Above: Seattle police menace anti-fascist protesters Aug. 13. Liberation photo: Lee Hessler

Protest demanding justice for Charleena Lyles, killed by SPD when she called for help. Liberation photo: Jane Cutter

The Seattle Police Department has a well-documented record of abuses and a long history of targeting communities of color, coupled with use of lethal force that stood out in among the many other cities’ records of brutality in the United States. In 2012, excessive use of force became so widespread that the United States Department of Justice issued a Mandate of Reform, popularly known as a “consent decree,” that the Seattle Police Department was compelled to follow.

SPD claims reform process is complete

Five years have passed since then, and on September 28, the city of Seattle asked Western Washington District Court Judge James Robart to rule that reforms within the police department now meet the standards that have been set for them. The city cites decreased use of unlawful force, less biased policing, as well as increased oversight within the department as reasons for this consideration. The report even pays lip service to the outrage following the police killing of Charleena Lyles, a pregnant Black mother of four shot in her own home after calling for police assistance.

But has the Seattle Police Department reformed itself?

No means currently exist by which the people can hold officers who kill civilians accountable for their crimes. Within state law there is a clause that prevents officers from being charged with a crime of murder if “malice” cannot be proven. As a result, while 213 people were killed by police in Wa. from 2004-2013, only one was charged with a crime and he was not convicted. This clause has been challenged by grassroots organizers, most recently by the statewide “De-Escalate Washington” initiative which is currently gathering signatures to qualify for ballot status. This initiative would close the “malice” loophole and mandate de-escalation training. At the city level, there exists a confusing welter of review and accountability bodies, none of which seem to have any actual teeth to discipline cops.

“Non-lethal force”

The original mandate cites excessive use of batons and flashlights as a reason for necessary reforms, and people who have spent time going face to face with police forces in the city of Seattle will tell you a change has occurred in tactics, but this is merely a change in the form but not the essence of police behavior.

Instead of batons, chemical and less conventional options are used in excess at any hint of public disorder. During the August 13 anti-fascist march on the Patriot Prayer “free speech” rally held in Westlake Park, the march was stopped at every intersection by dozens of heavily armed police. These riot cops deployed cases of pepper spray and mace, using multiple pepper bombs to disperse crowds. During this march at least one of these pepper bombs cut a large gash into the back of a protester’s head. Along with this, police in Seattle often trade out batons for large patrol bicycles, which they lift up and use as weapons/shields against crowds of unarmed demonstrators, thus skirting around the mandate to reduce use of the classified
impact weapons.

On top of this, the Seattle police continues to militarize, with plans to create a 160 million-dollar police precinct in North Seattle, termed “the bunker” by those who are organizing to stop it. Police expectation of
retaliatory violence is one reason for the high cost of the building, which has been designed to survive bomb blasts. This precinct reflects the increasing use of military armaments that the Seattle Police has been more than happy to deploy when they decide the situation calls for it.

SPD serves the capitalist class

Have the police been reformed? Undoubtedly, they have changed their structure, perhaps shaken up a bit of the bureaucracy with the hiring of new chief Kathleen O’Toole; but the essence of the police forces in Seattle remains the same. The police serve to enforce the will of the capitalists and protect their property. “Service, Pride, Dedication” is the motto of the Seattle Police Department, but behind a pretty phrase the assaults on the working people of this city and their communities illuminate their true allegiance. Seattle police remain
as much of a threat to people of color in this city as they were when the Reform Mandate was implemented. They continue to enforce the same racist system that oppresses and atomizes our communities. The shooting of Charleena Lyles by Seattle police earlier this year leaves us with no room to doubt that the violence and racism that have been the hallmark of the SPD remain fundamentally unchanged.

No amount of internal reform can change the basic character of policing in the United States. The Seattle Police Department has been counted among those which are particularly vicious in the application of violence, but their basic function is the same as other police forces in a capitalist society. Their role is not to protect the people at large, but rather to protect a select few and the mechanisms by which they remain in power. Only a revolutionary change in society can bring an end to the reign of police terror which has claimed the lives of at least 748 people so far in 2017 alone.