Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and City Attorney Pete Holmes were right to pause a legal effort that could lead to reduced federal oversight of the Seattle Police Department.
Before resuming that effort, to assert compliance with a 2012 federal consent decree, Seattle must show progress negotiating a new police contract with stronger accountability measures.
Seattle and the rest of the nation are now keenly aware that centuries of violence toward people of color and biased policing must end.
One path forward is police reform. That involves better training and other steps to reduce bias and improper use of force. It also requires a strong system of accountability. There must be swift and certain consequences for wrongdoing. If accountability is weakened through collective bargaining, it reduces trust and weakens progress.
While Durkan, Holmes, City Council members and the department are all committed to fair and constitutional policing, that is undermined when they endorse union contracts making it difficult to investigate and discipline police for misconduct.
The timing of the city’s May filing, potentially a step toward ending federal oversight, was problematic for several reasons.
First, it came right before George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis prompted a nationwide call for an end to racist policing and effective reforms. Ensuing protests in Seattle have generated thousands of complaints of police misconduct.
“It’s really an indictment that the city and SPD should not be congratulating themselves — it tells us that there’s more work to be done,” Reverend Aaron Williams, co-chair of Seattle’s Community Police Commission, told this editorial board.
Those complaints must be addressed before the city can make the case it has shown sustained compliance with the decree. That’s especially so since the protest complaints will be handled under an accountability system deemed insufficient by the city’s Community Police Commission.
Seattle has made progress with reforms, notably reducing the use of violence. But questions remain about how much it holds police accountable for bad behavior.
A second reason the timing was bad: Seattle is just beginning to negotiate a new police contract. Contracts are critical to reform. Even if there’s policy against bad policing, contracts can add loopholes or wiggle room to reduce or avoid penalties for misbehavior.
That’s what happened with Seattle’s current police contracts. Even though the City Council passed stronger accountability requirements in 2017, the mayor negotiated, and the council approved, contracts in late 2018 that fell short of those requirements.
The contracts were approved over objections of the Community Police Commission, which raised concerns about disciplinary standards and limits on the investigative power of the department’s internal office that handles complaints.
Having such contract language in Seattle and nationally “has contributed enormously to undermining the role of discipline in establishing standards of performance and enforcing accountability expectations,” according to a scathing analysis of the contracts by Anne Levinson, a former municipal judge and Seattle police oversight auditor.
Because of concerns about accountability under the contracts, U.S. District Judge James Robart decided in May 2019 that Seattle was partially out of compliance with the decree.
The city must now be restoring trust in its police and demonstrating its commitment to sustained reform. That requires strong accountability and disciplinary measures.
To help ensure better police contracts this year, the city should allow an expert representing the Community Police Commission to assess agendas and proposals throughout negotiations. This was suggested by the commission years ago and called for in September by dozens of advocacy groups, including the ACLU.
Pausing legal steps toward reducing oversight was the right decision. City Hall has plenty to do before it tries again.