The warning by U.S. District Judge James Robart reflects a deep rift with the Community Police Commission over its efforts to become a permanent body, expand its role and enhance its powers.
After months of tension, the federal judge overseeing Seattle police reforms has told a citizen-advisory body its future is not guaranteed, even suggesting it could be replaced by a different “community-configured entity.”
The blunt warning from U.S. District Judge James Robart is in a letter recently emailed to the Community Police Commission (CPC), a temporary body created in a 2012 consent decree between the city and U.S. Justice Department requiring sweeping police reforms to curb excessive force and biased policing.
The letter, obtained by The Seattle Times, reflects the deep rift between Robart and the commission over its efforts to become a permanent body, expand its role and enhance its powers.
“Unfortunately, the current campaign on the part of some CPC’s members to perpetuate CPC’s own existence — prematurely — demonstrates a lack of perspective with regard to the broader police reform process which the court, in its role of overseeing the entire … Consent Decree, cannot afford,” Robart wrote in the letter.
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The dispute over the commission’s role has opened a major fault line in the reform effort, which has seen the Seattle Police Department make significant strides but requires community confidence in the outcome.
In a statement, the CPC said: “After vigorous debate this spring and summer, the City of Seattle and the CPC came together behind a comprehensive plan to strengthen community oversight over police practices and the accountability system. The Justice Department has not yet had a chance to take a formal position on that package, but soon will. The next several weeks will be an important test of whether our communities will be left with real power or just the illusion of oversight.”
The CPC added that it will “be providing regular updates to our community partners about how this process is progressing over the next month.”
The 15-member CPC initially ran afoul of Robart during a June hearing, shortly after the commission reached agreement with Mayor Ed Murray on the package of police discipline and accountability proposals. Included was a provision that would make the CPC a permanent body.
The package was to be submitted to the City Council for its consideration, but Robart halted the move, saying the consent decree can’t be amended without the court’s approval. He pointedly referred to efforts to expand the CPC’s authority as an attempt to “grab power.”
At an August hearing, Robart instructed the city and the Justice Department to submit a framework for establishing comprehensive accountability systems in the police department. He also directed the CPC to submit a response.
In October, the CPC asked Robart to direct federal monitor Merrick Bobb, appointed by Robart to oversee implementation of the consent decree, to identify by Nov. 2 any elements of the city plan that might “implicate” the consent decree’s provisions.
The CPC argued that much of the contemplated legislation fell outside the scope of the consent decree, and that the city should be allowed to “oversee its police department” and carry out its legislative duty.
But Robart didn’t sign a proposed order and, on Nov. 27, Bobb filed a memorandum with the court outlining a slower, more deliberate approach.
Bobb revealed he wanted to complete assessments of the department’s progress, including its internal-investigation office, before meeting with parties and others, then making recommendations to the court no later than Jan. 20 on how to proceed with police-accountability systems. The CPC is part of that process.
On Nov. 30, nearly 50 community organizations sent a letter to Bobb saying further delay in moving forward with the city package “does not meet the expectations of our communities for substantive and timely reforms.”
Murray, in a statement the same day, said he would adhere to the monitor’s timetable.
On Dec. 8, Bobb met with CPC representatives, according to a Dec. 9 email sent to Bobb from the CPC’s executive director, Fé Lopez.
Referring to the meeting, Lopez noted Bobb intended to meet with the city and the Justice Department before or around Jan. 20 to “discuss and issue a set of recommendations.”
After that, Lopez added, the CPC and others would be given the opportunity to provide comments before a proposal was submitted to the court.
Lopez further wrote that the CPC had related it is “imperative” that it be “meaningfully involved” in the discussions, including work sessions, before submitting a document for comment.
In a Dec. 16 email, Lopez informed Bobb the CPC planned to send a letter to the community regarding the process and asked him if he had an update.
Bobb, a Los Angeles-based police-accountability consultant, replied with the emailed letter containing Judge Robart’s comments.
Bobb stressed that he had been a “zealous advocate” of civilian oversight of law enforcement for 25 years.
He added that he and Robart both believed “marked improvement” in the relationship between Seattle police and diverse communities formed “the bedrock upon which and full and effective compliance with the Consent Decree will be built.”
Bobb pledged to listen to the CPC before fashioning an accountability plan. He also noted the CPC, early on, had been given friend-of-the court status that allowed it to provide its views and put its stamp on each significant policy under the reform effort.
“Any concern that CPC will not have similar influence on structural reform for greater accountability is incorrect,” he wrote.
But Bobb wrote that he was only an agent of the court, and that it was Robart who “must address your desire for a greater role.”
Robart, in his comments, reminded the CPC of its temporary role, as well as his earlier decision allowing it friend-of-the court status while denying its request to be a party. That status, he wrote, better served its overall role.
Adhering to that “does not render the court anti-police reform, anti-community participation, or foreclose a fundamental community role after the … Consent Decree terminates,” he wrote.
While noting his strong belief in a continuing community role in police oversight, Robart related that he couldn’t say what the CPC’s role might be when the consent decree ends — which depends on when the police department reaches compliance.
“The CPC or some other community-configured entity may emerge from the reform process as a permanent city commission with a budget and staff with specified duties and responsibilities that go beyond the duties with which the CPC is presently charged in the … Consent Decree,” Robart wrote.
Yet neither the court nor the parties can determine that without a “firmer understanding” of how the reform process will unfold, the judge wrote.
“The court’s role is to oversee implementation of the ‘whole package,’ ” Robart wrote.
Information in this article, originally published Dec. 20, 2015, was revised Dec. 21, 2015. On Dec. 21, the Community Police Commission issued a statement that slightly revised some phrasing to clarify a Dec. 20 statement.