Two sternly worded letters have been sent to Seattle officials by the U.S. Justice Department, questioning whether the city is negotiating police reforms in good faith.

Share story

A top attorney with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department has sent Seattle officials two sternly worded letters in the past 10 days, questioning whether the city is negotiating proposed police fixes in good faith, according to sources familiar with the letters.

The letters reflect a widening breach in the relationship between city and federal officials as the two sides seek to negotiate a settlement and avoid a prolonged and costly lawsuit over allegations that Seattle police routinely use excessive force.

The first letter was delivered last week to City Attorney Pete Holmes, shortly after the city submitted its response to the Justice Department’s proposed remedies, according to the sources, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The letter accused the city of providing an inadequate response and criticized city officials for the leak to The Associated Press of a draft consent decree outlining changes sought by the Justice Department, the sources said. The city’s copy of the proposal had been kept locked under an agreement between both sides to not discuss its contents.

The Associated Press, which published a story May 15, also was allowed to review an internal Police Department analysis that characterized the Justice Department’s proposed fixes as wildly unrealistic while asserting that implementing them could cost the city $41 million a year.

Two sources described the letter, sent late last week to Holmes, as containing “scathing” language. It was signed by Jonathan Smith, chief of the Special Litigation Section of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division in Washington, D.C., they said.

The second letter, also written by Smith and delivered to Holmes on Wednesday, followed initial talks between the city and Justice Department to reach a consent decree, which would be court-enforced and overseen by a monitor.

The letter, which was shorter than the first, directed the city to “get serious” about negotiations, one source said.

Holmes could not be reached for comment Thursday, but on Tuesday he told The Seattle Times he was hopeful that an agreement could be reached.

“I think that’s in the best interest of the city,” he said.

Asked about the tenor of the talks, Holmes responded, “I think they’ve been direct.”

Aaron Pickus, spokesman for Mayor Mike McGinn, declined to comment Thursday on the letters. In a statement, he said, “Our goal is to continue to work in good faith with the Department of Justice toward a mutually acceptable agreement.”

Federal attorneys have said they will file a lawsuit to force the city to make changes if the two parties are unable to reach a settlement. The suit could be filed as soon as June 1, according to sources.

The Justice Department found in December that Seattle police had engaged in a “pattern or practice” of excessive force, and cited “troubling” evidence of biased policing affecting minorities.

City officials delivered their response May 16, addressing the excessive-force issue, but omitting a response regarding biased policing because the Justice Department had not reached a formal finding on that issue, according to sources.

McGinn has said the city is separately dealing with biased policing in its “20/20” plan calling for 20 changes in the Police Department in 20 months.

McGinn, who has repeatedly said he is negotiating in good faith with the Justice Department, has expressed his willingness to sign a consent decree, depending on the role of the monitor and the scope, effectiveness and cost of the changes. He has called the $41 million figure “shocking,” warning that vital city services would suffer under that burden.

Federal attorneys, who are seeking, among other things, a boost in the number of front-line sergeants in the Police Department and more training, have said the city’s financial analysis is wrong.

Executive Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Bates in Seattle declined to comment on Thursday.

Key members of the City Council have previously complained that McGinn has not followed their suggestion that the city take a collaborative approach in its dealing with the Justice Department.

Councilmember Bruce Harrell, who chairs the public-safety committee, said Thursday he has seen the Justice Department letter delivered last week and that it underscores his concerns over the tenor and direction of the negotiations.

“When we entered into these negotiations, we had two goals,” he said.

Harrell said the first was addressing the necessary reforms in the Police Department, and the second was dealing with the deep mistrust of the SPD that has grown among the city’s minority communities.

“I’m not convinced we are doing either,” he said.

McGinn is being represented by the City Attorney’s Office in the negotiations.

But he also is relying heavily on his legal counsel, Carl Marquardt, who has taken a lead role in developing the city’s response to the Justice Department, according to a source familiar with the talks. Marquardt serves as primary liaison to the City Attorney’s Office and the Police Department.

Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or

Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or