Data, Tech Tools Helping Reduce Crime, Says Seattle Police Chief

Chief Kathleen O’Toole credited the city's improvement to the SeaStat program, a bimonthly meeting where officials and prosecutors use crime data and technology to identify trends, develop enforcement strategies and measure success.

by Steve Miletich, McClatchy News Service / October 7, 2014

In her first progress report to the City Council, Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole said her department is making strides in dealing with crime problems, largely by combining data and community input to focus on when and where illegal activity is occurring and directing enforcement toward it.

A nearly 25 percent increase in crime year-to-date just after she took the job in June had dropped to about 13 percent at the end of September, she said in a quarterly briefing to the council Monday.

Efforts were accelerated in response to spikes in serious assaults, robberies, domestic violence, auto thefts and burglaries, she said.

O’Toole credited the improvement to the so-called SeaStat program she initiated, a bimonthly meeting where primarily police officials and prosecutors use crime data and technology to identify trends, develop enforcement strategies and measure success.

O’Toole cited decreased robberies citywide and in the South Precinct but cautioned after the briefing that she was not ready to claim victory in the South Precinct.

“We will continue to use this precise information to help us deploy our resources,” she said.

Community involvement in flagging problems also has played a role because enforcement is not all about data but “perception as well,” she said, citing downtown disorder as an example falling outside normal crime rates.

O’Toole also told the council the department has been aggressively training officers this year in ways to de-escalate confrontations with citizens, a reference to reforms required under a 2012 consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department to curtail excessive force and biased policing.

“Setting the bar high in terms of misconduct and restorative discipline” is an element of one of the most robust police-accountability systems in the country, O’Toole said.

As part of an aim to bring better business practices to the department, O’Toole said, she has asked the city auditor to examine overtime issues in the department’s Education and Training Section.

A report by the department’s Office of Professional Accountability released last week showed the section exceeded its overtime budget by more than $1 million last year and achieved little of value because of loose controls.

“I found the results of that report very troubling,” O’Toole said, adding that she has also asked the auditor to examine the department’s entire overtime spending in 2013 and this year.

About a dozen anomalies have been found in overtime pay attributed to data-entry errors, O’Toole said.

Assistant Chief Nick Metz, who oversees patrol operations, said the department is working with commanders to get officers out of cars and to interact with people, with a goal of establishing better relationships with the community before a crisis occurs.

“I think it’s getting there,” Metz said.

On a key aspect of the reform requirements, O’Toole said the department is moving “full-speed ahead” on developing a computer-driven business-intelligence system to analyze the performance of officers.

She said she expected to seek bids by Jan. 1, two months before an extension granted by the federal judge overseeing the reforms, and to hire a vendor by June and perhaps earlier.

O’Toole said she is awaiting recommendations for neighborhood-policing plans, and has been out “morning, noon and night” meeting people in the community as part of her effort to gauge what they want from the department.

Between June 23, when O’Toole was sworn in as chief, and Sept. 25, she has appeared at more than 50 community meetings and events, according to materials provided to the council.

In a second briefing, the council discussed a Seattle police report on bias crimes reported to the department in the first half of the year.

It showed 60 bias incidents were reported, including 20 determined to be malicious harassment, 30 to be crimes with elements of bias and 10 determined not to involve a crime.

The overall number is consistent with past reports, according to the report.

One high-profile case was an arson at a Capitol Hill nightclub during a New Year’s celebration, after which a man was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Another involved a double homicide, in which a defendant has been charged with two counts of aggravated murder.

Gays and lesbians overwhelming topped the list of targets, with 18 crimes, the report said.

Blacks followed as the targets of nine crimes.

Metz told the council the department wants officers to err “on the side of caution” by including bias as a potential element in documenting crimes.

“These kind of incidents should never be treated as minor,” said Lt. Michael Kebba.

Shaun Knittel, of the social-justice organization Social Outreach Seattle, praised the Police Department for its “big change” in its sensitivity and response to hate crimes on Capitol Hill targeting the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community.

©2014 The Seattle Times