A federal judge on Wednesday slapped down efforts by Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and Police Chief Carmen Best to stop the implementation on Sunday of a new City Council ordinance that prohibits the Seattle Police Department (SPD) from using most crowd-control weapons, including tear gas and blast balls, against protesters.
U.S. District Judge James Robart, in a brusque eight-page order, said he would not stop the ordinance from taking effect and was sharply critical of the city’s efforts to convince the court to issue an injunction, saying it didn’t attempt to meet the legal burden necessary.
Durkan and Best, in a document notifying the court of the passage by the council of a so-called “Crowd-Control Weapons” (CCW) ordinance, ostensibly intended to alert the judge that the new law could conflict with a nearly eight-year-old settlement agreement between the SPD and the Department of Justice.
The consent decree followed findings by the DOJ that the department routinely engaged in excessive use of force and showed evidence of biased policing. What ensued was a top-to-bottom overhaul of the Police Department, with an emphasis on training, accountability and reporting and tracking use of force, overseen by Robart through a court-appointed monitor.
In their notification, Durkan and Best asked the court to halt the implementation of the new ordinance until its impact on the settlement agreement could be assessed.
The ordinance passed unanimously June 15 after criticism of SPD’s use of tear gas, blast balls and other nonlethal weapons against mostly peaceful protesters rallying against police racism and violence downtown and on Capitol Hill.
At the time, the city was likely within sight of getting out from federal oversight of its Police Department. However, complaints and outrage over police violence against protesters led the city to scotch those plans indefinitely.
Robart was critical of this approach, concluding that the so-called “notification” document was a motion for a temporary restraining order (TRO) in disguise, and finding that the mayor and chief failed to meet the burden the law requires to issue a TRO.
“Neither SPD nor the Mayor have made the required showing for the court to impose such extraordinary relief,” Robart wrote.
The Department of Justice and Merrick Bobb, the court-appointed monitor overseeing implementation of the consent decree, have expressed concern that the council’s new ordinance could conflict with portions of policies adopted in compliance with the settlement agreement, and Robart acknowledges that may be the case.
“Such concerns are a far cry from establishing ‘a likelihood of success on the merits’ or even ‘serious questions going to the merits’ of the claim,” the findings he would have to make to issue a TRO, the judge said.
“Indeed, the City’s notice makes no attempt to even identify the specific provisions of the Consent Decree that the [Crowd-Control Weapons] ordinance may implicate,” the judge wrote.
Stephanie Formas, Durkan’s chief of staff, Wednesday evening said the ruling “provides much-needed clarity that SPD can implement the new City Council ordinance, even where it conflicts with Court approved policies.”
Robart noted that the council, when it passed the ordinance, recognized its possible impact with the settlement agreement.
Councilmember Lisa Herbold said the ordinance “was crafted to recognize the role of the consent decree by requiring notice be submitted to the DOJ, the Court, and the Monitor.”
Robart asked that the ordinance and its impact on SPD policies be reviewed by the so-called “Accountability Partners” — the civilian-run Office of Police Accountability, the department’s newly appointed inspector general and the Community Police Commission — and that those findings be provided to the court by Aug. 15.
Formas, Durkan’s chief of staff, said the mayor has supported the review of the ordinance by these agencies.
The judge said the consent decree “is silent about what should happen when the City Council passes legislation requiring SPD to change its practices to address complaints about alleged police misconduct, as is the case with the CCW Ordinance.”
In his order, Robart pointed out that the mayor and chief had not raised similar concerns about the consent decree when other efforts were made to limit SPD’s use of crowd-control weapons.
Robart said the city raised no concerns when his colleague, U.S. District Judge Richard Jones, enjoined the SPD from using crowd-control weapons and violent tactics against peaceful protesters after Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County and others sued the city. Moreover, the city agreed to honor the injunction until it expires on Sept. 30. The City Council’s new ordinance takes effect Sunday.
And Chief Best, the judge said, issued her own suspension of the department’s use of CS tear gas on June 5.
“Although the City Council’s new ordinance may go further than either Judge Jones’s order or Chief Best’s suspension, neither of these other actions provoked the City or the Government to notify the court of any potential inconsistency with the Consent Decree,” Robart said. “Accordingly, the court concludes that neither SPD nor the Mayor have established either a likelihood of success on the merits or even serious questions going to the merits of the claim.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly said that the FBI had determined Seattle police engaged in excessive force and biased policing. The Department of Justice was the agency that made those findings.