SEATTLE — The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, whose complaints about violent and biased policing in Seattle helped bring about a decade of federal police oversight, sees little to celebrate in the proposed end of the 2012 settlement agreement between the city and the U.S. Justice Department.
The ACLU disputes a recent public declaration by federal, city and police officials that the Seattle Police Department is a “transformed organization” capable of ensuring and maintaining constitutional community policing, and no longer requiring most court oversight.
While recognizing the so-called consent decree can’t remain in place forever, ACLU attorneys point to ongoing racial disparities in use of force and investigatory stops, as well as violence against peaceful protesters during the summer of 2020, as evidence of the limits of the SPD’s reform.
“While the consent decree ushered in changes to SPD’s policies, data collection, and training, the Department, regrettably is not a ‘transformed organization,'” wrote the ACLU leadership in a brief filed last week in federal court. “If the consent decree is terminated, [the ACLU], an original requestor, will not celebrate the news as a moment of ‘mission accomplished.'”
U.S. District Judge James Robart, who has overseen the consent decree since its inception, has set a hearing May 30 to consider the Department of Justice and city of Seattle’s joint motion to end court oversight of most of the reforms called for by the agreement.
The city and the DOJ agree that the key reform areas of officer accountability and crowd control should remain under Robart’s jurisdiction for at least another year while new SPD policies and city legislation are considered, and the city completes its contract negotiations with the Seattle Police Officers Guild, whose past contracts have undermined the city’s accountability efforts.
The ACLU’s concerns are contained in one of three “friend of the court” briefs filed ahead of the hearing by entities that believe they have a legitimate interest — and should have some say — in the court’s deliberations.
The second brief is from the Community Police Commission, which owes its existence to the consent decree and whose leaders embrace the proposed end of most oversight.
“The people of Seattle are the ultimate guarantors of police accountability,” the CPC brief declares.
The third was a motion seeking friend-of-the-court status by attorneys representing Anthony Sims, a Black deliveryman who sued the city last year over his treatment during a 2020 “felony stop” during which multiple SPD officers pointed guns at him.
The lawsuit alleges racial profiling. Sims’ attorneys claim their investigation into the traffic stop and discovery from the lawsuit raise questions about SPD training, officer accountability, use of force and illegal searches. The attorneys submitted an extensive briefing to Robart “to ensure that the Consent Decree is not prematurely terminated, and that the SPD is accountable to the law.”
Robart on Tuesday accepted Sims as an “amicus,” or friend of the court, and agreed to review his pleadings.
The ACLU led a coalition of 35 civic and civil-rights advocacy groups who in 2010 petitioned then-U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan and the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division for a “patterns and practices” investigation following what the organization called “egregious” uses of SPD force, mostly against people of color, including the unjustified police shooting death of Native American woodcarver John T. Williams.
In an investigation released the following year, the DOJ concluded SPD officers routinely used excessive force during arrests, often escalated minor encounters into physical violence, and that there was evidence — but not a formal finding — of biased policing.
The DOJ sued the city of Seattle in federal court over those findings in 2012, and the city entered into the settlement agreement, which called for sweeping changes in training, data collection and transparency, as well as the implementation of body-worn cameras and formation of a robust civilian-led accountability system.
Eleven years and roughly $200 million later, the SPD’s training regimen and use-of-force policies, data collection, early warning systems to detect problem officers and robust civilian oversight are among the most progressive in the country, and the department has seen a huge decrease in the use of force and illegal stops, according to data collected by the department.
The ACLU acknowledges the progress, to a point, but says it’s overshadowed by disturbing evidence — collected by the SPD itself — of ongoing discriminatory policing. For example, while overall use of force is down, Black people remain seven times more likely than white people to be the subject of police force. They are also five times more likely to be stopped and questioned by an officer, according to a report published on the SPD’s website.
The ACLU also pointed to a recent claim filed against the SPD by Denise “Cookie” Bouldin, a celebrated Black detective who claims she’s endured racial and gender discrimination during her 43 years with the department.
While the SPD may be claiming progress with racial disparities, the ACLU said the data shows a notably different story, which mirrors the original issues that led to the 2011 DOJ investigation.
Should Robart move to dissolve portions of the consent decree, the ACLU urged him to retain oversight of the SPD’s emerging policies governing crowd control and ensure that the city’s next contract with its police union doesn’t undermine officer discipline or accountability.
That’s what happened in 2017, when the City Council passed a sweeping accountability ordinance, only to later approve a new police contract that diluted key provisions and reforms contained in the new law.
One of those provisions involved mandatory arbitration of officer terminations, which resulted in an arbitrator reinstating an officer, Adley Shepherd, who had been fired in 2016 for punching a handcuffed woman.
That punch and the controversy around it led Robart in 2018 to conclude the city had fallen partially out of compliance with the settlement agreement. The department’s violent response to the protests over the 2020 murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis raised additional concerns with the court.
The ACLU is asking that before Robart relinquishes federal oversight, he requires the city to fully implement the 2017 accountability ordinance, ban all police uses of tear gas and ensure officials don’t bargain away reforms in order to win a new police labor contract.