Seattle Public Schools
City of Seattle
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.
Damning and shocking — if true. But is it? One problem right off is that the SPD top brass review all these incidents and don't come up with anything like those percentages. So how did the DOJ come up with such figures? So far, they are not revealing their methodology, in effect saying the burden of proof is on the SPD, not the feds. This is an awkwardly hostile way to start the negotiations, and the mayor and the chief quickly fired back at the Friday report by saying they have to have more details before being able to assess the sweeping allegations.
What's at stake is whether the city and the DOJcan find enough agreement, particularly on recommendations for change if not on the precise statistics of violations, to enter a voluntary consent decree to a judge. If so, the court would order the agreed-on remedies and appoint a court monitor (a former police chief or a retired judge, say) to make sure the decree is being executed, according to the timelines. The monitor has a powerful tool for enforcement if s/he finds progress is not being made: haul the parties back to the judge, where stiffer demands or fines can be ordered. This kind of supervision, by the way, can go on for decades, as it has in cities with particularly corrupt police departments.
Failing a voluntary joint agreement, DOJ will sue the city and the whole mess goes into a protracted trial. DOJ would then have to disclose its methodology and lots of gory details, proving its case and supporting its recommendations. Not pretty, though a long court battle would sell lots of newspapers and rile up lots of citizens, activist groups, and police. Then, with everybody embittered, the SPD would be ordered to change its ways.
You could look at the city's angry push-back, detailed in this good survey by The Seattle Times' Jim Brunner, in a benign way — the DOJ folks letting the police and their supporters protest and show solidarity for a week or so. Optimists could expect tempers to cool as the parties get down to serious negotiations after the holidays. Or you could say the whole episode is off to a dreadful start.
There is something strange about the way DOJ, along with U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan (who is highly knowledgeable about the SPD from her blue-ribbon roles in the past), put the city right up against the wall, almost wielding batons. For instance, DOJ could have sought a less demanding memorandum of understanding with the city, agreeing to reforms without the court as monitor. At the least, DOJ could have huddled with the city a week before releasing the report, looking for consensus and negotiating some differences before the public release. Instead they called in the SPD, the mayor, and the city attorney for an acrimonious meeting the night before the release of the DOJ report on Friday. Take it or leave it — and unsurprisingly the city was not about to take it.
Compounding the rocky politics is the level of inexperience and strain with the key players. Mayor McGinn is still new to the job, not strongly staffed on police issues, and not experienced regarding public safety matters. Chief John Diaz apparently has the full support of the mayor, but not the full support of his court-intrigue deputies, and is more admired for his fair-mindedness and integrity than for his zeal. City Attorney Pete Holmes is also new to the job (like McGinn, elected in 2009), had a testy relationship with McGinn over the waterfront tunnel (it's better now), and engaged in past feuds with the SPD and the Office of Professional Accountability as a citizen-oversight leader.
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