Federal attorneys say an arbitrator's reinstatement of a fired officer and the city of Seattle's recent contract with the Seattle Police Officers Guild doesn't conflict with court-ordered reforms.
Seattle police should not be found out of compliance with court-ordered reforms because of an arbitrator’s reinstatement of a fired officer who punched a handcuffed woman, federal attorneys said.
Calling the arbitrator’s action an “individual incident,” attorneys for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle and the Department of Justice (DOJ) joined with the city of Seattle in urging U.S. District Judge James Robart to find that the decision doesn’t conflict with a 2012 consent decree, according to a report filed Wednesday. That agreement required the city to adopt reforms to address what DOJ cited as a pattern of excessive force and issues of biased policing.
In a 19-page brief, the federal attorneys also urged Robart to find that the city’s new contract with the Seattle Police Officers Guild, signed in November, also doesn’t conflict with the consent decree.
Earlier, Robart had asked city and federal attorneys for an explanation of the arbitrator’s November ruling and whether it rendered the city out of compliance with the consent decree. He also sought more detailed information on the police department’s disciplinary procedures.
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Officer Adley Shepherd was fired in 2016 for the incident in 2014, in which a 23-year-old woman was being placed into the back of the patrol car. She swore at Shepherd and kicked him, prompting him to punch her, fracturing two bones in her right eye orbit.
The Community Police Commission (CPC), a citizen advisory body created as part of the consent decree, opposed adoption of the contract before the City Council voted eight to one to ratify it. The CPC has until next Wednesday to file its views with Robart.
City attorneys filed their response to Robart’s requests in December, saying the police department shouldn’t be found out of compliance because of a “single, erroneous” ruling by the arbitrator.
In fact, the Police Department has done everything it can to remove Shepherd, including appealing the arbitrator’s decision to King County Superior Court and refusing to allow Shepherd to return to work while the appeal is pending, the attorneys wrote.
The arbitrator found that Shepherd used excessive force, but reduced the penalty to a 15-day suspension.
Regardless of the outcome, the attorneys argued, the arbitrator’s ruling didn’t undo successful reforms the police department has carried out the past six years.
Robart, in January 2018, found the city in full compliance with the consent decree, triggering a two-year period in which the city must show that it has sustained the reforms.
“Unless there is reason to believe that the individual incident of misconduct reflects a systemic problem, an individual incident does not serve as the basis for finding a failure of sustained compliance,” the federal attorneys wrote in Wednesday’s filing.
They said one issue merits further review: a trainer’s instruction to officers, cited in Shepherd’s appeal, to hit back as hard as they can to protect themselves.
The Police Department’s longstanding practice of using outside arbitrators doesn’t violate the consent decree, the federal attorneys wrote.
In drafting the contract, the city abandoned proposed language shifting the appeal process to a city hearing examiner and review panel. It opted for new arbitration procedures to limit efforts to game the process, but critics say the changes don’t go far enough and that arbitrations will continue to be held out of public view.
The consent decree was obtained by the DOJ under President Barack Obama, whose administration made nationwide police reform a top priority.
Since the election of President Donald Trump, such efforts have dramatically slowed amid Justice Department hostility to police reform.