Geologically speaking, Seattle sits atop a sunken volcano. Politically speaking, Seattle politics sits atop two semi-dormant volcanoes, police and schools, that burp sour fumes and occasional plumes. Last Friday, they both blew, big time.
Both are chronic problems that we never seem able to fix in any lasting way, despite blue-ribbon committees and high-sounding reports. It's rare that they erupt in such spectacular fashion. But at least this way there's a chance for some real solutions and sustained public attention to the root causes.
What happened in schools, or Mt. SPS, is that the great hope for fixing the troubled administration, in the form of interim Supt. Susan Enfield, stunned her supporters and the reform coalition by saying she would step down next June, when her short contract expires. The decision, unexplained for the most part, almost certainly stemmed from the surprising fall election, where two insurgents got elected, turning the reform coalition from a 5-2 majority into a 3-4 minority. With a split board, Enfield quickly ran up her flag for other employment. Uh-oh.
As for police, or Mt. SPD, the Department of Justice issued its damning report, after an 11-month probe, saying the local police have "long-standing and entrenched deficiencies" when it comes to use of force against citizens, despite years of such incidents and efforts to reform the department. Mayor Mike McGinn and Police Chief John Diaz immediately fought back, demanding to know more of the DOJ methodology. The fat is finally in the fire.
Both crises are also opportunities. The School Board might come up with a good new superintendent, one who is not as scarred by recent wars in the district and the bruising current politics of school reform. Those wanting to reform our police department may finally have a federal hammer to force genuine change. The downsides are also easy to see. For schools it would be a descent into bickering, micromanaging by the board, and powerless leadership. For police, it could be a year's-long battle in the courts, airing all the dirty laundry and driving the cops' union into new levels of recalcitrance.
To start with the police, here's a preliminary overview of the issues and prospects. Seattle has a widely admired system of monitoring alleged and actual police misbehavior. Yet the number of highly visible incidents continues to be high, and if you dig into reports about citizen oversight you find that very often the offending officer has not been following policy (such as use of In-Car Video) or was allowed to gloss over the awkward details in reports to superiors. (An excellent and eye-opening report on many such episodes of wink-wink, half-compliance is in the new report by former Judge Anne Levinson, the civilian auditor of the SPD's Office of Professional Accountability. The language is diplomatic, but the collective impact is alarming.)
Why have we made so little progress, despite public outcry and numerous reports detailing these bad behaviors? Politicians are afraid of pushing too hard against the politically powerful Police Guild, for one thing. We have not had police chiefs who hammer away at the need to follow guidelines and training, since that would run into police politics and the courts a career-jeopardizing vote of no confidence from the Guild. (When that vote took place against former chief Gil Kerlikowske in 2001, his reform instincts quickly vanished.) The general public has been lulled by numerous high-minded recommendations from citizen committees. Mayors and city councilmembers covet the political support of the Guild. And normally, to get even small concessions from the Guild has meant very big cash concessions in their contracts, a cure not currently available.
We have ended up with a system of police accountability and professionalism that looks good on paper but is far from ideal. How far from a reasonable standard? That will prove to be the lava-hot question of the coming year. The Justice Department says, "very far." Some examples: SPD officers, when they use force, do so in an unconstitutional manner nearly 20 percent of the time. Resorting to batons is either unnecessary or excessive 57 percent of the time.
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