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News / Northwest

Judge overseeing Seattle police reform raises questions over racial disparities

By Mike Carter, The Seattle Times
Published: May 31, 2023, 7:38am

SEATTLE — The federal judge who has for over a decade overseen reforms within the Seattle Police Department expressed skepticism Tuesday over a proposed timeline to end his oversight, citing “differences” with city officials over whether he should consider racial disparities in policing when making his decision.

U.S. District Judge James Robart took under advisement a joint motion filed by the city and Department of Justice to end much of his role enforcing compliance with an agreement reached in 2012 to address a DOJ investigation that concluded Seattle officers routinely used excessive force during arrests and showed disturbing, if inconclusive, evidence of biased policing.

It’s unclear when Robart will rule on the joint motion, which city and DOJ attorneys filed last month after 11 years and nearly $200 million in costs, claiming the SPD is a “transformed” organization. The motion asked the court to find the department has complied with reforms in all but two areas — crowd control and officer accountability — which have tripped up efforts to end oversight in the past.

Tuesday marked the first hearing on the status of the city’s 2012 settlement agreement with the DOJ in more than a year, and Robart took the opportunity to lay out some judicious praise on the department, saying he was “immensely proud” of the SPD’s progress, acknowledging “that’s not a feeling shared by everyone.”

“They have undertaken a huge change in method and operation and leadership,” Robart said, citing as examples a significant drop in the use of force, an overhaul of the department’s data collection system and dramatic improvements in supervision. “They have made immense differences.”

However, he grilled city and DOJ attorneys over a recent analysis that implies fatal police shootings in Seattle have remained constant, or even increased, during the pendency of the settlement agreement.

Robart also expressed significant interest in the outcome of ongoing contract negotiations between the Seattle Police Officers Guild and the city. He reminded the city’s lawyers — and the police and city officials sitting in the gallery — that the last SPOG contract, signed in 2018, derailed the city’s attempts at that time to end federal oversight because it undermined a police accountability ordinance the City Council passed the previous year.

That contract forced the department to rehire an officer, Adley Shepherd, who had been fired for punching a handcuffed, intoxicated woman in the face — a move that led Robart to find the city had fallen partially out of compliance with the consent decree on issues of officer accountability.

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“What’s to stop the same thing from happening here?” Robart asked. “As long as we have open contract negotiations, I’m left with an almost impossible task of determining if current levels of compliance will be maintained or if there will be an attempt to get there.”

Timothy Mygatt, a trial attorney with the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, said the Justice Department is watching the union negotiations with interest and believes the “city cannot negotiate away something that is otherwise agreed to in the consent decree.”

“We are very interested to make sure collective bargaining continues and to make sure that it does continue to reinforce the requirements and reforms that we all worked for over the last 10 years,” he said.

The settlement agreement contains 100 paragraphs of requirements the city must achieve. The document requires the city to comply with the reforms and maintain them, under supervision of a court-appointed monitor, for two years.

The city thought it had achieved compliance in 2017, only to have it torpedoed by Shepherd’s punch and ensuing fallout, then the department’s violent response to protesters following the May 2020 murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis.

Mygatt said that in most of the areas addressed in the agreement — including use of force, crisis intervention, stops and detentions, bias-free policing, and supervision — the department has essentially been in compliance for four years. Those are the areas where the SPD wants federal oversight to end.

However, Assistant City Attorney Kerala Cowart tried to reassure Robart that the city will continue its support of reforms regardless of court oversight.

“The city is not done with the hard work of reform,” she said.

Robart acknowledged “tension” with city officials over racial disparities in policing and whether that reform area would fall under the auspices of his continued oversight, given the DOJ’s lack of a specific biased-policing finding in its investigation.

Mygatt said the DOJ does not think Robart has jurisdiction over that issue and noted the Justice Department “does not seek to mitigate racial disparities” in Seattle because the issue is not specifically addressed in the settlement agreement.

Two recent studies have found SPD officers are more likely to stop people of color, and that, while the overall use of force is down significantly, sharp racial disparities cloud the numbers.

Robart believes the department’s anti-bias policing policy and the issue of stops and detentions — both addressed by the consent decree — justify his interest.

Cowart assured Robart the city will “continue the work to identify and mitigate racial disparities” in Seattle policing.

The city and the DOJ, in their motion to end court oversight, acknowledged that the court will retain jurisdiction over the issues of crowd control and officer accountability. The motion states that compliance in those two areas — which have proved the most problematic for the city — would be achieved by the end of this year.

“Record me as extremely skeptical,” Robart responded Tuesday.

The judge also questioned whether SPD staffing will remain a problem: The department is struggling to recruit new officers and is currently able to deploy 963 officers, down 150 from its authorized full staffing of 1,113 sworn personnel and nearly 500 less than its staffing goal of 1,450 sworn personnel.

Before adjourning, Robart praised the department, noting the issues it faces are ubiquitous to policing, and that addressing them requires a culture shift.

“It’s a culture that says, ‘I’m here to serve the public. I’m not a thin blue line protecting you from chaos,’ “ Robart said.

“We have to re-establish a notion that being a police officer is an honor and a civic duty” worth pursuing, he said. “I believe the presence of new and energized and enthusiastic applicants would help with this.”

Veteran officers who have stayed on need to embrace the cultural shift, as well, so “we can all have a police force, regardless of your political point of view … and regardless of your race.”