SEATTLE — The Seattle Police Department’s use of force and “powerful and injurious” crowd-control weaponry against protesters in recent months has cost the department goodwill with the public and ground lost in efforts to get out from beneath federal oversight, according to Merrick Bobb, who has resigned after seven years as court-appointed monitor of Justice Department-mandated reforms.
In a letter provided to The Seattle Times on Tuesday, the day U.S. District Judge James Robart announced Bobb’s replacement — Harvard University fellow Dr. Antonio Oftelie — Bobb took the opportunity to express his personal disappointment in the direction SPD has taken, his pride in the work accomplished so far, and his estimation of those who have helped and hurt reform efforts.
He also called for the city to find a new police chief from outside the department as quickly as it can.
“The SPD is at its nadir,” wrote Bobb, who is the executive director of the Police Assessment Resource Center in Los Angeles. “It desperately needs a new chief from outside the organization to put it back together. It needs leadership.”
The new monitor, Oftelie, is a Harvard fellow and police, public policy and technology innovator. He’ll be joined by Seattle civil-rights advocate Monisha Harrell, chair of Equal Rights Washington, whom Robart named as deputy monitor.
Oftelie is executive director of Leadership for a Networked World, which is based at the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard. Oftelie’s biography states he worked as a commissioner on the Commission on the Future of Policing In Ireland, which was chaired by former Seattle police Chief Kathleen O’Toole.
Oftelie said in an email that he has studied the progress of reforms in the Seattle Police Department, which he said has already made “nation-leading” progress in innovative police services. The national reckoning over institutional racism and police violence brought on by the killing of George Floyd, he said, “offers a unique opportunity to stress-test” the department’s reforms and accountability measures.
Oftelie, who says he grew up in the same police precinct in Minneapolis where Floyd suffocated while handcuffed with an officer kneeling on his neck, said legitimacy in policing “is on the verge of collapse” as a result of racism and police violence.
He said his team recognizes it is overseeing the final phase of the department’s federal oversight — Bobb’s team has been in place since 2013 — and that he will be “focusing on SPD’s accountability and transparency structures,” which have been buffeted by thousands of complaints over police actions during the protests.
Oftelie has addressed Seattle’s policing in an article he wrote in August, discussing calls by some community groups, embraced in spirit by the City Council, to defund the Seattle Police Department by 50%. Oftelie urged caution, calm heads and bridge building rather than slashing funding.
“We must do three things simultaneously: end police brutality, protect vulnerable people, and create the future of public safety,” which must include shifting priorities and funding to address social problems, rather than criminalizing them, he wrote in an article published on the website Medium in June.
Mayor Jenny Durkan, in a statement, said Oftelie and Harrell “share a deep commitment to equity, accountability and a transformation of the role that officers serve in our community.”
The mayor said she will work with them toward a “monitoring plan that addresses officer accountability, makes necessary improvements to the crowd control policies and training, and sets a trajectory to re-imagine a new generation of policing and community safety.”
Bobb made it clear in his letter that he was speaking only for himself — his last day as monitor was Aug. 31 — and that his thoughts and observations should not be misconstrued as being endorsed or shared by Judge Robart.
His team was brought on to help the city achieve “full and effective compliance” with the 2012 consent decree negotiated with the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division.
The city was close to maintaining that status for a required two years. But use-of-force issues raised during the protests, controversial legislation recently passed by the City Council to cut police funding and salaries, and issues over officer accountability have extended that deadline indefinitely.
Bobb said the police response to this summer’s racial justice protests in Seattle have left “many observers disappointed and crestfallen, if not disturbed profoundly by what looked like multiple instances of excessive force, as if lessons learned and techniques trained under the consent decree were lost, or, at least, set aside.”
The department’s performance “betrayed a lack of adequate preparation and training, an apparent absence of an overall strategic plan or foreknowledge of how to deal with violent interlopers without cutting off legitimate First Amendment activity by peaceful protesters” regardless of how loud and challenging they were.
He criticized the department’s “inadequate subtlety and sophistication about the use of powerful and injurious nonlethal weaponry” and its “willingness to call something a riot when it might have met some technical definition but was a far cry from a rebellion, or stampede or even a melee, merely so the SPD could use tear gas, a chemical agent banned for use in warfare after World War I.”
Bobb recounted how the department and its rank-and-file have fought reforms over the years, with strategies ranging from complaining that the monitor was wasting money on luxuries to filing a lawsuit, signed by more than 100 officers, protesting the department’s new — and since implemented — policies for using force.
He said he was opposed by then-Mayor Mike McGinn, the SPD’s chief and top brass — which he described as a “small coterie of men who had worked together for years to thwart reform” — and the Seattle Police Officers Guild, which he said remains an impediment to reform today.
“The consent decree will not end until the (Police Department’s) ‘bizarre and arcane’ discipline and accountability systems are fixed,” Bobb said.
That will require “statesmanship and compromise by the police unions to restore proper management prerogatives,” he wrote.
Bobb said the department must also address concerns of biased policing, which was identified as an issue by the DOJ that raised concerns but lacked sufficient data to prove. The monitor’s office has since gathered several years of data which Bobb said “starkly and sadly” show that young Black men are more likely to be stopped by police, and more likely to be searched when they are stopped, based on police and population figures.
Use of force, however, has declined steadily against all groups since the department adopted stringent use-of-force policies and reporting rules, he said. Bobb said the SPD was resistant to the monitor’s team reviewing police force at first, and “loudly and repeatedly moaned” about the blunt-talking Peter Ehrlichman, one of the team’s attorneys, for “being disrespectful and abusive” — a complaint Bobb said carried “obvious ironies” coming from police.
Bobb pointed to other issues he believes are impediments to ending federal oversight, including “endless squabbling at the top of Seattle leadership” and political posturing, including unrealistic calls to defund the department by 50%.
“I will not miss the endless jockeying and some runaway egos,” he wrote. “The mayor, city council, city attorney, [Community Police Commission], and other community groups and organizations must really try to work together and not at cross purposes.”
Bobb also singled out individuals and actions he believes have championed the reform movement, including Durkan, who as U.S. Attorney and before that had pushed for police accountability and reforms, eventually getting the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division involved. He praised City Attorney Pete Holmes and former Mayor Ed Murray, who campaigned on a promise to address the issues raised by the DOJ and hired former Boston police commissioner Kathleen O’Toole as chief.
Bobb singled out O’Toole’s leadership and called her “an ideal of a progressive police chief” who did more to push reforms and compliance than anyone else in the city. He also called out Chief Carmen Best as a “warm, engaging person” who had the “enthusiastic support” of the Black community, but made only an oblique reference to her leadership in the department.
The department, he said, “can get back to the place where Kathy O’Toole left it and Carmen Best took over.
“Many of the same excellent people are there,” he said. “A wise police chief will gather them up; empower them; bring in new good people … and get the job done.”
Best resigned after the City Council cut her pay. Durkan has appointed Adrian Diaz as interim chief.
“The new monitor comes very highly recommended,” Bobb said from his Los Angeles home on Tuesday. “We look forward to working cooperatively with him.”
The change in the monitor comes at a time of turmoil in reform efforts at the department, amid the ongoing protests. The department is currently enjoined by two federal judges — one who has ordered the department not to use unconstitutional force against peaceful demonstrators, and another barring implementation of a City Council ordinance that would limit the weapons used when police do confront protesters.
In his order, Robart said, “It is with great respect that the court acknowledges and thanks Mr. Merrick Bobb and the members of the Seattle Monitoring Team for their many years of service to both the parties and the court and for their significant contributions to police reform in the City of Seattle.
“Their efforts have improved the Seattle Police Department and made the City of Seattle a better place,” the judge wrote.