The federal judge overseeing reforms in the Seattle Police Department has ordered the city, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and others to fix ongoing inadequacies surrounding officer accountability, and said he will extend court oversight of the department until they do.
U.S. District Judge James Robart said Tuesday that a system that puts appeals of officer discipline by the chief of police in the hands of an outside arbitrator remains essentially unchanged from the days when the department engaged in the routine use of excessive force.
Robart’s order said that needs to change, but without telling the parties how to do it. Instead, he ordered the city, the DOJ, the city’s Community Police Commission and the court’s appointed monitor, Merrick Bobb, to come up with a working plan by July 15.
Robart’s ruling almost certainly means the city will remain under federal oversight longer than had been anticipated, and the issue could creep into the 2021 mayoral race.
Mayor Jenny Durkan, in a statement Tuesday night, said she was grateful Robart’s order recognized the Police Department’s many other “significant reforms” that remain on track to meet a January 2020 goal to be locked in place.
“The Judge has ordered an assessment of the present accountability regime,” the statement said. “Given the reforms and the changes made to the entire accountability system … an assessment of the accountability regime, how it compares to other models across the nation, functions as a system and its impact on officers, policing and community confidence can only benefit our city.”
The Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Barring a SPOG challenge, the order means the city and the union will have to reopen bargaining on a recently completed, hard-fought contract in order to change the aspects of an accountability system dealing with officer appeals of discipline.
Robart said he was making no ruling on the contract, saying the labor deal “is relevant here only insofar as its affects accountability.”
But he rejected arguments by the city and DOJ that the current accountability plan could work, particularly in light of their repeated past statements to the court that the same system was inadequate and needed to be changed.
The judge has been particularly wary of the fact that language in a 2017 Accountability Ordinance supported by Durkan and passed by the City Council, which dramatically altered the appeal process, was abandoned in favor of an arbitrator system favored by SPOG during collective bargaining. SPOG and its membership have been harshly critical of federal oversight.
“The City and United States may not repudiate these repeated past representations to the court — concerning the old accountability system’s inadequacy, the need for reform, and the court’s jurisdiction in the area — for the sake of political expediency today,” Robart wrote in a 14-page order issued Tuesday afternoon.
Robart, who has presided over extensive reforms in the department for the past seven years, dealt a hammer blow to the city’s efforts to get out from underneath the court’s oversight at a hearing last week, when he ruled the city had fallen “partially out of compliance” with a 2012 consent decree put in place after an investigation headed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office jointly with the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division. The investigation found that officers routinely used excessive force in making arrests and showed troubling signs of biased policing.
Robart found last week that in every other area — from the dramatic drop in the use of force to crisis intervention — the police department has met the requirements of the consent decree and, according to some, has become a national model for police reform.
The city has worked diligently for seven years to turn the department around, and it reached a milestone when Robart announced in January 2018 that the SPD has achieved “full and effective compliance” with the consent decree. That finding tripped a two-year clock that would have resulted in the end of federal oversight at the end of that two years.
However, following a highly publicized incident in which an officer who punched a handcuffed woman was fired by the police chief but reinstated by an arbitrator, Robart revisited the issue of officer accountability. During last week’s hearing, Robart found the appeals process threatened public confidence in reform efforts, ruled the department had fallen out of compliance in that one narrow area and ordered SPD to fix it.
The judge made it clear, however, that the incident involving Officer Adley Shepherd was not the only disciplinary case that has caused him concern. He pointed out that the DOJ cited six other instances where officers were fired, and that the arbitrator upheld four of those.
“Significantly, however, the two that were not upheld were terminations associated with the use of excessive force or a threat to use excessive force against individuals of color,” one of which involved another handcuffed suspect, the judge wrote.
In his order Tuesday, Robart said the two-year clock still could stop in January 2020 for the matters in which the city currently remains in compliance. But regarding the accountability prong, the clock will be reset and start over once the city, the DOJ and other parties come up with a plan to resolve the issue and implement it.
Under the 2017 ordinance, disciplinary appeals would be heard by a three-member, city-run commission and hearing examiner, in what was viewed as a tougher system to manipulate.
Robart said Tuesday that modifications made under a new plan don’t have to mirror that language, but must comply with the consent decree.
Durkan downplayed Robart’s finding on accountability after he first announced it during last week’s hearing, choosing to highlight the other accomplishments.
In her statement Tuesday night, she said, “It is notable that the judge did not strike down the Collective Bargaining Agreement, or any specific provision in the CBA. Together with the Department of Justice, we are evaluating the Court’s order regarding the accountability regime and its relationship to the Consent Decree. But regardless of the next legal steps, we have made clear that we will continuously assess and improve as a Department.”
Police Chief Carmen Best, in a statement, said, “The Court’s ruling … affirms both that the reforms put in place under the Consent Decree have truly taken root in our operations and that the Department has embraced a culture of continuous improvement and innovation.”
She added, “I appreciate the Court highlighting an issue around which there is much discussion nationally. As the practice of modern policing continues to rapidly evolve to meet increasingly complex demands, it is equally important that the systems by which we are held accountable keep pace in a manner that ensures full transparency and due process for all.”
A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office said, “We have reviewed the Order and will be analyzing it in greater detail over the next few days. We are pleased that the Court ruled that the City remains in compliance with the requirements of the Consent Decree as set forth in the Court-approved sustainment plan.”
The Community Police Commission, a citizen body created as part of the consent decree, had asked Robart to find that the officer-appeals process violated the terms of the consent decree.
“While the Community Police Commission is still reviewing the Court’s order, we’re ready to work with city leaders to make sure Seattle has a strong police accountability system,” the commission said Tuesday.