Seattle police reforms show the power of federal consent decrees. U.S. attorney general Jeff Sessions would make a serious mistake if he pulls back from a proven program.
IF U.S. attorney general Jeff Sessions were in power a few years ago, the Seattle Police Department might have gotten a pass for its overly aggressive, biased policing. Absent a federal investigation and court-ordered reforms, the SPD might have lost the opportunity to transform into the smarter, better trained force it is today.
Sessions, the nation’s top law enforcement officer, is skeptical of the Department of Justice civil rights investigations of local police. He said so in his confirmation hearings and in a directive made public this week when he ordered a broad review of federal law enforcement programs. Most prominent are the so-called “pattern and practice” investigations that usually lead to the type of consent decree signed with Seattle.
Sessions risks dragging policing practices backward in time. He should come West and talk to officers like Kevin Stuckey, head of the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild.
In an interview this week on KUOW, Stuckey noted that since Seattle signed a consent decree in 2012 and instituted reforms, police now have a 72 percent approval rating among communities of color, have reduced their use of force 55 percent and are going through unique and valuable bias-free policing training.
“We’ve had a culture change here in Seattle,” Stuckey said.
The federal power to investigate unconstitutional local police practices sprang from the Rodney King debacle in Los Angeles in 1991, which was tied to an institutional failure in the LAPD to hold cops accountable. Since the mid-1990s, the Department of Justice has signed 40-some agreements to reform police agencies, including Seattle, Portland and Los Angeles.
A surge in filings under President Obama means there are 14 active consent decrees, and more investigations underway. Regardless of Sessions’ position, the Seattle police reforms are not at risk. On Thursday, the Seattle police monitor declared the department to be in compliance with a key part of the consent decree. But in Baltimore, where the process is just starting, local officials are having to ask Justice Department attorneys to not back away.
Research on the consent decrees show they work, although some not in as dramatically positive a way as in Seattle. They’re hard and spark defensiveness from some officers. They’re expensive. Sometimes law enforcement agencies backslide after the feds leave.
But they are necessary, especially at this critical moment in time that has sparked the Black Lives Matter movement and appalling attacks on officers in Dallas and elsewhere. Less accountability, as Sessions appears to support, is a path toward greater distrust.