U.S. District Judge James Robart’s stinging remarks came a day after Mayor Ed Murray and other city officials reached an agreement with the Community Police Commission to submit legislation that would make the commission a permanent, independent body.
An angry federal judge on Tuesday excoriated efforts to expand the authority of a citizen police-review board in Seattle, calling it an attempt to “grab power” without the approval of the court.
“That’s not going to happen,” said U.S. District Judge James Robart, who is presiding over a 2012 consent decree between the city and the U.S. Justice Department to curb excessive force in the Seattle Police Department.
Robart’s stinging remarks came during a status hearing on the reforms, a day after Mayor Ed Murray and other city officials reached an agreement in principle with the Community Police Commission (CPC) to submit long-delayed legislation to the City Council that would make the CPC a permanent, independent body.
The 15-member CPC, which pushed for the permanent role, was created as a temporary board under the consent decree, which will end when Robart decides the city is in compliance with federally mandated reforms.
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The CPC, which is made up of citizen volunteers, was designed to serve as liaison between the community and police department, with the authority to issue reports on the reform process.
But it sought to expand its role last year when it drafted a package of police-accountability measures, prompted by then-Interim Police Chief Harry Bailey’s overturning of misconduct findings against seven officers.
Robart, describing himself as “upset and frustrated” over the plan, said the consent decree can’t be amended without the court’s approval.
Asserting that the CPC’s original duties had somewhere gone off the rails, Robart cited a key provision of the legislation that would prevent the mayor from firing the two civilian officials who oversee the Police Department’s internal-investigations section without the approval of the City Council or input from the CPC.
Even if changes represent a good idea, they must be reviewed by all the parties to the agreement, including the Justice Department and Merrick Bobb, the federal monitor who is overseeing the reforms, before they can be brought to the court, Robart said.
“This is the court enforcing its order,” he said, referring to the terms of the consent decree.
At the same time, Robart praised Murray, Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole, the city’s police unions and many officers for their commitment to reform and making Seattle a national model for change.
City Attorney Pete Holmes said after the hearing the city is prepared to work with the Justice Department and Bobb on the legislation issue.
“The court will have the last word on this,” Holmes said.
Murray, in a statement issued after the hearing, said: “The direction today from Judge Robart was clear: any reforms must align with the consent decree and be approved by the Court. As planned, I will be working with the Department of Justice, Federal Monitor, CPC, labor unions and City Attorney to achieve meaningful reforms to our civilian oversight system and improve accountability.”
The statement noted the judge “affirmed that the Seattle Police Department, under the leadership of Chief O’Toole, is making significant progress on police reform, rebuilding community trust and becoming a national model for urban policing.”
The CPC said it was preparing a response to Robart’s comments.
City and CPC officials were planning to submit legislation to the council by mid-July.
But Murray’s spokesman, Viet Shelton, said discussions with all parties will now take place before deciding if and when to submit legislation.
He said it was always the intent of the city to discuss the legislation with Bobb and the judge before submitting it to the City Council, but that the “timeline sort of abruptly shrank” because of developments.
Previously, the focus was on negotiations between the mayor and CPC, with “informal check-ins” with the monitor, Shelton said.
U.S. Attorney Annette L. Hayes in Seattle, whose office helped bring about the consent decree, said in a statement: “As the Court made clear, the Consent Decree forms the bedrock for police reform in the City of Seattle and the community plays a vital role in the reform process.”
She said the Justice Department will work with the city and others, offering any technical assistance that is requested.