A citizen watchdog panel on Monday accused the city of Seattle of dodging a judge’s request for proposals to fix police-accountability flaws, saying the city’s response suggests it doesn’t appreciate the need for reforms that will bring it back into full compliance with federal mandates.
In an 11-page court filing, Seattle’s Community Police Commission (CPC) disputed an assessment submitted to U.S. District Judge James Robart last month in which city consultants concluded the Seattle Police Department’s internal disciplinary and oversight system is “working as intended” though there may be some areas that “could benefit” from improvement.
“The City’s synopsis is contrary to the Court’s conclusion that there is a ‘critical need for reform,’ ” in the system, the CPC said in the filing submitted by its attorney, David Perez.
Robart ruled in May that the city, despite overall success, had partly fallen out of compliance with a 2012 consent decree with the Department of Justice (DOJ) requiring the Police Department to address allegations of excessive use of force and biased policing. He raised concerns about several provisions of the city’s contract with the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG), including one allowing outside arbitrators without law enforcement experience to overturn misconduct findings. In one case, a fired officer was reinstated after punching a handcuffed woman before the decision was ultimately set aside by a King County judge at the city’s request.
Responding to the CPC’s filing, Stephanie Formas, spokeswoman for Mayor Jenny Durkan, said the city is “absolutely committed to ongoing improvement and reform of the Seattle Police Department.” The consultants’ report gives them a “strong framework” for those improvements, she said, and the CPC’s filing “acknowledges the value of the work done.”
Formas said the city and SPOG, which represents more than 1,300 officers and sergeants, have already agreed to reforms regarding the selection and qualifications of arbitrators. Those reforms address concerns raised by Robart.
“As we begin a new decade, it is worth noting that SPD was under DOJ investigation or the Consent Decree for most of the last decade and that it has been significantly reformed in those years as demonstrated both by the more robust oversight and accountability, and by the dramatic reduction of use of force,” Formas said in a statement.
Despite the CPC’s pessimistic tone in its filing, the commission disclosed in it that the city recently invited the commission and its legal counsel to work with city officials in crafting methods to bring the Police Department back into compliance.
The commission, which was created under the consent decree, said it was encouraged by the move but concerned that the “nature and depth” of the collaboration remain undefined and complained of significant lost time in bargaining preparations already well underway for the next contract.
The main thrust of the CPC’s filing noted that Robart, in various orders, directed the city to provide him an assessment of the current system and a “proposed methodology” to regain compliance. The judge also warned the city not to use the assessment “to justify its current accountability system,” saying the “exercise will be a failure, reform will be delayed, and full and effective compliance with the Consent Decree will recede further into the future,” the filing said.
However, the city submitted only the consultants’ assessment, using the findings to “justify the current accountability regime, which the Court has found to be inadequate,” the CPC said.
Meanwhile, the city is developing methodology proposals it plans to submit to the court, according to the filing.
“Vaguely referencing that the system ‘could benefit’ from improvements suggests that the City does not appreciate the ‘critical need for reform,’ and does not intend to submit a methodology strong enough to bring the City back into compliance,” the CPC wrote.
The CPC said the methodology should “fully address” Robart’s concerns with the police-union contract, which, in addition to the use of arbitrators, include artificial deadlines to complete internal investigations, a lack of subpoena power to obtain information about officers and elevated proof standards in appeals of discipline.
All disciplinary appeals, now held behind closed doors, should be open to the public to boost public confidence in a proceeding some have labeled a “black box,” the filing said.
The city’s own consultants noted that closing the hearings makes it difficult for the public to track cases, the CPC added.
They also found Seattle is backtracking on subpoena authority relative to its peers in five benchmark cities, the CPC said.
City attorneys previously informed Robart that Durkan is willing to make changes in the disciplinary and appeal process “top priorities” when the next negotiations with the police union begin, as early as March.
But the city has yet to comply with the court’s order to submit a proposal on what role the court’s monitor, Merrick Bobb, should have moving forward, the CPC filing said.
Bobb has been effective in moving the city toward compliance with the consent decree and could help on the accountability issue, the filing said, arguing that is critical the monitor and judge remain involved in the process.