In a letter citing his role as Seattle’s chief legal officer, City Attorney Pete Holmes wrote that U.S. District Judge James Robart raised important questions and underscored the need for lasting police reform.
Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes sent a letter Thursday asking the City Council to take no action on police-accountability legislation pushed by a citizen-advisory body until the city receives further guidance from the federal judge overseeing court-ordered reforms.
The letter comes after months of tension between U.S. District Judge James Robart and the Community Police Commission (CPC) over its efforts to become a permanent body with greater powers, rather than a temporary entity originally envisioned under the reform plan.
Robart is presiding over a 2012 consent decree in which the city agreed to adopt reforms to address allegations of excessive force and biased policing cited by the U.S. Justice Department.
He has chastised the 15-member CPC — created as part of the consent decree — for seeking to prematurely perpetuate its own existence at the expense of a broader review of what should be done to bolster police oversight.
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In a brief statement Thursday evening, the CPC said: “We need to get it right, and we need to get it done. Our communities are waiting, and we will all be held accountable.”
It said it is willing to participate in further talks outlined in Holmes’ letter.
The commission’s proposed legislation won the early endorsement of Murray, Holmes and Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole last year.
But in the letter, Holmes, citing his role as lead counsel in the federal case and the city’s chief legal officer, wrote that Robart has raised questions and cautioned that the city and Justice Department need to take the necessary time to “get this right.”
“The People of Seattle will not forgive yet another failed police reform effort, and federal intervention represents perhaps the City’s last, best opportunity for meaningful, lasting change,” Holmes wrote, referring to past efforts that produced “mixed results” before the Justice Department stepped in.
Throughout the city’s dealings with the Justice Department and the court, Holmes has rarely used his legal pulpit to make public pronouncements.
At a similar crossroads in July 2012, just before the consent decree was signed, Holmes wrote a sharply worded letter to then-mayor Mike McGinn warning that McGinn’s negotiating strategy with the Justice Department had put the city on the verge of a civil-rights lawsuit that could have dire consequences.
In Thursday’s letter, Holmes stressed that two fundamental principles were at stake: that true reform can only be accomplished through “a robust, permanent accountability structure,” and that it must be “grounded on a strong foundation of civilian oversight.”
The proposed legislation, he wrote, represents an “excellent starting point” for determining the next steps.
It was never intended to be the final word on the best accountability structure for civilian oversight of the Police Department, according to Holmes.
Moreover, much has changed since the legislation emerged, Holmes wrote, attaching a long list of questions from the judge regarding internal investigations, disciplinary procedures and civilian oversight.
In addition, the federal monitor reporting to the judge has recently provided input on the subject; four new council members have been elected; and the city has new, geographic council districts, his letter notes.
“The decisions we are being asked to make will affect the entire City for decades,” he wrote.
While the monitor, Merrick Bobb, has found consistent improvement, he also has emphasized much work remains, according to Holmes’ letter.
Holmes also wrote he has his own questions, including whether the proposed legislation is strong enough.
His letter — addressed to Murray, council members, O’Toole, the CPC’s executive director, Fé Lopez, and other officials — includes an attachment laying out a structure for further discussions, with a timeline subject to the court’s approval.
Included in the talks will be the Justice Department, the City Attorney, the mayor’s office, the Police Department, three or four CPC members and the civilian director and civilian auditor of SPD’s internal-investigation unit, the Office of Professional Accountability.
Bobb will send a representative to each meeting, and provide “notes and concerns” to the participants.
With a target date of April 6, positions reached in the discussions, including agreements and disagreements, will be submitted to Robart. The CPC will be allowed to comment on the filings.
“The Parties anticipate that the Monitor and the Court will then review these positions and will convene a status conference,” Holmes wrote. “After the status conference, the Court will advise the parties whether the City may proceed with its proposed reform plan.”
Seattle City Councilmember Lorena González, who heads the council committee that oversees police matters, was not immediately available for comment. Her office said she received the letter late Thursday afternoon and was studying it.
Murray, in a statement released by the mayor’s office, said: “I look forward to our meetings with the Parties, Monitoring Team and CPC to discuss meaningful, lasting reforms to the Seattle Police Department’s accountability system. We must take advantage of this opportunity to improve upon our current system as we progress towards compliance with the Consent Decree.”