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Mayoral candidate Bruce Harrell said this week that he would have put up a better fight against the Department of Justice than Mayor Mike McGinn did in support of the Seattle Police Department.

Then he went a step further, saying he probably wouldn’t have had to if he had been mayor.

“One reason they focused on Seattle is they knew they had a weak mayor who would capitulate,” he said.

Harrell’s statements come less than three weeks before ballots are mailed in a nine-way primary for the mayor’s office. Harrell is one of four front-runners, and public-safety issues are at the forefront of the campaign.

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His statements this week are virtually the opposite of his public position while the debate over the settlement was raging last spring. He and Councilmembers Tim Burgess and Sally Clark were critical of the mayor for being too adversarial and too slow in his settlement negotiations with the Justice Department

Harrell made his first public statement about wanting to litigate Saturday at a City Hall forum on criminal-justice issues, then repeated them Wednesday in an interview with The Seattle Times editorial board.

“I wouldn’t have entered into the settlement,” Harrell, who is chairman of the Seattle City Council’s public-safety committee, said Wednesday.

“As an experienced litigator,” he said, he would have demanded more information from the Department of Justice, in particular about the department’s finding that 20 percent of the uses of force it studied were unreasonable. That finding without the details to back it up, he said, left the city “negotiating in the dark.”

Pursuing litigation to learn more about the Department of Justice’s findings might have taken longer and been more adversarial, but Harrell said that approach would have resulted in a more effective agreement.

And he said he doesn’t believe the federal government really would have sued the city.

City Attorney Pete Holmes, also a critic of McGinn’s, said he was surprised to hear of Harrell’s suggestion and disagrees with the strategy.

“To delay [reform efforts] to litigate and conduct discovery over the analysis of the Justice Department would be a waste of resources and expose us to some considerable litigation risk,” he said. “Bruce discounts that risk. … I don’t believe the Justice Department bluffs.”

In March 2012, Harrell signed a letter to the mayor that said: “While we appreciate the negotiations with the DOJ are sensitive, we feel strongly that they need not be adversarial. We continue to urge swift resolution with the DOJ so we can proceed to implement these and other related reforms.”

In an interview Thursday, Harrell said that he urged the mayor privately to push harder for more facts about the department’s investigation.

“I gave him specific litigation advice,” he said. “I said, ‘shouldn’t we first demand that they show us the data we’re relying on?’ ”

But Harrell said McGinn left him out of conversations about strategy. Both McGinn and Harrell are lawyers.

“The matter was going on and on, and it was never clear what Mike McGinn wanted,” he said.

McGinn said through a spokesman Thursday that he doesn’t remember Harrell urging him to litigate.

The mayor often is criticized for picking a fight with the Department of Justice over the report. Most of his challengers on the campaign trail say the mayor should have worked more cooperatively with the Justice Department. McGinn angered department officials with his demands.

In the end, Harrell said McGinn’s agreement with the Department of Justice was too soft. “Both sides were too happy at the end of this agreement,” he said, and as a result, it won’t result in real reform.

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