Police brutality in Seattle

First off, a brief programming note: now is not the right time to continue with the usual topic of this blog: a lighthearted exploration of algorithmic complexity and optimization. We’ll get back to that at a later date.

I have lived in Seattle for over two decades; it is my chosen home. There is much to recommend it.

The Seattle Police Department’s decades-long history of violent, brutal, racist, xenophobic and routinely unconstitutional behaviour directed at African Americans, First Nations people, Latinos, immigrants, the homeless, the mentally ill and many other minority populations decidedly does not recommend it.

Ten years ago the city narrowly avoided a major civil rights lawsuit motivated by this established pattern of abuse. The city negotiated a consent decree with the Department of Justice to reform the SPD; a brief history of that process spanning from 2010 through 2018 is here.

As noted in that history, then-US attorney Jenny Durkan was on the DOJ side of that negotiation and pushed for a more detailed and effective plan. Today she is the mayor of Seattle; three weeks ago she and the Justice Department declared victory, said that the SPD was “transformed“, and that no more oversight is needed.

Yesterday, during protests against police brutality in the middle of a pandemic, members of the SPD, among other things, put a knee against an alleged looter’s throat while arresting him and pepper sprayed a little girl in the face. The videos are disturbing and I won’t link to them here, but they are not hard to find.

Progress has been made in the last ten years. Routine use of unnecessary force is down. That’s good. But recent events have shown that it is far too early to declare victory. This is no time to stop structural improvements; this is a time to redouble efforts to better them.

Policing in America today, and in Seattle in particular, is still not just. Policing does not yet consistently take the side of protecting the weak against the powerful. What we have today is not the best we can do, not by far. We can make a more equitable, fair, prosperous and safe city by increasing, not decreasing, the rate of reform. We can actually transform policing, and we should.

Now, I don’t know what to do or how to fix this. I’ve spent my entire life developing expertise in a narrow field; I don’t know the law, or the history, or the politics. I don’t know what’s been tried or what evidence-based methods we know work, and which ought not to be tried again because they were expensive failures.

I know who does know, and I’m going to do a small part to fund them. I will match any donations up to a total of $5000 to the National Police Accountability Project. If you make a donation to the NPAP you’d like me to match, or have done so recently, leave a comment here, email me at ericlippert@gmail.com, or send a direct message to Twitter account @ericlippert with the details.

I will post updates here on the status of those donations over the next few days.

Thank you all.

UPDATE: The City of Seattle is abandoning their attempt to avoid ongoing oversight of the police department.

UPDATE: HOLY GOODNESS GOAL MET AND then DOUBLED. Thank you all for your generosity. You have not forgotten to be awesome.

We are at more than double my goal in just over 24 hours, and I’m calling it here:

Screen Shot 2020-06-03 at 7.28.53 AM

Thank you Jen, Kent, Michael, Eric, Kirill, Adam, Maja, Kira, Oliver, Tim, Adele, Jamey, Andrew, Damon, Ethan, Channing, Sumit, Matt, Matti, Warren, Bruce, Geoff, Peter, Anitha, Andrew, Chad, Ishya, Bibianne, Sean, Greg, Daniel, Jim, Mandy, Regina, Alex, Danyel, Dustin, and two anonymous donors.

Thanks also to inspirations Nell and Hank for running a similar one-day matching program this week. You rock.

Thanks also to my wife Leah.




5 thoughts on “Police brutality in Seattle

  1. So you’re getting political in your programming blog now?


    The political is personal, and the personal is political. Failure to engage with any aspect of reality is a sign of weakness. I enjoy your posts, and respect your skill and ability. Now I also respect your integrity too. Bravo.

  2. I’m also pro-politics on the blog, and I’ll add my two cents: it’s good to try to hold police accountable, but a better approach is to work to abolish them altogether. Reams of research have made it clear: police don’t make us safer. Every penny spent is a penny that could be spent on something that actually will make us safer, like social services. In Minneapolis, there’s Reclaim the Block (https://www.reclaimtheblock.org/home/#about). Seattle has Shaun Scott, and it looks like a COVID-19 mutual aid org (https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSeLx0UBq_-FmE6YQPgG2aGSmNOI7_LCjpGiNGH4HSq2nWpGSA/viewform).

    Meanwhile, the police could get a different job, like being a fisher or a logger or a delivery person or a highway construction worker, if they are willing to accept the increased occupational death statistics from any of those jobs.

    • I’m not sure society can work without any law enforcement at all. There are in fact bad actors who will do harm to the rest of us, if there is no branch of government available to protect us. Worse, in a vacuum without law enforcement, private companies will fill that gap, creating even more disparity between the wealthy and the general public. Even worse than *that*, those private companies will likely be granted the same broad latitude for use of force as police departments are today.

      That said, it’s clear that law enforcement as it’s implemented today also doesn’t work. Too often, the wrong people are given jobs in law enforcement, and too infrequently even the theoretically “good guys” turn a blind eye to their coworkers’ bad acts. Law enforcement as a whole is clearly not being governed by guiding principles that are actually designed to make *all* citizens safer.

      Ideally, we would in fact disband all law enforcement agencies that exist today. But rather than just stop there, we’d create law enforcement again, from the ground up, with better priorities and accountability.

      Unfortunately, the American political process is, for better or worse, not conducive to such a drastic approach. It tolerates only incrementalism, for the most part, even that only grudgingly. I think it is going to be more practical to focus efforts on specific accountability goals, which in turn will gradually shift policing from an “us vs. them” activity back to the community-based authority it should always have been (and in many jurisdictions, used to be decades ago, racism notwithstanding).

      The NPAP’s activities will hopefully get traction and help in this respect. Ben & Jerry’s just released a “call to action” with some very good ideas (but ideas are worthless without action). And there is also bipartisan movement towards confronting the issue of militarization in law enforcement (an issue that hasn’t caused the racism and other problems, but certainly has magnified them).

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