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News / Northwest

Seattle, DOJ expected to ask judge to end most federal oversight of SPD

By Mike Carter, The Seattle Times
Published: March 28, 2023, 7:40am

SEATTLE — Department of Justice and Seattle officials on Tuesday will ask a federal judge to find the city’s Police Department has complied with “core requirements” of a decade-old settlement agreement over police reform, calling on the judge to end most federal oversight of the agency.

In a joint motion expected to be filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court, city and DOJ lawyers will proclaim the SPD is “a transformed organization” with little resemblance to the department that civil rights investigators in 2011 found routinely used unconstitutional, excessive force during arrests and showed disturbing signs of biased policing.

Mayor Bruce Harrell and U.S. Attorney Nick Brown will be joined by officials including Assistant U.S. Attorney General Kristen Clarke, who oversees the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, for the announcement Tuesday morning.

The motion is expected to ask U.S. District Judge James Robart — who for 11 years has had the final say on sweeping reforms that have reached into every aspect of policing in Seattle, from citizen stops to the use of deadly force — to find the SPD has reached “substantial compliance” with most of the settlement agreement’s requirements. They include model use-of-force policies, development and implementation of a wide-ranging and sophisticated data-collection and officer early warning system, strong community participation and civilian oversight.

Questions of sustained compliance apparently remain in two broad, crucial — and extremely vexatious — areas: crowd control, including tactics and use of force, and the key issue of officer accountability.

Both of those areas will remain the focus of narrow federal oversight in what is now being called a “compliance agreement,” a streamlined consent decree with a narrow focus and specific deadlines.

The city also acknowledges that it must address racial disparities that have shown up in reviews of both police use of force and investigative stops.

If granted, compliance has not come cheaply. An accounting of expenses related to the consent decree compiled by the mayor’s office last November had a bottom line of more than $200 million.

Harrell, a first-term mayor and former City Council member who once chaired the public safety committee, last year had made dissolution of federal police oversight a campaign priority. And while Tuesday’s announcement does not eliminate oversight, the motion, if granted, will allow officials to train their focus on narrow reforms while freeing them from the burden of the larger consent decree.

The DOJ’s Clarke, in a Monday interview, said it would be wrong to “underestimate this moment” even though some federal oversight of the SPD will remain in place for now.

“This is a significant milestone toward meaningful police reform,” Clarke said. “This marks a new day. We have achieved large-scale compliance with this agreement … and the overall takeaway is that policing in Seattle looks dramatically different than it did a decade ago.”

Data shows that overall use of force by SPD officials is down nearly 60% from 2011.

“Change and reform is not easy, but it is worth it,” Clarke said. “Every resident in this city deserves constitutional policing.”

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Harrell is the fifth Seattle mayor who has vowed to end the settlement agreement — and in one aspect, he’s on the verge of success. In the new filings, the remaining oversight topics have been given the new “compliance agreement” title.

Based on documents Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison plans to file Tuesday in U.S. District Court, crowd management and officer accountability will continued to be a source of friction between the court, its appointed monitor, the SPD’s guild-represented rank-and-file, and department brass.

The city’s inability to reach full compliance with the agreement can be traced to those two topics, which delivered a one-two blow to settlement efforts at the moment the city was prepared to ask the court to lift oversight altogether.

More than five years later, that is where the process is again today.

The first setback came in the form of a literal punch thrown in 2014 by former officer Adley Shepherd, who slugged an intoxicated, handcuffed woman while trying to arrest her on suspicion of domestic violence. The blow — caught on video — fractured a bone in the woman’s face and left the city to settle a lawsuit for $195,000.

Then-police Chief Kathleen O’Toole fired Shepherd after a grinding internal investigation, but mandatory arbitration provided for in the city’s labor contract with the Seattle Police Officers Guild reinstated Shepherd — prompting a lashing from the judge.

Robart, who in January 2018 was prepared to find the city in initial compliance with the agreement, triggering a two-year countdown to full compliance, reversed himself by May 2019. He ruled the city had fallen out of compliance in the area of officer accountability, pointedly laying much of the blame on resistance to reforms voiced by the rank-and-file, which had rejected a contract containing reforms and accountability measures.

The City Council, including Harrell, in 2018 approved a contract from which those provisions had been stripped.

The city has remained out of compliance since, a hurdle made higher by the department’s violent response to the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, which prompted another federal judge to enjoin the department from using many of its crowd-control tools, concluding officers had violated the free speech rights of thousands of legal protesters.

Officer accountability has proved the single greatest stumbling block to full compliance with the settlement agreement over the years. Many in the rank-and-file SPD protested and dismissed the DOJ’s 2011 investigation into excessive use of force by officers and questioned the need for federal oversight at all — a position the guild’s leadership continues to hold today as the city and union negotiate a new contract to replace one that expired in December 2020.

Back in 2011, both the administration of then-Mayor Mike McGinn and the Police Department tried hard to ward off federal oversight. The SPD in a matter of weeks ginned up a program it called “20/20,” promising 20 reforms in 20 months, but it fizzled almost as quickly as it began.

Police insisted the department was not broken and welcomed what then-police Chief John Diaz suggested was little more than a DOJ audit, claiming SPD “was not broken.” McGinn reportedly swore at then-Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, who at the time was the director of the Civil Rights Division — the same position Clarke holds now — when he was told of the Justice Department’s findings.

At one point, 100 officers filed a lawsuit alleging the department’s new use-of-force policy was placing them in danger.

The lawsuit was ultimately dismissed, and Robart warned the guild that he would not let the union hold reforms hostage or put a price tag on constitutional policing.

At the time, McGinn warned that a settlement agreement could end up costing the city $5 million a year, prompting criticism and eye rolls from police reformers who doubted his math and accused him of inflating the numbers.

As it turned out, his estimate amounted to only a quarter of the actual $200 million cost so far.

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