A federal judge on Tuesday approved a first-year blueprint for reforming the Seattle Police Department, praising the work creating the plan but issuing a blunt warning to the city that he has not been happy with political infighting that cluttered the negotiations.
In a stern lecture from the bench, U.S. District Judge James Robart chastised the city for a “breakdown” in concentration during recent weeks, while Mayor Mike McGinn attacked City Attorney Pete Holmes’ ethics and questioned Holmes’ authority in the case.
Holmes sat at counsel table during Tuesday’s hearing. McGinn did not attend.
The plan approved by Robart lays out deadlines for implementing new policies and training in the Police Department, required under a settlement agreement between the city and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).
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It represents a major step in the reform effort, stemming from DOJ findings that Seattle police officers routinely use excessive force. Federal attorneys also cited evidence of biased policing.
At one point last week, it appeared that McGinn and the Police Department might not accept the plan submitted by Merrick Bobb, an independent monitor appointed by the court to assure the agreement is carried out.
Robart said that would have been a mistake and he would have found the city out of compliance with the settlement agreement and might have imposed his own version of the agreement.
“Something that, I suspect, none of you, including me, would have liked or wanted to do,” he said.
The judge also dissuaded the city of a notion, first put forth by McGinn during a Feb. 27 news briefing, that the city’s agreement with the DOJ — signed in July — settled the litigation between them.
McGinn’s legal counsel, Carl Marquardt, repeated the assertion in a March 5 letter to Holmes, saying “implementation of the Settlement Agreement is not ‘litigation.’ ”
He said the agreement makes clear that it is an accord between the city and DOJ to avoid litigation. Marquardt asserted that implementation “falls squarely” within the mayor’s authority.
That view is “simply wrong,” Robart said.
“Let there be no doubt then that what you have is an order of this court,” he said. “It is not a private contract between the parties.”
He reminded the city that he will retain jurisdiction over the case until the Police Department is in “full and effective compliance.”
“So for better or worse, you have me for a while. And the litigation is not ending, it’s beginning,” Robart said.
Robart said he agreed with McGinn that the monitor’s plan is a “living document” that may be amended, but that any changes must be approved by the court.
He also addressed an injunction being sought by the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild and the Seattle Police Management Association in state court to prevent any of the court-ordered changes to the department from interfering with their contract or collective-bargaining rights. It named Bobb as one of the defendants.
Robart, who described Bobb as an “agent of the court,” said he was “not aware of any jurisprudence which allows a state court to tell me what to do in my settlement agreement.” He said he considered the labor groups’ efforts “a further distraction” from implementing the agreement.
Sgt. Rich O’Neill, president of the police guild, said Tuesday night that there isn’t case law dealing with the issue of how to resolve the state’s collective-bargaining rights in conjunction with a federal court order.
He said he was assured by federal and city officials that the settlement agreement would not infringe on bargaining rights.
“We’re not trying to trump the reforms, we’re not trying to stand in the way of reforms, and many reforms don’t require bargaining,” O’Neill said, noting the guild must protect officers’ disciplinary rights that are subject to bargaining.
“We won’t be obstructionists … but we have to defend our rights,” he added.
Robart did praise the work done so far, and he highlighted what he called “significant milestones” reached to date: the settlement agreement and appointment of Bobb as monitor, the development of a first-year plan and the appointment of a Community Police Commission (CPC) by the mayor.
The CPC was singled out by Bobb and his team as the group whose work will likely determine the eventual success of the settlement agreement itself. The commission is charged with guiding the city in areas of police-data collection, policy review involving use-of-force and bias-free policing, reviewing the structure of the Police Department’s Office of Professional Accountability and, most significantly, engaging the community.
Ron Ward, the assistant monitor, told Robart that he hoped the commission would be “assertive.”
“Without that assertiveness, I don’t think we will get real change,” he said.
Bobb told the court that the department has been cooperative and that he and his team have had gotten almost everything they’ve asked for. “We enjoy good access,” he said.
His deputy, Seattle attorney Peter Ehrlichman, said the monitoring team was watching for specific “indicators of success.” Among the top priorities, he said, was the need for the department to make sure it has enough full-time sergeants and less reliance on acting sergeants who are not fully trained. “It’s tough to be a supervisor and a squad member.”
Ehrlichman said another measure is the training of all officers in crisis-intervention and that all use of force is reported, tracked, properly classified and thoroughly investigated.
McGinn’s spokesman, Aaron Pickus, declined to comment on Robart’s remarks stressing that the litigation remains active.
“The mayor, police chief and city attorney are working with the monitor and DOJ on the reforms in the monitoring plan and the settlement agreement,” Pickus said in an email.
Holmes’ spokeswoman, Kimberly Mills, said Holmes was pleased with the outcome and that Robart’s remarks “speak for themselves.”
Seattle Times staff reporter
Sara Jean Green contributed
to this report.
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