New policies designed to address excessive force in the Seattle Police Department reasonably balance the need for change with the safety of officers, a federal judge found in dismissing a lawsuit brought by 100 officers seeking to block the federally mandated reforms.
U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman rejected the officers’ claim that the policies are an abuse of power that “shocks the conscience.” She found the policies, which call on officers to look for ways to de-escalate confrontations, are not so inflexible and arbitrary that they shock the conscience — even if the policies slow or forestall the use of force with resisting subjects.
“It does not shock the conscience to see certain de-escalation procedures imposed on police officers in an effort by their Department to avoid a pattern or practice of excessive use of force,” Pechman wrote in a 15-page order dated Friday and posted on the court’s website Monday.
Her reference stemmed from a U.S. Justice Department finding in 2011 that Seattle officers too often resorted to unnecessary force, in what amounted to a pattern or practice.
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“It would be at least surprising if allegations of such a pattern or practice did not lead to the adoption of stricter standards for use of force by officers,” Pechman concluded.
The policies, which went into effect Jan. 1, contain “a number of concessions” that allow officers to react to rapidly unfolding circumstances, make split-second decisions and exercise reasonable discretion, Pechman noted.
The officers contended the policies are overly restrictive and complicated, violating their constitutional right to self-defense, including their Second Amendment gun protections, while putting them and the public at risk.
City attorneys argued the officers had resorted to “reckless hyperbole,” misstating policies that allow for flexibility and reasonable judgment.
Pechman, who heard oral arguments Oct. 9 on motions to dismiss the suit, found “the officers’ constitutional arguments are not supported by the text of the Constitution or case law interpreting the Constitution.”
As for their gun rights, the policies represent an effort by the Police Department to regulate not only use of employer-issued weapons, but “the force its employees are specially sanctioned to wield on behalf of the city government,” Pechman wrote.
“This scenario has no relation to the Second Amendment guarantees for individuals” cited in other court cases, she added.
The policies provide officers with a wide range of tools to gain control and protect themselves in addition to firearms, including verbal commands, physical restraint, Tasers, pepper spray and batons, Pechman wrote.
Mayor Ed Murray, City Attorney Pete Holmes and Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole applauded the decision and vowed to move forward with reforms, while an attorney for the officers said they are considering an appeal.
The officers, who filed suit in May, asked Pechman to bar the city from carrying out sweeping polices adopted as part of a 2012 consent decree between the city and the Justice Department.
The consent decree, which was approved by U.S. District Judge James Robart, required the Police Department to enact reforms to curtail excessive force and biased policing.
In her order, Pechman dismissed all claims against the city, Murray, Holmes and Justice Department officials.
She also dismissed claims against Merrick Bobb, the monitor overseeing the court-ordered reforms, ruling he has absolute immunity as Robart’s appointed agent.
The officers argued that Bobb, a Los Angeles police-accountability consultant, had exceeded his authority in developing the policies, which Robart found constitutional and approved last year.
But Pechman found Bobb had engaged in an “essential judicial function,” which included “discretion” in drafting the policies.
In finding no merit to the suit, Pechman barred the officers from refiling their claims, noting they’d already amended their complaint once and “further amendment would be futile.”
While the officers represent a fraction of the 1,200-member force, their suit posed a problem for the city at a time when it is seeking to comply with the consent decree.
Murray, who has consistently backed the reforms, issued a statement Monday thanking the City Attorney’s Office for its work defending the policies while reaching out to the officers in the suit.
“Judge Pechman’s dismissal of the suit today confirms that SPD’s use-of-force policy is both practical and constitutional,” Murray said. “Today we move forward with police reform and move past internal divisions over policy. The City and the officers who filed the suit share the same objectives: safety for the public, and safe working conditions for the officers who provide for the public’s safety. We can achieve both.”
Murray pledged that city officials will work on continued improvements to the policy to ensure officers “feel supported and safe as they carry out their critical duties” to ensure public safety.
The policies allowed for automatic review and O’Toole, acting in collaboration with the parties to the consent decree, recently took steps to reduce paperwork associated with minor applications of force, particularly when handcuffing people, and said other modifications are under study.
In a statement Monday, O’Toole said: “As Chief, I will ensure that our officers have the policies, training, equipment and support to do their jobs safely and effectively.”
Holmes, while in Atlanta Monday attending the inaugural meeting of Prosecutors Against Gun Violence, said in a statement, “We are enormously gratified by Judge Pechman’s ruling.’’
He said his office will continue to work with O’Toole and Murray “to help bring Seattle the safe, effective and efficient police department we all want and need.”
Athan Tramountanas, a Seattle attorney who represents 91 of the officers, issued a statement Monday, saying, “My clients are disappointed in today’s ruling, but remain resolute in their belief that the new use of force policy unreasonably restricts their ability to defend themselves and perform their jobs in a manner that best keeps themselves and the public safe.”
Others officers represented themselves, including more than 20 who originally joined the suit but dropped out.
A decision on an appeal will be made within 30 days, Tramountanas said.