Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan has quietly assembled an outside panel of former law-enforcement leaders and a current police-union lawyer to help the city respond to a federal judge’s order to devise methods to fix flaws surrounding police accountability.
The action drew swift condemnation from police-reform advocates who contend it undercuts longstanding local efforts.
“I don’t know what’s going on with the panel but I believe strongly, as do many of the community, there isn’t a need to start all over again with yet another assessment,” said Diane Narasaki, a past co-chair of the city’s Community Police Commission (CPC) who worked on police-accountability reforms and joined more than 24 community groups last week in urging Durkan to work with the CPC to regain full compliance with federal mandates.
The mayor’s office defended the four people selected for the panel, saying they were “widely recognized as national leaders.”
But reform advocates said the city should rely on years of work by the CPC and others that led in 2017 to the City Council’s passage of a landmark police-accountability ordinance hailed as a national model. CPC co-chair Isaac Ruiz echoed their comments Tuesday, saying, “The work’s already been done.”
Some expressed concerns that the real purpose of the panel is to validate the city’s view that its police-accountability measures exceed other cities and that its collective-bargaining agreement with Seattle’s rank-and-file police union includes widely used national standards.
U.S. District Judge James Robart found May 15 that Seattle had fallen partially out of compliance with a reform agreement with the Department of Justice (DOJ) in light of a police appeal process that allowed an outside arbitrator to overturn the firing of an officer who punched a handcuffed woman.
He gave the city until July 15 to devise a “methodology” for assessing the “police accountability regime” and achieving full compliance, directing it to work with the DOJ, which in 2012 obtained a consent decree requiring police to address excessive use of force and biased policing, as well as with the court’s appointed monitor and the CPC, a citizen advisory body created as part of the consent decree.
No full meetings of all the parties have occurred, although Durkan briefed the CPC’s co-chairs and other police-oversight officials last week on steps she is taking, including the assistance of the four outside consultants with Chicago-based 21CP Solutions, which bills itself as helping law-enforcement agencies and communities tackle the challenges of 21st century policing.
“In the coming weeks, the City will be working to define the full scope of work and methodology to propose to the Court by working with community and accountability partners,” the mayor’s office said in a statement.
The statement said the city and DOJ had “agreed to engage” 21CP Solutions, but on Wednesday the mayor’s office issued a clarification, saying it kept the DOJ fully informed of the decision but that the DOJ did not directly participate in the selection of the consultants. A DOJ spokesperson confirmed the revised version.
The consultants will meet with the city, the CPC, the DOJ and the monitor, Merrick Bobb, to develop the scope of work and methodology, the statement said.
The outside experts’ assessments will be data-driven and they also will look at best practices in other cities, according to the statement.
The four are former Philadelphia police commissioner Charles Ramsey, who served as co-chair of President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing; Ronald Davis, a former East Palo Alto, California, police chief, ex-U. S. Justice Department community police official and onetime Seattle police-chief candidate; Darrel Stephens, retired police chief of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department in North Carolina; and Sean Smoot, director and chief counsel for the Illinois Police Benevolent and Protective Association, which represents police officers in that state.
“Good people, good police officials, but not individuals with proven track records of reforming collective bargaining agreements and disciplinary systems so that they meet the test of community trust and confidence,” said Anne Levinson, a retired judge who for years served as a city watchdog overseeing the Police Department’s internal investigations and disciplinary system and played a key role in consulting with the CPC and City Council in drafting the 2017 police-accountability legislation.
“Instead of following through on commitments made to the community and telling the court by July 15 how and when the city will remedy those, the city apparently intends to deny those weaknesses exist, hire its own ‘independent experts,’ ignore the court’s direction, and argue that Seattle’s system is better than other cities,” Levinson said.
She said that rather than explaining to the court how weaknesses will be fixed, the city “intends to ignore the work done over more than five years” and “start again from scratch and conduct its own ‘assessment.’ “
Under the 2017 ordinance, disciplinary appeals were to be heard by a three-member, city-run commission and hearing examiner, in what was viewed as a tougher process to manipulate. But the ordinance remained subject to collective bargaining.
When a new contract was reached with the Seattle Police Officers Guild in November the city abandoned the new appeals plan and retained the longstanding practice of using arbitrators. Robart called that a “reversion to an arbitration system that is materially unchanged from the old, inadequate accountability regime.”
After last week’s complaints from the community groups, the mayor’s office issued a statement saying the city remains in full and effective compliance with every area “required” by the consent decree — a reference to the city’s successful completion of 10 formal assessments.
“We are disappointed with how the Mayor’s office characterized the status of the City’s compliance with the Consent Decree,” said Michele Storms, executive director of the ACLU of Washington, one of the organizations. “Judge Robart’s finding was clear: The City has partially fallen out of compliance with the federal consent decree with regard to discipline and accountability.”
Urging the city to cooperate with the CPC, Storms said, “Every denial creates delay and every delay in establishing a system of true and effective police accountability reduces public safety, erodes community trust in law enforcement, and most significantly, costs lives. Neither the City nor its communities can afford to bear the heavy costs of denial and delay.”