The ruling represents a momentous turning point for the police department, recognizing its efforts to address allegations that officers used excessive force and displayed troubling evidence of biased policing.
In a landmark ruling, U.S. District Judge James Robart on Wednesday found the Seattle Police Department in “full and effective compliance” with court-ordered reforms imposed on the city more than five years ago after a string of high-profile incidents involving use of force.
The city will enter into a two-year review period in which it must show the sweeping reforms are locked in place and address a list of issues Robart laid out in his 16-page ruling.
“Fulfilling Phase I is an enormous milestone and one in which the City and SPD should take pride,” Robart wrote. “Nevertheless, the court cautions the City and SPD that this does not mean their work is done. In many ways, Phase II is the most difficult portion of the Consent Decree to fulfill.
“The ability to sustain the good work that has begun is not a foregone conclusion,” the judge added. “It will require dedication, hard work, creativity, flexibility, vigilance, endurance, and continued development and refinement of policies and procedures in accordance with constitutional principles.”
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Mayor Jenny Durkan agreed, saying “the next two years are going to be critical” to continuing the work. She noted during a Wednesday afternoon news conference that the city’s work is not done — “and we know we’re not done.”
But, for the moment, the ruling represents a major turning point for the Police Department, recognizing its accomplishments since the city entered into a consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department in July 2012 to address allegations that officers had engaged in a “pattern or practice” of using excessive force and displayed troubling evidence of biased policing.
“This is a very significant and good day for the city of Seattle, for the Police Department and for the community,” Durkan said, flanked by the department’s brass and city leaders.
Robart, who has overseen the consent decree, granted a motion, filed by the city in September, asking that it be found in full compliance with the agreement. The Justice Department and Community Police Commission, a citizen body created as part of the consent decree, had joined in the city’s request.
The department began to move toward compliance under the leadership of former Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole, an ex-Boston police commissioner who was hired by the city in June 2014 at a time the reform effort was foundering. She stepped down Dec. 31, citing mostly personal reasons for her decision.
Interim Police Chief Carmen Best, who has said she wants the permanent job and lauded the work of the department’s employees Wednesday, will inherit the responsibility of maintaining the changes, bolstered by a boost in department morale that is certain to greet Robart’s ruling.
The ruling also clears the path for Durkan — who was the U.S. attorney in Seattle when the Justice Department in 2011 found deficiencies in the Police Department — to push for the continued reforms she has pledged to carry out.
During the news conference, she promised that the next police chief will “continue in this very important process of police reforms.”
“It will be critical we hire someone who can be the leader we need in this community” to champion the reform process, she said.
Years of friction between police and minority communities — many centered on allegations of officers escalating petty situations into confrontations, and then using force to quell them — came to a head in 2010 and 2011 with a series of publicized and controversial incidents, many of which were caught on video.
Included was an officer’s threat to beat the “Mexican piss” out of a prone Latino man.
The public outrage reached a peak on Aug. 30, 2010, when then-Officer Ian Birk shot and killed a First Nations totem carver who was walking downtown carrying a piece of wood and a small folding knife. A dashboard camera in Birk’s patrol car captured the audio of the encounter and revealed that only about four seconds passed between the time Birk issued commands to put down the knife and when he fired the shots that ended the life of John T. Williams.
The shooting proved a catalyst within the communities that had over the years witnessed repeated attempts at police reform falter or fail. This time they responded with a single voice and to a higher authority, the Justice Department.
In December 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, joined by 34 community groups, sent a letter to the Justice Department asking for a formal investigation into the Police Department.
When the Justice Department gave credence to the complaints in a scathing report in December 2011, then-Mayor Mike McGinn and then-Police Chief John Diaz reacted defensively, setting off a tortured, monthslong process that culminated in the consent decree. City Attorney Pete Holmes had warned that McGinn’s strategy had put the city on the verge of a civil-rights lawsuit that could have dire consequences.
The consent decree led to the appointment of a court monitor, Merrick Bobb, whose initial reports to Robart raised concerns about the pace of reform.
But after the election of Mayor Ed Murray, who took office in January 2014, and the hiring of O’Toole, Bobb began issuing increasingly positive report cards.
The most significant finding occurred last April, when Bobb issued a report concluding the department had carried out a dramatic turnaround in the use of force.
Citing data and case samples over a 28-month period, the monitor found overall use of force dropped both across time under the consent decree and when compared with the period that led to the Justice Department’s findings in 2011.
In contrast to the 2011 numbers, there had been what appeared to be a net decrease of 743 incidents — a 60 percent drop — in the use of moderate and high-level use of force. Of 2,385 incidents, 39, or 1.6 percent, stemmed from the most serious type of force, including 15 officer-involved shootings.
Yet Bobb filed court papers in September in which he told Robart the city had not met all of its obligations in the consent decree. Sources not authorized to publicly discuss the matter contended Bobb subsequently softened his position.
Robart, in his decision, makes it clear the city still has significant and difficult work to do in the coming two years.
Particularly, he noted that the city has not yet named a civilian inspector general to oversee police internal investigations, nor has it concluded negotiations with the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG), which has been working without a contract since 2014.
SPOG has filed two unfair-labor-practices complaints against the city over reforms related to the consent decree, the most recent just last week over police-accountability legislation passed by the City Council.
Robart has warned that he will not allow reforms to be derailed by the union.
“If collective bargaining results in changes to the accountability ordinance that the court deems to be inconsistent with the Consent Degree, the City’s progress in Phase II will be imperiled,” the judge wrote.
SPOG President Kevin Stuckey, who attended the news conference as a spectator, said he looked forward to working with the new city administration to resolve differences.
“I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, we do not wish to impede the progress,” Stuckey said, adding that it was critical the city play by the collective-bargaining rules.
Much of the progress on police reform took place under Murray, the former mayor who made the mandate a key campaign issue when he defeated McGinn in the 2013 race for mayor. It was Murray who hired O’Toole, whom Robart singled out in his ruling for her “exceptional work.”
Murray resigned last year amid sex-abuse allegations.
Murray, in an emailed statement Wednesday, offered his thanks to the “women and men of the Seattle Police Department who have created a national model for reform.”
U.S. Attorney Annette Hayes said the achievement was a “milestone” and a “credit to the hard work of SPD and City leadership, engaged community members including the Community Police Commission, and SPD officers whose dedication to the mission is essential to reform.”
In November, Robart asked the city for more information on the Police Department’s finding that the fatal shooting on June 18 of an African-American woman, Charleena Lyles, was reasonable before he decided on the city’s motion.
Lyles, a 30-year-old mother of four, was shot by two white officers, who said they fired after she pulled one or two knives on them while they were investigating a burglary call from her at her Northeast Seattle apartment.
In submitting the finding to Robart, city attorneys argued the conclusions should have no bearing on the motion.
Lyles’ death occurred after Bobb’s assessments, they wrote, noting that if the department was found to be in compliance with the consent decree, it will be required to keep that status during the two-year “sustainment period.”
“If Ms. Lyles’s death or the City’s response to it demonstrate, along with other evidence, that SPD has failed to comply with one or more requirements of the Decree, the court can make that determination on a complete record at that time,” their brief says.
Tim Burgess, the former Seattle City Council member who spearheaded reform and was praised Wednesday by city leaders, issued a statement on Robart’s ruling, saying, “This is such wonderful news. Lots of people deserve credit, especially the officers, detectives and civilian employees of SPD.”