After a federal judge found one year ago that the city of Seattle had fallen partly out of compliance with court-ordered police reforms, Mayor Jenny Durkan, who had been an architect of the requirements in her previous job as the top federal attorney in Western Washington, stood stoically before reporters at City Hall.
Durkan brushed over the judge’s stinging conclusion that weak points existed in the Police Department’s ability to discipline officers. Instead, she chose to focus on the judge’s comments that the department, with flying colors, had met it obligations to curb excessive force and biased policing identified in a 2011 U.S. Department of Justice investigation.
A year later, Durkan’s characterization of those findings resonated in a request, filed jointly with the Justice Department on May 7, that asked U.S. District Judge James Robart to find the city had successfully completed a two-year review period to assure reforms had taken hold. If the request is granted, the city could then ask Robart to free it from federal oversight imposed in a 2012 consent decree with the Justice Department.
The city said it was time to reward the Police Department for its hard work, including a 60% drop in the use of serious force and 99% compliance with policy when officers use force. And it promised to come back to the court by August with a response to the disciplinary issue, citing a roadblock that no one could have foreseen.
“The City is unable to fully address the accountability issues in this filing, because it is now confronting an unprecedented public health crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” the city’s attorneys said in a 27-page memorandum.
The city said it has been forced to devote “substantial resources — both human and financial — on a myriad of urgent issues in order to protect the public health and safety of its residents.” Ending costs to prove that reforms have been sustained would allow the city to reallocate “scarce resources toward pressing new demands,” its filing said, noting that the city has spent more than $100 million so far to carry out reforms.
But some critics have questioned the city’s position, and with two recent officer involved-shootings, have renewed questions about the use of deadly force. Even before the coronavirus crisis crowded out other news, the suicide of a distraught suspect involved in a minor hit-and-run, who had been falsely led by an officer to believe he might have killed someone, and Police Chief Carmen Best’s relatively light six-day suspension of the officer, called into question the department’s willingness to hold officers accountable.
The president of the Seattle King County NAACP, Carolyn Riley-Payne, read a statement to the Seattle City Council on May 11 opposing the city’s motion. The statement said the NAACP would work with Councilmember Kshama Sawant and community organizations to argue that the police department should not be released from oversight while its contract with the rank-and-file police union contains provisions they say are contrary to police accountability.
“Accountability failings in the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) contract mean court-mandated oversight is still necessary,” the statement said. It cited a disciplinary appeals process that allowed former Seattle police Officer Adley Shepherd to win back his job after an arbitrator ruled his firing was too harsh for punching a handcuffed woman in the back of his patrol car after she had kicked him. The city successfully challenged the arbitrator’s decision, persuading a King County Superior Court judge to overturn the reinstatement.
“The City has yet to address mechanisms in the police union contract that allow for officers like Shepherd to have seemingly more rights than the citizens they are sworn to protect,” the NAACP asserted.
On an online broadcast hosted by Omari Salisbury, manager of Africantown Media, Salisbury praised the department for its accomplishments but nevertheless told listeners “a lot of people are feeling that under the cloak of COVID our Mayor Jenny Durkan is trying to ditch the police consent decree.”
The city’s motion does not specifically ask for the consent decree to be dissolved, and appears to seek clarity from Judge Robart on a variety of issues before the court. But it could pave the city’s way toward that goal if Robart opens the door.
Its request does not ask Robart to rule on that motion before he sees what steps the city plans to take to address his concerns about police accountability. Nor does it repeat the city’s past position that police accountability falls outside the four corners of the consent decree. The judge has disagreed, calling accountability crucial to public confidence in the reform process.
Last May, Robart cited deficiencies in the disciplinary appeals process, as well as artificial time limits on internal investigations that have allowed officers to avoid discipline and a lack of subpoena power for internal affairs investigators, as reasons for his finding that the city was partly out of compliance.
The city, in its filing, said it already has taken “significant steps” that it will provide to the court. Negotiations behind closed doors are to begin this year on a new contract with SPOG, which signaled it will aggressively fight to protect its rights when it recently elected a new, hardline president.
If the city’s motion leads to the lifting of the consent decree anytime in the near future, the court’s leverage over the city would vanish as it negotiates with the union over police accountability and discipline.
The Community Police Commission (CPC), a citizen advisory body created as part of the consent decree, opposed the current contract between the city and SPOG, saying it weakened hard-fought reform efforts. It plans to reveal its position on the city’s motion in a court filing this week.
State law requires the city to engage in collective bargaining with the union. And Durkan, who has made organized labor a key part of her political base, so far has shown no inclination to fundamentally alter the city’s relationship with SPOG.
If Robart were to rule that provisions of the city’s contract with the union were unconstitutional, it would set the stage for a prolonged, bloody court battle that would draw in labor supporters and those, including some union members, who believe police unions don’t represent their values.