Legal costs are piling up in a federal lawsuit that led to an injunction and a contempt-of-court finding against the Seattle Police Department (SPD) for using unnecessary force against Black Lives Matter protesters this summer, and could top $600,000 if a federal judge gives the local BLM group’s lawyers what they’re asking for.
Attorneys for Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County are requesting that U.S. District Judge Richard Jones impose sanctions against SPD by requiring additional scrutiny of officers’ uses of force.
The BLM attorneys are also asking Jones to award them $263,708.50 in fees and costs — to be paid by the city — after successfully moving the court to find SPD in contempt over multiple violations of his earlier order that officers refrain from using force to break up peaceful protests against police violence.
The city has already spent more than $345,700 on private counsel to represent the police department in the BLM matter, according to Deputy City Attorney John Schochet, with the case and billing ongoing. Attorneys from that firm, the Christie Law Group, which specializes in law enforcement and government defense, filed a motion this week asking Jones to reconsider his contempt finding.
BLM lawyers are also asking Jones to impose non-monetary sanctions against the police department in the form of additional, timely scrutiny of each incident where an officer uses force during a protest. The city says the sanctions are unnecessary and redundant to the SPD’s internal review processes, the injunction by Jones and oversight by U.S. District Judge James Robart of reforms resulting from an eight-year-old consent decree between the police department and the Department of Justice.
The city also opposes the amount of attorneys’ fees and costs being sought by lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, Seattle University’s Korematsu Center for Law and Equality and the private Seattle firm Perkins Coie in suing to hold SPD accountable for its response to the protests that broke out following the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis.
The lawsuit was filed June 9 after thousands took to the streets of downtown and Capitol Hill to protest police and institutional racism in the wake of Floyd’s killing. SPD responded with tear gas, pepper spray, blast balls and other less-lethal weapons to disperse the crowds.
Jones found the police response excessive, and said officers likely violated the First Amendment rights of thousands of peaceful protesters by overreacting to the crowd’s anger and isolated incidents of vandalism, including broken windows, looting, burned patrol cars and stolen police firearms. Jones enjoined the department from doing it again.
After a warning in July following violent clashes between police and crowds on Capitol Hill, where the judge warned and further restricted the department, Jones found SPD in contempt of his injunction this month, finding incidents where officers had used indiscriminate force — blast balls and pepper spray, particularly — while responding to perceived threats from individuals.
The city has argued that it has “substantially complied” with the court’s injunction and that it can’t be held liable for the actions of individual officers, but Jones disagreed. While the judge also pointed to incidents where police force was justified, he said the incidents where it wasn’t violated the letter and spirit of the injunction.
The contempt motion involved the court reviewing hundreds of hours of police body camera video and private video posted on social media. Sorting through it was a herculean task, the city’s lawyers argued, and BLM’s lawyers argued they still did not get all the video available.
As a sanction, BLM is asking the court to order SPD to turn over to its lawyers the body camera video and the officer’s report for every use of force against protesters within five days of its occurrence.
The city says that would be almost impossible to do, and argued a BLM review of the incidents would be redundant to force reviews conducted by the SPD itself through its civilian-run Office of Police Accountability, as well as the Office of Inspector General and Community Police Commission, both formed as a result of the 2012 consent decree.
“Plaintiffs’ primary recommendation is a post-deployment use-of-force monitoring system to compete with the elaborate accountability system already put in place through the Consent Decree,” the city argued in a motion opposing the sanctions. “In a system that is already thoroughly transparent, reporting requirements to the Plaintiffs do nothing to advance compliance.”
However, use-of-force investigations within SPD often take months to complete, and BLM argues that promptly requiring the SPD to account for every use of force would give the department an opportunity to quickly come into compliance with the injunction.
The requirements would be “well within the bounds of the Court’s discretion in remedying contempt and are aimed at changing the harmful police behavior that the Court found was contemptuous,” BLM’s lawyers wrote pleadings filed this month. “The proposed sanctions will assist the Court in both purging the contempt and preventing future violations of the Court’s orders.”