In light of the recent influx of police-brutality protests nationwide and input from the community, the Mercer Island Police Department’s (MIPD) Chief Ed Holmes, alongside personnel and training sergeant Mike Seifert, appeared at a July 14 city council study session to shed light on the department’s hiring process, use of force, accountability and de-escalation tactics.
Before discussions began over Zoom, two Mercer Islanders spoke during public comment to share their thoughts relating to police. One, who noted that he had four Black nieces and nephews and said he has a Black Lives Matter sign in his front yard, said that he favored increased funding of MIPD.
Another community member, a Black woman named Addie Smith, comparatively called for decreased funding of police officers on Mercer Island. Smith has a biracial daughter and two biracial sons, and is a hate crime survivor.
“I don’t believe that Black people are safe — specifically speaking for myself and my daughter here on Mercer Island — and it gives me a really huge cause for concern when I hear other people that say ‘Black lives matter’ and have no clue, in my opinion, what that entails when it comes to safety and policing safety,” Smith said.
In the presentation, Holmes and Seifert covered numerous procedural areas. This was followed by a discussion about the mayor potentially signing former President Barack Obama’s Mayor Pledge. The pledge calls for city councils and mayors nationwide to commit to several actions to foster reform within their local police departments.
Hiring, according to Seifert, starts with an outside company called Public Safety Testing, which administers written and physical exams for prospective officers. While a candidate either passes or fails the physical, scores from the written test are taken into account for a subsequent test with an oral board. An oral board is usually made up of a city human resources representative, an MIPD supervisor, an officer and, depending on availability, a support staffer with the MIPD.
The board interviews a candidate together. Afterward, a list is compiled encompassing those who have moved forward. These candidates then must go through a background process, which includes interviews with family, friends, previous employers and teachers.
“We do everything we can to get to know this person,” Seifert said.
An in-house investigation also occurs. Polygraph tests are administered. Social media is reviewed as well — a practice that does not continue to happen once an officer is officially hired.
When a candidate passes this process, five will be interviewed for positions. This includes an interview with the chief. From there, a decision is made. If a prospective officer seems fit, a conditional offer (contingent on the passage of physical and psychological exams) is made. Then, if those two tests are passed, a nonconditional offer is extended.
After a new hire receives their nonconditional offer, they are put through an 18-month probationary period, during which they continue to be tested and monitored. Pre-academy training, Seifert said, can vary depending on hiring time and academy capacity.
During this period, officers work with various departments and sections and are made to become familiar with Island-specific characteristics. They are evaluated the entire time. If something concerning comes up, an officer can be let go.
Once an officer is enrolled in the basic law enforcement academy, they are expected to spend 720 hours (essentially a 19-week-long class) learning more about state-mandated officer expectations. After this, an officer goes through a two-week post-academy training catered more specifically to Mercer Island needs.
After this, a candidate goes through a field training officer program, which lasts about 13 weeks and is fundamentally an on-the-ground training. Once an officer has completed the field training officer program, they spend the remainder of the probationary period working with squad members, supervisors and senior officers.
Before the period ends, monthly evaluations are looked over by the personnel training sergeant, command staff and the chief before granting an officer a permanent position.
Use of force, bias-based policing policies
Police policies on Mercer Island are established by Lexipol, a company that formulates and updates policies for departments across the nation.
Officers are not allowed to use neck restraints “unless it’s a case of life or death flight,” Seifert said.
If an officer witnesses another officer using excessive force, they are required to intervene and then immediately report it to higher-ups. Verbal warnings are required when an officer points a taser at someone, pulls out their gun or any other forcible action.
Reports must be sent when force is used. Those reports are subsequently reviewed by supervisors.
The meeting presenters said that their policies strictly prohibit racial-profiling and bias-based policing. In addition to an annual bias training, officers have to immediately report incidents where they believe another officer has racially profiled someone or shown bias.
Holmes said that officers and dispatchers alike are trained to dismiss calls reporting someone as “suspicious” without providing evidence of why, exactly, someone is suspicious.
State law requires that permanent officers complete 24 hours of additional training annually. The MIPD, however, more typically sees 30-40 hours minimum of additional annual training, with potentially hundreds of hours in specialized training, Seifert said.
Topics typically include de-escalation, use of force, crisis intervention and anti-biased policing. The MIPD, according to the city, partners with other agencies like the Coalition of Small Police Agencies (CSPA) to “recruit quality instructors to teach different aspects of anti-bias based policing.”
“We usually surpass [those 24 hours] very easily,” Seifert said. “We take training very seriously in this department. We’re lucky to actually work in a jurisdiction where we’re not having to do high-risk call to high-risk-call from high-risk call, so we have to make sure that our officers are trained to deal with that on the rare occurrences that we do have to deal with it.”
Seifert noted that de-escalation training is usually done in tandem with other topic areas, as it is applicable in most situations.
Holmes said that the MIPD doesn’t receive very many complaints, but that when it does, they are taken seriously. Force is used rarely — there have been four documented uses of force in the last six years — and there is about one time a year when a firearm is pointed at someone to get them into compliance, Holmes said.
In addition to being reviewed by supervisors, uses of force are also analyzed for patterns.
If an officer kills someone, Holmes said, a separate criminal investigation is conducted by an outside entity. A separate administrative investigation is also conducted to see if policies were violated.
A decision on whether the mayor should sign the Obama-backed Mayor’s Pledge (which calls for mayors to review use of force policies, engage the community with public discussion opportunities, report community findings and ultimately reform use of force policies) was not made. Because the July 14 meeting was a study session, a final decision will not occur until the July 21 regular council meeting, which is after the Reporter’s print deadline.
The pledge is geared toward both local police departments patently in need of reform and departments that have updated their policies that nonetheless want to show community dedication.
Despite a professed commitment to the community and policy improvement, the mayor and several councilmembers were hesitant about signing the pledge. The mayor said ahead of the conversation that he had received hundreds of emails from community members encouraging a signing.
Holmes said that the pledge, to his eye, was meant more for cities who are “way behind” in equitable policy-making rather than for more contemporarily oriented jurisdictions like the MIPD.
“If we as a city want to take a bold step forward, we do it in a more broad context rather than a real refined context,” Holmes said.
“I don’t like to do meaningless or hollow acts,” added councilmember Lisa Anderl. “If our city comports with all of the requirements, then I think signing onto the pledge is just window dressing. Let’s admit that we’re doing a lot of this right, and we don’t need to take a pledge. We’re not non-compliant with any of these things. The alternative argument is, I know, ‘if you’re doing it all, then there’s no harm in taking the pledge’…I would rather stick to doing substantive stuff.”
Councilmember Craig Reynolds said that he didn’t like “hollow gestures” either, but felt that signing the pledge in the future wasn’t one.
“It sends an important message of commitment to the community, which is important,” he said. “Secondly, while I recognize that we don’t want to commit to reform if we think there are no reforms to be made, it’s probably a little bit naïve to believe that there’s nothing that can be done. [The MIPD is] doing a great job, from everything I can tell — I love what I hear. But there’s always room for improvement, and I think acknowledging that is an important gesture and an important thing to look at.”