While the Justice Department has been meeting with Seattle city officials and citizens for several weeks, some groups say not enough voices are being heard.
Even as the U.S. Department of Justice has begun crafting a court order aimed at ending what it says is the unconstitutional use of force by Seattle police, some community groups — who have waited years for their complaints about police to be addressed — are feeling rushed by the process.
A dispute has also arisen over the makeup, or the need, for a citizens advisory panel to oversee implementation of the reforms, as suggested by Mayor Mike McGinn in December in the days after the Justice Department released its findings.
In crafting a court-enforceable consent decree, Justice Department civil-rights attorneys have met with McGinn, City Attorney Pete Holmes, members of the City Council and dozens of citizens groups and community members over the past three weeks with an eye toward completing interviews and most information-gathering by the middle of February.
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“There is a sense of urgency to get things done,” said Executive Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Bates. “Having this lingering and looming isn’t good for anyone.”
By agreement with the city, the Justice Department will write the first draft of the decree, perhaps by the end of the month, said City Council Chairwoman Sally Clark.
She cautioned, however, that the city will likely be involved in negotiations with the department for “several months” before a final document is ready and filed in U.S. District Court.
The first draft might contain some specific recommendations, but Clark said much of it will involve setting deadlines and time frames for the Police Department to “address a number of the thornier issues” presented in the Justice Department’s findings that Seattle police officers engage in routine and widespread use of excessive force, mostly against minorities, the mentally ill and the intoxicated.
The report also found troubling, but inconclusive, evidence of biased policing.
The decree will lay out how the Police Department will address the findings, while setting deadlines to reach those goals.
A judge will appoint a monitor to ensure the department’s compliance.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office has declined to discuss a time frame in drafting the decree.
However, some in the community are feeling rushed.
Estela Ortega, the executive director of El Centro de la Raza, said she has asked the Justice Department to extend its deadlines for community input.
After a dozen years of committees, task forces and reports about problems in the Police Department, “why suddenly is there a hurry?” she said Thursday.
“We felt that the process would be more inclusive,” she said. “We’ll be seeking a little more time to make sure that occurs.”
She said El Centro had written a letter Thursday to the Justice Department outlining those concerns and asking for more time to address them.
El Centro was one of nearly three dozen community groups that requested the Justice Department investigation after several highly publicized confrontations between officers and minority citizens, including the fatal shooting of First Nations woodcarver John T. Williams in August 2010.
Ortega and others, including the Minority Executive Directors Coalition of King County, an umbrella group of nonprofits and other community groups, are pushing McGinn’s office to ensure that Seattle’s various communities have a voice, Ortega said.
Meantime, El Centro and other community advocates have balked at McGinn’s expressed plan to appoint a citizens advisory panel. Some groups — the Seattle Human Rights Commission key among them — believe the Office of Professional Accountability Review Board, a citizens panel that reviews police internal investigations, is already in place to fill that role.
Still others, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, simply question the need for any more panels.
“There are lots of groups out there,” said ACLU attorney Jennifer Shaw. “I’m just not sure there needs to be another advisory panel.”
McGinn had announced his plan to form an advisory group in December, when he ordered police Chief John Diaz to begin to immediately implement the Justice Department recommendations despite police commanders’ skepticism of the investigation’s conclusions.
Officials who have attended meetings between federal and city officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the city has simply “agreed to disagree” with the Justice Department findings that one of every five incidents of force by Seattle police violates the law.
McGinn’s spokesman, Aaron Pickus, said no advisory panel has been formed. “We are working to define the public-engagement process,” he said. He offered no additional details.
Clark said there is consensus in the City Council, mayor’s office and the City Attorney’s Office that a consent decree offers “a tremendous opportunity” for the city to address difficult and long-standing problems between the community and the police.
“This is going to be more than checking off boxes,” Clark said.
“We want to come out of this in the lead when it comes to effective community policing and community relations.”
But she said the city intends to balance the need to move quickly with the desire to make sure everyone gets heard and that the city’s interests are considered. So far, she said, the Justice Department has been accommodating.
“I was afraid they were just going to come in and tell us what to do,” she said. “That has not been what has happened.”
Likewise, the ACLU’s Shaw said she has been “encouraged because everyone is taking this seriously.
Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or firstname.lastname@example.org