The request puts the city at odds with the court’s monitor, setting the stage for the U.S. Justice Department to offer its view.
The city of Seattle asked U.S. District Judge James Robart on Friday to find the Seattle Police Department in “full and effective” compliance with federally mandated reforms, putting the city at odds with Robart’s court-appointed monitor.
The request marks the first time the city has asked to be found in compliance since it entered into a sweeping consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department in 2012 to address excessive force and biased policing.
If Robart, who has presided over the case since its inception, finds the city to be in compliance, it would trigger a two-year period in which the city would have to show the reforms are locked in place.
“A declaration of full and effective compliance will not end the Consent Decree or this case,” the city declares in a 23-page motion submitted to the court. “It is, however, a crucial milestone on the path to lasting police reform in Seattle. It gives the police officers and other women and men serving SPD and the City the recognition for carrying out the hard day-to-day work of policing and reform.”
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In the filing, the city disputes monitor Merrick Bobb’s conclusion in a Sept. 8 status report that despite making a “great deal of progress,” Seattle police have yet to comply with some elements of the consent decree.
The clash sets the stage for the Justice Department’s response, due by Oct. 13. It is likely to concur with the city’s request, although discussions are still taking place, according to sources familiar with the matter.
Justice Department attorneys sought the consent decree under President Obama’s nationwide police-reform effort, but Attorney General Jeff Sessions, under President Trump, has questioned such agreements.
Friday’s motion, which requests oral arguments, heavily rests on the Police Department’s successful completion of 10 key assessments conducted by Bobb. His findings included that the department had made dramatic improvements involving use of force, as well as dealing with people in crisis.
But Bobb, in his report, noted the assessments, while important, “nevertheless do not constitute all the requirements of the Consent Decree.”
He cited questions stemming from the fatal shooting by two white officers of Charleena Lyles, a 30-year-old African-American mother of four, on June 18, and pointed to problems in the chain of command’s ability to identify possible misuse of force and to incorporate “lessons learned” from internal reviews by the department’s Force Review Board (FRB) into training.
In addition, Bobb said his team and the court await the department’s analysis of why blacks and Latinos are “stopped disproportionately and frisked disproportionately.”
The city’s motion asserts the monitor is seeking more than is required, and that reform would continue during a two-year review.
“The parties and the Monitor have spurred reform that goes further than the Consent Decree, but those reforms are not a prerequisite to ‘full and effective compliance,’ ” the motion says. “The ten assessments document SPD’s hard work to reach that milestone. It would be contrary to the letter and spirit of the Decree to move that milestone farther down the road.”
It says the shooting of Lyles has raised questions about the consistent implementation of the department’s crisis-intervention practices.
“Those are valid and important questions, questions that no one can fully answer until a thorough investigation is complete,” the motion says.
“The City welcomes the scrutiny of the Monitor, the community, and its own accountability system as it looks for answers,” it adds. “That scrutiny, and the conclusions it yields, will be a crucial part” of the review period if compliance is granted.
Moreover, the city argues, the Police Department has exceeded the consent decree’s requirements by overhauling police-accountability procedures; giving citizens the right to sue for violations of the department’s bias-free policing policy; taking steps just this week to bolster oversight of off-duty employment; and creating a civilian inspector general post with broad powers.
It also says the consent decree could be amended during the review to “ensure even more accountability and transparency,” including language to resolve labor problems with the city’s two police unions.
Before the city submitted its motion, Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole sent an email to her officers on Sept. 8 praising them for their “real, measurable success.”
She also attached a 47-page memorandum from two top aides that asserted the department had met its obligations. “I am requesting that the Mayor’s Office and City Attorney highlight these compelling arguments and conclusions in the City’s response to the Monitor’s filing,” she wrote in the department-wide email.
In a news release Friday, City Attorney Pete Holmes said Seattle has made significant progress on police reform but still has much work to do.
“We will continue to work, through the consent decree and under continued oversight from the Monitor and Court, to sustain the important reforms that have already taken place, build upon them, and implement the City’s recent police-accountability ordinance to ensure that reform will continue long after the end of federal oversight.”
Mayor Tim Burgess called the filing of the motion a “clear signal” that major improvements have been made.
“While we welcome this good news, we will not stop in our efforts to assure that all Seattleites feel safe and secure and have a relationship of trust with their police,” Burgess said.
If the city is found in compliance, it is unclear whether the two-year clock would start running from the point of Robart’s approval, or from the time when the city previously reached compliance with parts of the consent decree over the past five years.