As the events unfolded in Ferguson, Missouri this week, one thought you can be sure that was repeated again and again in the minds of Seattle Police Department officers was: “And we’re under a consent decree?” Doesn’t seem fair, right? At least by comparison.
But unfortunately for the Seattle Police Guild and its recalcitrant members, this isn’t a competition to see which department is least worst. Seattle is a bigger city than Ferguson—and a better city. And we require a better police force.
The fact that Seattle police responded to Occupy Wall Street and the May Day marches with much more restraint and professionalism than the storm troopers in Ferguson, doesn’t excuse those incidents where Seattle police showed a lack of professionalism and restraint. And the fact that unarmed young black men apparently have less to fear from police in Seattle than they would from police in St. Louis County, doesn’t make up for the fact that unarmed young black men have more to fear from Seattle police than they should.
One of the things that always troubled me in covering the SPD’s various excesses is that compared to the Rizzo-era Philadelphia police of my youth, the SPD are Mormon missionaries. I never saw the Philadelphia police resort to tear gas, pepper spray, or rubber bullets. No, they’d just trample the crowd with their horses, or unleash the dogs, or firebomb an entire city block. God knows how many Philadelphia police shootings and beatings were criminal acts of excessive force, because honestly, who could keep track?
But what I came to understand in covering SPD is that the Philadelphia comparison was meaningless. This isn’t Philadelphia or Ferguson, and this sure isn’t the 1970s. The documented abuses of the SPD offend our sensibilities not because they are collectively worse than those of other police forces, but because here in Seattle we expect and demand so much better. In a truly civil society, armed officers of the peace must always strive to treat the entire public with dignity and respect, and to use force—lethal or otherwise—only as a last resort. The SPD has not lived up to this standard. The consent decree was necessary to help correct a long simmering cultural crisis within the department that was getting in the way of giving the people of Seattle the SPD we deserve.
So any Seattle police officer bemoaning the injustice that our department is under a consent decree, while Ferguson’s is not, is missing the point. It is only an injustice to the people of Ferguson.