Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and his challenger, state Sen. Ed Murray, believe the Department of Justice (DOJ) rightly concluded Seattle police had engaged in a pattern of excessive force — even though the city did not admit to any wrongdoing when it ultimately agreed to make sweeping reforms.
“I personally believe that excessive use of force and bias have been real and serious issues for a long time, and reflected systemic issues,” McGinn said in a written statement to The Seattle Times.
Murray, who faces McGinn in the Nov. 5 mayoral election, noted in a statement that the Justice Department reached its conclusion after a “substantial investigation.”
“As I have said numerous times throughout this campaign, I agree with the DOJ that use of force was a problem at SPD,” Murray wrote.
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The Times asked both candidates whether they agreed with the Justice Department‘s central finding in December 2011 that Seattle police had engaged in a pattern or practice of unlawful force, deriving from the department’s failure to adopt adequate policies, training and oversight.
The candidates’ views offer insight into their thinking at a critical juncture: The next mayor will select a permanent police chief, who either will retain or rearrange the all-important command staff that sets the tone within the department.
Both men have pledged to conduct a national search in and outside the department, which may include Interim Chief Jim Pugel.
In addition, the mayor and chief will be responsible for assuring that costly and difficult reforms to curtail excessive force are carried out. In turn, they could face resistance from officers who, instead of seeing street disorder and taking action, might primarily wait to answer 911 calls.
When city officials reached a settlement with the Justice Department last year and agreed to the reforms, the city took the position that nothing in the settlement would be construed as an admission of wrongdoing or liability on its part — a standard stance to protect itself in legal actions.
The Justice Department also cited “serious concerns” that officers had engaged in biased policing, although it did not reach a formal finding on that issue.
As part of the landmark settlement, an independent monitor, Merrick Bobb, was appointed to oversee the court-approved reform effort.
In his statement, McGinn wrote that he agreed that the issues raised by the Justice Department and community leaders regarding excessive force and bias “warranted entering into a comprehensive settlement to address those issues.”
McGinn said that is why he negotiated a settlement that “brought together civil-rights leaders, community leaders, and SPD leadership, to work on a long-term, sustained, and open process of reform.”
Murray wrote that when the Justice Department came to the city with their findings, the city had an opportunity to work with them to correct the problem.
“Unfortunately, the current mayor chose to fight the DOJ, and to fight the City Council, fight the City Attorney, and even fought the appointment of a nationally respected monitor,” Murray wrote.
Murray said he agreed with the Justice Department’s contention that the Police Department’s leadership was responsible for “failures of oversight and training.”
He pointed to the need for additional and ongoing training, beyond what new officers get at the state academy, on the “challenges of policing in a diverse, urban setting.”
Immediately after the Justice Department issued its report, McGinn neither repudiated nor embraced it, saying the city needed to see what information the DOJ relied on to reach its conclusion. But he quickly shifted gears, declaring his commitment to reform.
However, McGinn fought with the Justice Department over the scope and cost of the reforms. He also clashed with three members of the City Council and City Attorney Pete Holmes, who favored taking a less confrontational approach with the DOJ.
McGinn repeatedly attributed his tough bargaining to his desire for reforms that produced effective changes, enhanced public safety and stayed within the city’s budget.
One danger was that officers would interpret his approach as a rejection of the Justice Department’s conclusions, making it more difficult to win support for reforms.
Some citizens already have raised concerns that some officers are refusing to deal with spontaneous problems, particularly in response to downtown disorder. While anecdotal, those officers might be deliberately engaging in what is known as “de-policing,” either out of fear of being second-guessed or to create a public backlash in favor of more aggressive policing.
Murray has been endorsed by the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, which would put him in a delicate position if elected.
Although the guild’s president, Sgt. Rich O’Neill, has urged the rank and file to accept the reforms and “move forward” with the changes, Murray would likely confront continuing resentment over the changes.
In the October issue of the guild newspaper, The Guardian, O’Neill wrote that Murray represents the best chance to fix Seattle’s “dysfunctional” government and wants to “get out from under the DOJ as quickly as possible.”
But that won’t happen until the federal judge overseeing the case, James Robart, gives his blessing.
Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this story.
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org On Twitter @stevemiletich