A "collaborative effort" between the mayor, city attorney and City Council to create a unified response to a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into the use of force by Seattle police has unraveled, according to sources familiar with the talks.
A “collaborative effort” between the mayor, city attorney and City Council to create a unified response to a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into the use of force by Seattle police has unraveled, according to sources familiar with the talks.
A committee consisting of the city’s most powerful elected officials, which came together in January to coordinate a response and implement police reforms after the Justice Department released its critical findings, has not met in three weeks, despite a scheduled meeting with Justice officials Friday, the two sources said.
That meeting apparently will go on as scheduled — it’s already been postponed at least twice — but a letter to Mayor Mike McGinn from the three City Council members on the committee strongly hints at the rift that’s developed.
The letter, dated Tuesday, thanks McGinn for attempting to collaborate with the City Council and City Attorney Pete Holmes “to develop a policy-level response” to the Justice Department findings that Seattle police have engaged in a “pattern and practice” of using excessive force, mostly against minorities and the mentally or chemically impaired. The report, released more than three months ago, also said there was disturbing but inconclusive evidence of biased policing.
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“Our primary interest in initiating a collaboration with you and the city attorney was to seize this opportunity” to cooperate with the Justice Department, quickly address the findings in the report and define a “broad set of reforms to improve policing in Seattle,” wrote Council President Sally Clark in a letter also signed by council members Tim Burgess and Bruce Harrell, the past and current chairmen of the committee that oversees police.
“Unfortunately, we were not successful in advancing this approach,” the letter said.
One sticking point with McGinn and the Police Department is the need for court oversight of the changes recommended by the Justice Department, the sources said.
When the committee has met, there has been acrimony, which may not be surprising considering its makeup: McGinn and Holmes have clashed on a variety of issues, and the remaining members from the council, Burgess in particular, are seen as potential McGinn rivals in the 2013 mayoral race, according to the sources.
Harrell said “nobody is to blame” for the inability of the group to reach a consensus. “There were a lot of strong opinions on how we should proceed,” he said.
Clark and Burgess declined to comment beyond the contents of the letter.
Holmes, who was sent a copy, called it “a thoughtful letter with achievable goals.”
The six-page letter contains a number of recommendations and changes the council members said the mayor should include when presenting legislation or seeking funding for police reforms.
They include ensuring that policing in Seattle is “fair and effective,” setting clear professional standards for officers and discipline, and restoring and ensuring public trust and confidence in the police and their actions.
The mayor and Police Department, while supporting some changes, have questioned the Justice Department’s findings that one of every five instances where force is used by Seattle police is unconstitutional.
The findings, released Dec. 16 after an 11-month investigation, call for a court-enforceable “consent decree,” backed by threat of litigation, to ensure that reforms stick.
After the initial shock of the report’s findings wore off, McGinn ordered police Chief John Diaz to implement a series of changes — many suggested in the report — to re-establish public trust in the Police Department, regardless of the veracity of the Justice Department findings.
However, the sources who spoke to The Times said police and the mayor’s office question the need for court oversight of department changes.
A statement released by McGinn’s office Wednesday, said, “The mayor continues to work with staff from the police department, Public Safety Chair Councilmember Bruce Harrell, the law department and community members on the best possible outcome from the Department of Justice’s report — a professional, effective police force in Seattle.”
In January, the council approached the mayor’s office with the suggestion of forming a committee of elected officials with the horsepower to cut through the bureaucracy and streamline the process. Nobody has said yet how the city will proceed from here, although Holmes, the council members and the mayor said they will attend the Friday meeting.
The meeting is intended to present to the city the Justice Department’s first draft of a court document outlining suggested police reforms and proposed deadlines for their implementation.
Executive Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Bates said he could not confirm Friday’s meeting. He declined further comment.
The council members, in their letter, urged cooperation rather than confrontation.
“While we appreciate the negotiations with the DOJ are sensitive, we feel strongly that they need not be adversarial,” the letter said.
Harrell said it would be a mistake to assume that “pushback” against the Justice Department’s methods or findings “somehow means we don’t embrace [police] accountability.”
Last month, the city attorney’s office hired a nationally recognized police consultant, Joseph Brann, under a sealed contract to help the city prepare for possible litigation with the Justice Department. The contract calls on Brann to provide analysis and advice about an agreement between the city and Justice Department, including “verifying the results of the DOJ investigation, and advising the city on methods of addressing the alleged pattern or practice” of civil-rights violations.
The Times obtained a copy of the contract last week under a public-disclosure request.
Clark said the council would continue to oversee the city’s approach to police reform through the legislative and budget processes, and the six-page letter goes on in detail about the council’s expectations of McGinn and the Police Department as negotiations with the Department of Justice continue.
“We feel strongly that now is the time to advance a new vision for SPD that can be broadly supported by the city’s elected leadership, the people of Seattle, and the leadership and personnel of the police department,” Clark wrote.
Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Seattle Times staff reporter Steve Miletich contributed to this report.