still reluctant to embrace a citizen-headed complaint review process. The most recent survey of police officers similar to Seattle’s occurred in Denver by researchers De Angelis and Kupchik. They found that 86% of the Denver Police officers thought that increased citizen involvement did not help the complaint process.

Police attitudes stand in stark contrast to those of citizens. Academic studies show that citizen and officer perceptions are far apart on the need for and potential effectiveness of review processes with civilian involvement.

When I looked at the results a bit closer one interesting pattern emerged. While almost all of the respondents thought most complaints frivolous, nearly half of the complaints against officers responding to the survey had to do with the use of unnecessary force. This seems like a contradiction, but might be explained by different perceptions of ‘necessary force.’ I would guess that what citizens view as unnecessary force officers see as a necessary one. This is probably the most important area for additional police training and citizen education as well as enforcement of a better and clearer policy standard. Otherwise, differing perspectives of necessary force will continue to lead to citizen complaints.

Another item that caught my attention was that over 80% of all respondents thought that ‘politics’ influenced OPA investigations. Although politics was not defined, in open ended comments that the respondents provided it becomes clearer that there is a perception that the higher ranks are given preferential treatment. This attitude may be prevalent in other police departments as well, where the lower ranks believe that the upper ranks get more privileges in general.

In the open ended comments, some officers wrote they feared a complaint for enforcing the law and they, as a result, would be less aggressive fighting crime. This is referred to as ‘de-policing.’ This response was not measurable in the survey, but should be further investigated to determine whether de-policing is more a threat or an actual resulting work pattern of officers following a complaint.

On the other hand, an impressive 83% of respondents felt that internal investigations in general are necessary to maintain the public trust.

 

NEXT STEPS

The consultants still need to make some minor adjustments to the report. Then we will analyze the data to determine how the findings should influence future legislation and budget considerations.

With this initial information, I believe some steps must be pursued. Certainly we must continue to address the timeliness of investigations. In looking at other cities of comparable size, Seattle investigations appear lengthier. Investigation times should be under 90 days, except in rare complex cases. Interestingly the majority of respondents thought adding an extra investigator to reduce the investigation time would be a more effective reform than abolishing OPA.

Two obvious additional next steps include 1) additional training in interview skills and research techniques for investigators and 2) more regular status updates for officers and citizens alike during the course of an investigation. Both are doable and should be pursued immediately.

The survey did show a positive response to mediation efforts. This approach needs to be available more often, particularly with regards to complaints of an officer’s rude conduct, the third largest source of complaints as reported by the respondents.

What I believe is most important is that this survey begins a dialogue with police officers about their concerns through making the OPA more responsive and more effective in resolving citizen complaints.

Keep in touch…

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