Seattle’s police-accountability system needs refinement, not wholesale change, says a consultant report filed by the city to a federal judge Friday that echoes concerns raised by the judge and community members but that offers no specific solutions.
The submission may or may not satisfy U.S. District Judge James Robart, who’s been waiting for several months to hear how Seattle leaders plan to fix particular problems he found related to the contract with the Seattle Police Officers Guild the city agreed to last year.
Robart objected to contract provisions that initially allowed an outside arbitrator to overturn the firing of an officer who had punched a handcuffed woman. He also criticized proof requirements in disciplinary appeals, deadlines for completing internal investigations of officers and the lack of power by watchdogs to subpoena information.
The judge cited those flaws in May when he ruled Seattle partially out of compliance with a 2012 consent degree that required the city to address allegations related to excessive use of force and biased policing. The consent decree followed outrage over incidents such as the fatal shooting of First Nations woodcarver John T. Williams.
Friday’s report by Chicago-based consultant 21CP Solutions, which Mayor Jenny Durkan and City Attorney Pete Holmes hired in July, likely won’t please community activists who’ve been pushing for additional reforms.
Rather than describe how exactly to make Seattle’s accountability system better, it reviews the existing apparatus, concludes the system is “generally working well” and identifies some areas for improvement. It also compares Seattle’s system to setups in some other cities.
“Fairness. Transparency. Just outcomes,” says the 55-page report. “What the findings in this assessment demonstrate is that the City of Seattle has made remarkable progress towards those values. These findings represent not the need for wholesale change but for additional fine-tuning and refinement.”
With the assessment done, Seattle can now work with stakeholders on a plan to address Robart’s concerns, city lawyers wrote in a notice accompanying the report.
Durkan and Holmes intend to present that plan to Robart next year, at which time they also intend to ask the judge to declare that Seattle has maintained “full and effective compliance” and can be released from the consent decree.
Robart found the city in full and effective compliance in early 2018, after the City Council passed legislation bolstering civilian and community oversight. That triggered a two-year “sustainment period,” which was slated to wrap up soon.
But some measures in the council’s legislation were derailed by the new union contract, and Robart’s recent concerns have complicated the matter. Meanwhile, Seattle is scheduled to head back to the bargaining table with the union in 2020.
Neither the union nor Seattle’s Community Police Commission returned requests for comment Saturday.
Friday’s report says the police department’s 180-day deadline for internal investigations creates risk for serious misconduct to go unaddressed. It says there’s uncertainty about how watchdogs can obtain evidence, and it says it’s too soon to know how the department’s proof requirements for disciplinary appeals will play out.
The report says it’s difficult for the public to track disciplinary cases through the grievance and appeals process and to learn what ultimately happens to officers.
The city provided Robart with a Nov. 13 letter spelling out new selection procedures for choosing arbitrators, aimed at curtailing arbitrator shopping and gaming of the appeal system.