The City of Seattle has asked a federal judge to terminate the Seattle Police Department Consent Decree sustainment plan, arguing that the SPD has enacted comprehensive reforms and improvements in its use of force and how officers interact with those experiencing mental crises.
The city and U.S. Department of Justice filed motions Thursday with U.S. District Court Judge James Robard, who has overseen a lengthy reform process that began in 2012 when a Justice Department probe found a “pattern of practice” of unconstitutional use of force by the SPD. Mayor Jenny Durkan was, at the time, U.S. Attorney for Western Washington.
“This department is a different place than it was nearly a decade ago. The SPD has become a national leader in de-escalation, our response to people in crisis, and internal and external oversight of policies and practices,” Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best said in a statement.
“We will remain a national leader through our commitment to continuous improvement and innovation. The work is never done, but today we acknowledge all that has been accomplished.”
Durkan was present at the creation when the Justice Department under President Obama insisted on reforms in use of force, interaction with those in crises, as well as increased transparency. The 21-member Seattle Community Police Commission is a product of the reforms.
Durkan was on point with the Justice Department, when the Seattle City Council — far less ideological than it is now — pushed through approval of the Consent Decree past a sometimes balky Mayor Mike McGinn.
“The Seattle Police Department has transformed itself,” Durkan said Thursday. “In our city, our officers have responded to a record number of crisis calls, yet force has rarely been used. They have met every metric set forth by the Court’s sustainment plan.”
Judge Robart has been a rigorous overseer. The judge is best known for his 2017 temporary restraining order, later sustained by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, that blocked President Trump’s first Muslim travel ban … leading Trump to call the order “ridiculous” and disparage Robart as a “so-called judge.”
In 2016, after the Seattle Police Officers Guild rejected a tentative contract, Robart said he would not let the SPOG hold the city “hostage” as it sought to implement police-accountability reform. He used what has become a mobilizing phrase in America, telling a hearing, “To hide behind a collective bargaining agreement is not going to work.” He ended by declaring “Black lives matter,” reported The Seattle Times.
Judge Robart, early in 2018, had found the SPD in full compliance with the Consent Decree. But he questioned whether a new agreement with the Police Guild, historically a recalcitrant actor in the process, had complied fully with the Consent Decree and reforms to the department.
He extended oversight last May with an order to fix shortcomings in officer accountability. He called into question procedures in which appeals of disciplinary rulings by the Chief of Police were assigned to an outside arbitrator. Robart questioned whether this amounted to any change from when the SPD used excessive force.
The city, in asking an end to the Consent Decree’s sustainment plan, cites a series of 13 compliance reports by Merrrick Bobb, the monitor who has tracked compliance. According to the Seattle-Justice Department filing:
— The SPD has reduced the incidence of serious force, on the part of officers, by 60% and virtually all uses of force now meet constitutional requirements, demonstrating that there is no longer a pattern of use of excessive force.
— The SPD has become, as argued by Chief Best, a national leader in crisis response training and its rate of using force in crisis incidents is now extraordinarily low.
— The SPD no longer engages in “no suspicion” stop and frisk tactics decried in other cities, most notably New York. The legality of its stops and frisks does not vary by race.
— The SPD and Seattle Community Police Commission have collaborated to design and implement high quality implicit bias training and to study the sources and effects of racial disparity in policing.
— SPD has overhauled patrol staffing to ensure that all patrol officers have a consistent, highly trained supervisor.
It also points to “thorough, complete” investigations by the Office of Police Accountability.
Policing in Seattle is not without continued tensions. The Community Police Commission has questioned the city’s current labor agreement with the SPOG. Right wing talk radio carries talk of low morale and retirements from the SPD, and claims of understaffing.
The city saw major controversy in 2017 after SPD officer fatally shot a 30-year-old woman who had called police to report an attempted burglary. The responding officers reported that she displayed a knife and was shot and killed. The woman, Charleena Lyles, had been dealing with mental health issues. Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant made accusations and has led demonstrations.
In the filing Thursday with Judge Robard, however, Mayor Durkan spoke of a “new transparency” in the SPD, and said, “Our officers continue to show their dedication toward building community trust.”