Among the top priorities for newly sworn-in President Joe Biden is following through on campaign promises to reinstate federal investigations and oversight of troubled police departments.
This is urgently needed to complement ongoing work in states and cities to address ongoing disparities, bias and excessive force in policing, including a slate of proposals being considered by Washington’s Legislature.
The U.S. Department of Justice vigorously investigated troubled police departments during the Obama administration. That drew on legal authority that Biden helped pass when he was a U.S. senator.
But the Trump administration sidelined the program, even after a series of awful police killings of Black men and women led to nationwide demonstrations and demands for reform.
The vast majority of police are honorable public servants, but systemic problems with bias and violence, and poor systems of accountability, continue among the nation’s 18,000 law-enforcement agencies.
Seattle is a poster child for the potential and challenges of a federal response to unconstitutional policing.
After the DOJ pursued a civil-rights case against the Seattle Police Department starting in 2011 for its pattern and practice of excessive force, great progress was made to reform the department, document performance, and improve training and accountability.
In early 2018, U.S. District Judge James Robart declared the department in “full and effective compliance.” Use of serious force had declined by 60%, and force was used in only 0.5% of all incidents, Robart noted.
However, Seattle had to stay in compliance for two more years, proving the reforms stuck, before federal oversight ended.
By late 2018, Seattle was stumbling, with the City Council approving a police union contract that undermined the council’s own accountability measures. Robart demanded explanations of the contract and a squishy arbitration process, after the process overturned discipline of an officer fired for punching a handcuffed woman.
Last year, Seattle argued it maintained compliance, and Robart was expected to finally conclude oversight. Then the city stumbled again in its response to protests, using excessive force in some instances, extending its probation and resulting in another federal court order.
Merrick Bobb, a policing expert appointed to monitor Seattle’s progress until last summer, told this editorial board the experience in Seattle and other cities with consent decrees offers lessons in improving or revamping this approach to bring improvements.
Bobb said consent decrees may not be adequate unless paired with capable, reform-minded leadership such as Seattle’s former Chief Kathleen O’Toole, and strong oversight by monitors and judges.
In departments that aren’t as flawed as Seattle’s was in 2010, a less intensive oversight approach may work, such as via the DOJ’s community-oriented policing services (COPS) office, Bobb suggested.
Biden’s pledge to address systemic police misconduct with the DOJ is overdue and welcome.
This should be informed by the experience in Seattle and other cities with consent decrees, with an eye toward increasing the speed of reforms where federal intervention is needed.