With a deadline looming, federal and city officials are working on final details of a comprehensive plan to address problems in the Seattle Police Department.
Officials from the U.S. Department of Justice and the city of Seattle are expected to stand shoulder to shoulder Friday and announce a comprehensive reform plan to address federal findings that police have routinely used excessive force.
Central to the deal will be a court-appointed monitor, to be picked in the next 60 days, according to sources. The monitor will guide the department in adopting the consent decree and report to a federal judge who will oversee it.
The judge can be called upon to resolve disputes or order changes if the Police Department or city balks — not unlike agreements reached with Los Angeles and, this week, the New Orleans Police Department.
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Details of the consent decree — forged just days before a July 31 deadline — are being closely held, but it appears that a mayoral advisory commission on police affairs will be created.
Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, who attended a briefing Thursday, said she and others were first required to sign confidentiality agreements.
However, Bagshaw and other members of the council who were briefed, said for the most part they felt positive about what they had heard.
Councilmember Jean Godden said she was “very pleased,” and Councilmember Tim Burgess, a former Seattle police officer and past chairman of the council’s public-safety committee, said he believed “great progress has been made.”
Also briefed was Sgt. Rich O’Neill, president of the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild.
If plans unfold here the way they have elsewhere, the consent decree will be filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle sometime Friday, simultaneously with the DOJ lawsuit it is intended to settle.
Over the next several years, the judge assigned to the case will get progress updates and will ensure, by court order if necessary, that the fixes contained in the consent decree take root.
Friday’s media briefing will include Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, who heads the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division. Perez came to Seattle last December to explain to city officials the Justice Department’s findings that police here routinely use unconstitutional force. The investigation also found troubling, but inconclusive, evidence of biased policing.
Mayor Mike McGinn, City Attorney Pete Holmes and U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan are expected to participate in Friday’s briefing.
Officials from the city, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division crafted the agreement with the help of a Seattle mediator, who was brought in last month to jump-start the talks. The DOJ had said it would sue if an agreement wasn’t reached by July 31.
Meanwhile, the City Council and members of Seattle’s diverse communities — many of whom had urged the DOJ to investigate the Police Department in the first place — complained they’d been cut out of the talks.
McGinn has said in the past he would not oppose a consent decree, but that the issue has always been in the details of the settlement.
Series of confrontations
Years of friction between police and minority communities — many centered on allegations of officers escalating petty situations into confrontations, and then using force to quell them — came to a head in 2010 and 2011 with a series of highly publicized and controversial incidents, many of which were caught on tape.
The public outrage reached a crescendo Aug. 30, 2010, however, when Officer Ian Birk shot and killed a First Nations totem carver who was walking downtown carrying a piece of wood and a small folding knife. A dashboard camera in Birk’s patrol car captured the audio of the encounter and revealed that only about four seconds passed between the time Birk issued commands to put down the knife and when he fired the shots that ended the life of John T. Williams.
The shooting proved a catalyst within the communities that had over the years witnessed attempt after attempt at police reform falter or fail. This time they responded with a single voice and to a higher authority, the Department of Justice.
In December 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, joined by 34 community groups, sent a letter to the DOJ asking for a formal investigation into the Seattle Police Department.
Perez, the head of the DOJ’s civil-rights unit, and Durkan, the U.S. attorney in Seattle who had been pivotal in earlier efforts to fix problems within the SPD, responded by ordering a preliminary investigation that, just a few months later, became a full-scale civil-rights inquiry.
In December 2011, a year after the letter was sent, Perez flew to Seattle to announce the Justice Department had found a “pattern or practice” of the use of excessive force. The investigation concluded, and Durkan has insisted, that the only way to ensure that reforms take hold this time would be to have them implemented and overseen by a court-appointed monitor.
City, SPD missteps
The city’s response was to have been developed by a “Gang of Five” elected officials: McGinn; Holmes; and council members Sally Clark, the council chairwoman; Bruce Harrell, the newly appointed chairman of the public-safety committee; and Burgess, a onetime Seattle police officer with a deep knowledge of police best practices and the workings of the SPD.
There was consensus that significant changes would be required. But that’s pretty much where any common ground gave way.
The council members complained that McGinn cut them out of the process almost from the start. Meantime, the mayor directed Police Chief John Diaz to come up with reforms and re-engage the community.
From the outset, there were missteps. During the investigation, the Justice Department warned the Police Department in writing against retaliating against employees who talked to federal investigators.
This came after an assistant chief, Mike Sanford, ordered a subordinate to put together a PowerPoint presentation about leadership after Sanford learned the officer had been critical of command staff during an interview with DOJ investigators.
Several of the Police Department’s captains also met with DOJ lawyers to discuss issues with Sanford and others in the police command staff.
Sanford has since been put in charge of the SPD’s “20/20″ plan, the department’s response to the DOJ’s proposed consent decree. Launched in March, it promised 20 sweeping reforms implemented over 20 months.
McGinn’s go-it-alone tactic also frustrated Holmes. After several deadlines passed without an agreement, Holmes warned that the DOJ was prepared to sue if an agreement wasn’t reached by the end of July.