U.S. District Judge James Robart said he wouldn’t approve police-accountability measures while the city is still negotiating some of the terms with police unions.
In a surprise move, U.S. District Judge James Robart declined Tuesday to approve Seattle’s landmark police-accountability legislation until he is told what key items will require bargaining with the city’s police unions.
“The citizens of Seattle are not going to pay blackmail for constitutional policing,” Robart told a packed courtroom filled with city officials who largely expected the judge to approve the long-awaited legislation.
Robart, who is presiding over a 2012 federal consent decree requiring the Seattle Police Department (SPD) to address excessive force and biased policing, said that he wasn’t prepared to approve a work in progress, and that the constitution trumps any single element of the legislation.
City Attorney Pete Holmes said city officials, Robart’s court-appointed monitor and U.S. Justice Department attorneys who obtained the consent decree will huddle Wednesday to craft a list to be submitted to the judge as soon possible.
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Holmes said the city will be looking for Robart’s guidance on how to proceed, particularly on issues the city considers crucial to constitutional policing but that will require bargaining.
Other issues might be easier to implement, he said.
He did not disclose what items may be subject to bargaining because labor talks with the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, which represents officers and sergeants, and the Seattle Police Management Association, the union for captains and lieutenants, are confidential.
But the legislation, passed by the City Council in May and signed by Mayor Ed Murray, includes provisions that would replace uniformed officers with civilians in the internal-investigations unit, make it harder for officers to successfully appeal firings and discipline, and create a civilian inspector-general position with broad authority to oversee the Police Department’s internal workings.
In demanding more details, Robart noted that Murray, in a separate matter, already had been forced on Monday to issue an executive order requiring SPD to equip patrol officers with body cameras in the face of recalcitrance on the part of the police guild.
In a news conference after Tuesday’s hearing, Councilmember M. Lorena González, chair of the council public-safety committee that crafted the legislation, said the city was prepared to address the judge’s concerns.
“We had hoped that today would be the final thumbs-up from Judge Robart to allow us to continue to move forward with the implementation of the accountability legislation,” González said. “And obviously we did not get that final approval. But we understand that Judge Robart is extremely concerned as we are about … the possible negative implications that our collective-bargaining process could have on the ultimate goal of making sure this accountability legislation establishes constitutional policing.”
Referring to Robart’s blackmail comment, González said, “That is a concept … we heard loud and clear as a city.”
Councilmember Tim Burgess, vice chair of the committee, echoed González’ comments, calling Robart’s directive “another step in a long, sometimes tedious process toward the final outcomes that we’re looking for.”
Noting the city’s objective is effective and constitutional policing, Burgess said, “We will not be deterred in achieving that goal.”
“I was particularly impressed and appreciative of the judge’s comment that the constitution trumps everything,” Burgess said. “That is so true and that is, in fact, our guiding star.”
The Rev. Harriett Walden, co-chair of the Community Police Commission, a citizen body created under the consent decree, said the commission had been hoping for Robart’s approval. The commission, which played a key role in crafting the legislation, hopes he will approve at least some parts of the legislation, Walden said.
“We were hoping for a green light to move forward in a big way and we still might get that,” Walden said.
Robart also addressed what he described as “rumblings” that the city — which has cleared a series of major hurdles — should be found in full compliance with the consent decree.
“It’s not going to happen,” he said, noting the Justice Department is now under a new administration.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made lukewarm comments about consent decrees requiring police reform, ordering a review of such agreements already in place and signaling a retreat from bringing new cases.
Robart also pointed out that Seattle will see a new mayoral administration next year, when Murray departs.
Although he didn’t elaborate, Robart’s comment indicated he will be closely watching the outcome and the potential impact on the court’s goal of lasting police reform.
Robart said Seattle police have become a model of how to do things right. But questions remain, including how the department investigates the June 18 fatal police shooting of Charleena Lyles, a 30-year African-American mother of four killed in a confrontation with two white officers in a Northeast Seattle apartment.
“Judge Robart made it clear today that ensuring constitutional policing needs to be Seattle’s top priority,” Murray said in a statement. “Five years ago, when the previous administration was dragging its feet on meaningful reform, the relationship between police and Seattle’s communities of color was fractured. While we still have work to do, we have made significant progress since 2010, which the Court confirmed today.”