A new, first-of-its-kind policy is aiming to increase a city law enforcement group's likelihood to be honest and truthful within its community following recent instances of waning public trust.
As of Wednesday, Seattle police officers are limited in their use of ruses, which the Seattle Police Department defines as "an officer's act of deception intended to achieve a person's cooperation."
Using ruses is now only allowed in five circumstances: to further deescalate a situation, to calm or provide comfort to a person, to promote a person's safety, for scene management or to bring a potentially violent situation to a peaceful resolution.
The policy also allows ruses in the case of investigations in which there is reasonable suspicion of a crime, not including misdemeanor property crime investigations.
Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell instructed the department to create a ruse policy after cases in 2018 and 2020 undermined public confidence in the city's police due to officers knowingly making untrue statements.
In 2018, a Seattle officer falsely told the friend of a suspect in a fender bender that the man had critically injured a woman in the crash. The man later died by suicide, and his family alleges the ruse contributed to him taking his own life.
Then in 2020 during Black Lives Matter protests, Seattle police falsely claimed in radio broadcasts that armed and agitated members of the right-wing Proud Boys were marching through the city, moving toward the Capitol Hill Organized Protest area. A report from the city's Office of Police Accountability last year decided this ruse created panic and heightened it to a volatile situation.
Seemingly in regards to that ruse, the new policy forbids officers from broadcasting a ruse over radio, social media or any mass media format. It also requires supervisor consent and proper documentation after the fact.
And in an apparent nod to the 2018 case, the policy states no ruse can shock the conscience, meaning it can't create a form of deception that "falls outside the standards of civilized decency and seems grossly unjust to the observer."
"Effective public safety requires community buy-in, and this new policy is an important step to build understanding with the public, demonstrating that for SPD operations to be successful, they must be paired with a commitment to unbiased, constitutional policing," Harrell said. "This innovative new policy will lead to better police work thanks to the voices of many, including the media who brought attention to this tactic, community members who called for guidelines to match our values, and Seattle accountability and police leaders who developed a plan to make that vision real."
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