A federal judge ruled Tuesday that the city of Seattle may consult outside experts to study ways to fix flaws in the Seattle Police Department’s internal investigations of officers accused of misconduct, concluding it could “further the cause of reform.”
But U.S. District Judge James Robart, who is presiding over a 2012 consent decree requiring the city to address allegations of excessive force and biased policing, warned the city against using the results to justify its current accountability system.
If that occurs, “then the exercise will be a failure, reform will be delayed, and full and effective compliance with the Consent Decree will recede further into the future,” Robart wrote in a nine-page order.
Robart’s much-anticipated ruling made clear the city must correct deficiencies in the accountability system that prompted him to rule in May that the police department had fallen partially out of compliance with the consent decree.
In that ruling, the judge cited provisions of the city’s contract with the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) that allowed an outside arbitrator to overturn the firing of an officer who had punched a handcuffed woman. The arbitrator’s ruling, challenged by the city, was later overturned by a King County judge.
Robart also cited artificial deadlines to complete internal investigations, a lack of subpoena power to obtain information about officers, and proof requirements in appeals of discipline.
Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed answer included hiring the experts to look at police-accountability practices in 20 other cities. City officials called it a “full, data-driven examination” that would help the police department achieve a more effective system for accountability.
Once completed, the city would use the consultants’ information to push reforms, including more transparency in what are now closed-door disciplinary appeals and the selection process for arbitrators. The city will make them “top priorities” when the next round of negotiations with SPOG begins early next year, attorneys for the city informed the judge in August.
Robart, in Tuesday’s ruling, wrote that “new thinking” might find pathways that will not only satisfy the requirements of the consent decree but also collective bargaining.
In doing so, the judge rejected arguments by the city’s Community Police Commission (CPC) that remedies already existed as a result of the CPC’s work that led to a sweeping police-accountability ordinance passed by the City Council in 2017. Many of those reforms, he noted, didn’t survive in collective bargaining.
“Full and effective compliance on accountability is not wedded to the Police Accountability Ordinance, and the court concludes that a methodical search for new ideas — as the City proposes — may further the work of reform,” Robart wrote.
Robart found the city’s proposal would not be redundant, and called the CPC’s objections not “well-taken.”
However, the citizen-advisory body raised one concern that “mirrors a concern of the court,” the judge wrote, pointing to the CPC’s argument that a nationwide survey is not useful because “equivalency to other cities is not a metric to determine compliance with the Consent Decree.”
Robart said he agreed with the CPC that the city should not aspire to the “lowest common denominator.”
“The City,” he wrote, “may not utilize its proposed nationwide survey as a stealth method” to make him reconsider his ruling that found the city partly out of compliance.
“If, however, the City intends to utilize the survey to formulate an appropriate compliance-related assessment process, develop new ideas or models related to accountability, and collect data that may be of assistance to the parties in collective bargaining, then the court believes that the exercise could be productive and further the cause of reform,” Robart added.
He wrote that he was confident city officials would heed the warning.
Robart gave the city until Nov. 29 to complete its accountability assessment, when it must comply with the court’s May order to submit a “methodology … for how the City proposes to achieve compliance” with the accountability issue. The CPC and the Department of Justice, which originally sought the consent decree, may respond by Dec. 13, he wrote.
Mayor Jenny Durkan and City Attorney Pete Holmes said they were “pleased” the court authorized the city’s plan. The officials noted that Robart found the city to be “on track” to be discharged in a few months from other requirements of the consent decree, like those related to use of force, crisis intervention and de-escalation.
“We are grateful that the Court agrees that this process could help further reform,” the city officials said in a statement. “These national experts will help the parties to not only address the Court’s concerns, but further strengthen a culture of continuous reform and improvement, inform the parties of potential other best practices, and inform collective bargaining.”
The CPC, in a statement, said it was pleased the judge “made very clear” that the accountability system does not fall outside the terms of the consent decree, “as the City has at times argued.”
In addition, Robart’s ruling cites key concerns the CPC has raised and underscores the need to go beyond the status quo, the statement said.
In the ruling, Robart scolded the Department of Justice for reiterating its “largely unhelpful” stance that police accountability fell outside the scope of the consent decree and deferring to the city’s position.
The Justice Department obtained the consent decree under President Barack Obama’s nationwide police-reform effort, but has displayed little interest in consent decrees involving police conduct since President Donald Trump took office in 2017.