History of Police Accountability

The creation of the Office of Inspector General (OIG) and related accountability institutions such as the Community Police Commission (CPC) and Office of Police Accountability (OPA) build on decades of community-led efforts to ensure public trust and faith in policing services, social equity, and accountability systems. The following is a rough snapshot of a few moments in this history. It represents neither the beginning nor the entire middle, and it certainly does not capture the ending to the story that the City of Seattle continues to write.

In the mid-1960’s, the African-American community protested police shootings and crackdowns of black protesters and organized “freedom patrols.For over one year, community leaders walked behind and observed Seattle’s beat cops in the Central District. During a time when race relations were tense across the nation, civil rights groups “policing the police” elicited support for reforming police practices in Seattle.

By the early 1970’s, the SPD launched the Community Service Officer program (CSO), which was aimed at reform by building strong, lasting bonds between officers and the communities they serve. The unarmed CSOs served the community by handling non-emergency incidents such as neighborhood disputes, investigations, and crime prevention while establishing good working relationships with residents.

In 1990, an incident between African American youth and police spawned the formation of Mothers for Police Accountability (Mothers). Still active, Mothers work to stop police harassment, brutality, excessive force and all acts of violence against children and adults. Mothers supplies a 24-hour hotline to assist callers with police complaints and encourages and supports advocacy, education, organizing, and public affairs services to ensure police accountability, constitutional policing and civil rights and justice.

In 2010, a number of highly publicized use of force incidents were perpetrated by SPD officers, including many on people of color. Dozens of community organizations contacted the federal Department of Justice (DOJ) and requested a formal investigation of the SPD and its possible discriminatory policing techniques and excessive use of force.

The DOJ agreed to the request and conducted a nine-month investigation, which was released in 2011. The DOJ reported that the SPD was engaging in unconstitutional policing and recommended reform in three main areas: excessive use of force, biased policing, and lack of supervision and accountability.

In 2012, the City of Seattle and the DOJ formally entered into a Settlement Agreement and a Memorandum of Understanding (collectively, the Consent Decree). This launched a federal court-monitored reform process for the City of Seattle. The Mayor’s Office, the City Attorney, and the City Council worked in concert with the CPC (established in 2013), over the next five years to submit recommendations for a police accountability system.

In May 2017 the Seattle City Council unanimously approved and the Mayor signed Ordinance 125315, the police accountability ordinance. The legislation is the first of its kind in the country and creates the civilian- and community-led oversight system–the OIG, the CPC, and the OPA–that supports the Consent Decree to ensure constitutional policing in Seattle. In April 2018, Lisa Judge became the first Inspector General for the City of Seattle. The Office of Inspector General for Public Safety opened in May 2018.