The judge overseeing federal oversight of the Seattle Police Department and the monitor he appointed warned Tuesday that divisive politics are undermining court-ordered reforms and that inaction could send the department into a “deepening crisis,” further undermining public safety.
U.S. District Judge James Robart, who oversees a consent decree signed by the city and the Department of Justice in 2012, mentioned more than once during a hearing Tuesday that original estimates were that the SPD would reach full compliance with the 100-paragraph document in five years, addressing issues of excessive use of force and biased policing that caused the DOJ to sue the city in the first place.
Nine years later, the city remains under federal oversight with no real end in sight, the department suffering a budget and personnel crisis, and the judge wondering when and how it will end. Robart, however, made one point clear. It won’t end until he says so.
“The consent decree is an order of the court, and it will be followed,” he said.
The judge identified a number of issues that potentially pose obstacles to reaching compliance with the settlement agreement any time soon, including open mayoral and city attorney races — with key decisions being held for the next administration — along with widely diverse views of policing on the City Council, an interim police chief and ongoing contract negotiations with two police unions.
Following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 and the subsequent issues with crowd control and police violence during a summer of protests, the City Council lashed out at police and supported the idea of defunding SPD by as much as 50%, although a much smaller cut was ultimately adopted and the department’s hiring plan was fully funded. Former Police Chief Carmen Best cited the council’s actions in retiring, and there was an exodus of officers though threatened layoffs weren’t carried out.
Robart, from the bench, quoted an op-ed written by Best and published in The Seattle Times where said she had predicted the loss of talent and decried the lack of a plan to address either public safety or police reforms.
Robart noted that, over the past months, there has been talk of abolishing the police or slashing its budget. The judge made it clear that won’t accomplish compliance with the consent decree and its 100 paragraphs of reforms, and that he won’t relinquish the case until compliance is reached.
“As I told you earlier, my job is not to tell you what to do. It is to ensure you did what you said you were going to do,” he said. “So here are some suggestions on how we do so: The city, the mayor and other elected officials from the City Council need to be constructive, not destructive, to progress.”
“I have seen too much of knee-jerk reaction and not enough forethought,” the judge said. “We have to be religious in continuing to reduce bias and disparity, at the same time we need to recognize … there is an essential requirement for public safety.”
The new monitor, Dr. Antonio Oftelie of Harvard, told the court that the department has lost more than 300 officers since 2019, and has been able to replace fewer than 100 of them. The manpower shortage has, for now, essentially ended community policing in the city and sent response times “skyrocketing.”
However, Oftelie said there have been signs of progress, including continued drops in use of force by officers — down 28% from 2019 levels overall, and 15% in cases where officers are responding to someone suffering a behavioral crisis.
The SPD will be the first department in the country to “incorporate ideals and data around social justice, equity and accountability into their management meetings, along with the traditional crime statistics,” the monitor said.
But Oftelie told the court that this progress is threatened by budget cuts and loss of personnel.
“Much of the training, technology, and review systems implemented under the consent decree cannot be sustained without necessary budget and personnel,” he said, describing SPD as being at an “inflection point.”
“The actions and investments of the city will either tip the department into a deepening crisis, or will lead the department into a future in which it can sustain compliance and build trust in constitutional policing.”
Pressing his concerns over city politics interfering with reaching consent decree compliance, Robart posed a hypothetical to the monitor:
“At the risk of misinterpreting the results of our recent municipal primary elections, where there seems to be some support for people who have a more problematic view of the department … does the monitoring team say, ‘You didn’t do this right, and it needs to change?'”
Oftelie replied that his people are in the process of sorting that out, and will issue a report on the city’s progress at the end of the year.
During the hearing Tuesday, Robart chastised the Community Police Commission for filing a request to provide the monitor with additional access to the department’s accountability mechanisms, saying the CPC had ventured outside its area of influence, which has been a recurring issue for an agency that was intended to be an avenue of community input into the police reform process. The agency has been through a series of directors and members.
“It’s not my intention to come down hard on the CPC, but I think that given some of the turmoil that has gone on in that organization they periodically reinvent themselves and start trying to see what it is that is within their grasp,” the judge said. While the CPC was established by the consent decree, it was adopted as a formal commission by the City Council, and that’s where the judge says its influence should be directed.
Earlier Tuesday, the SPD briefed the City Council’s public safety committee on its personnel and budget circumstances.
Seattle’s police force shrunk by about 200 officers last year; the department has seen 100 officers depart this year through June while hiring 38, said Chris Fisher, the department’s executive director of strategic initiatives.
He attributed the turnover to multiple factors, including officers wanting to hear more support from some politicians and community members.
Council President — and mayoral candidate — M. Lorena González pushed back on that point, suggesting the department must do more to retain officers. González was among those calling for a 50% reduction in police spending following the police response to the racial justice protests last summer.
Extended leaves by officers, which increased starting in 2020, also are contributing to the department’s staffing woes, Fisher said. There were 108 officers on leave last month.
There are signs that resignations by early- and midcareer officers may be starting to ebb, Fisher said. Still, the department is now projecting to wrap up this year with 87 hires and 160 departures, a net loss of 73 officers partly due to a wave of retirements.
The committee also advanced legislation Tuesday that would transfer Seattle’s unarmed civilian parking enforcement personnel from the police department to the Department of Transportation, as was first proposed during last year’s protests.
Seattle Times staff reporter Daniel Beekman contributed to this report.
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