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Two big shockers for Seattle schools and cops

Seattle Police Chief John Diaz Credit: 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.

And what about the city council, with its long record of half-measures in police-reform matters? The outgoing chair of the public safety committee, Tim Burgess, is busy running for mayor in 2013, so his well-informed positions (Burgess once was a cop) will now be seen through the lens of political calculation. The new chair of the council’s public safety committee will be Bruce Harrell, joined by Nick Licata and Mike O’Brien — a much weaker committee at a critical time.

And did I mention that the Police Guild is still negotiating its labor contract? This puts the city in a still more vulnerable position, for if the court demands quick and costly changes to police policies and oversight, the Guild could offer to comply on a fast schedule (saving the city millions in legal costs), but only if the city forks over more sweeteners and cash.

There are some ways out of these blind canyons. The city council could create a special committee for these DOJ issues, putting some of its best talent on this committee. Mayor McGinn could bring on a staffer with real police expertise to help in his negotiations. And the city and DOJ could focus the initial consent decree on issues that don’t require bargaining with the Guild or chunks of money the city doesn’t have to spend.

Another scenario is for the city to stand firm in disagreeing with the DOJ report, betting that the problems with the report (and there appear to be some) will come out and DOJ will back off. This seems a high-stakes gamble. It doesn’t square with the feisty personality of Jenny Durkan, with perhaps some political ambitions of her own. Confrontation, however, does match the “oppositional” personality of Mayor McGinn. (Note to files: two Irish pols in a 15-rounder.)

A similar potential for escalation exists in Seattle Schools, where the reform coalition is angry and embarrassed about being blindsided in the past election. One obvious way to fight back would be to make the next election, in 2013, a well-funded effort to retake the majority of the school board, putting a scare into Kay Smith-Blum, the hard-to-read new leader of the majority, and Betty Patu.

Both Steve Sundquist and Peter Maier, the incumbents who lost in November, seem to have taken the race for granted against weak opponents, not even doing polling. A combination of the teachers union and other unions, Democratic party activists incensed about Teach for America and charter schools, parents wanting more local control of schools, and the opponents of “fuzzy math” knocked off two key members of the school reform bloc. The reformers say they have learned a lesson: Seattle School Board races have to be treated like Seattle City Council races, complete with consultants, polls, and a budget of several hundred thousand dollars. (Sundquist and Maier each spent about $68,000 in losing; respective victors Marty McLaren and Sharon Peaslee spent $26,000 and $14,000.)

The strange bedfellows of the populist coalition that took those two seats might indicate, as you would expect in hard times, a growing reaction against corporate-world types like the reform members and many of their well-heeled, new-economy backers. Then, too, the school board has endured a series of management fiascos on its watch. That reform bloc, deliberately recruited from people who know how to be boards for a billion-dollar company, swung the other way from the previous, meddlesome board that drove out Supt. Raj Manhas in 2006. The new board didn’t meddle, but it may have given Dr. Maria Goodloe-Johnson too much autonomy.

And the reform group, while riding on a lot of national play for its ideas of greater accountability for performance of students and greater professionalism among teachers, has not presented a compelling local case or a revered spokesperson. (Norm Rice or Bob Watt could fill that bill.). Seattle, it turns out, is rather extreme in its hostility to reforms compared to most other cities.

At any rate, the raging winds of this kind of politics now seem to be roaring back into school board politics, a bad omen for getting a good new superintendent. In making her surprise announcement that she doesn’t want the permanent job, Enfield gave no direct reasons, but you can read much into her (ironic?) use of the word “adult” in this section of her see-ya letter:

“While we may hold different opinions on how to best serve our students, we must remember they are counting on us to fulfill our mission of ensuring that they are prepared for college, career and life. It is essential that we discipline ourselves to keep this mission — and our students — at the forefront of all we do, and not allow adult issues, egos and politics to stand in the way.”

The back story of her resignation is murky. It’s puzzling why her supporters on the board didn’t move earlier to make her the permanent superintendent, even though that would have stirred the embers of populist resistance. The new majority seemed to want a national search or to give Enfield only a year or two as a contract. A short contract translates into difficulty in assembling her top team, and a national search usually favors someone from out of town (fewer local opponents), a minority to reflect the district’s population (42.8 percent white), or someone politically soothing to all strong stakeholder groups.

The efforts to get a more accountable and professional police department go back about 20 years, and have defied the modest efforts of mayors strong and weak. Now finally, the lever may be at hand to get the job done, if we can negotiate the political rapids.

The school reform movement began about six years ago as a group of parents and some wealthy backers decided to get on the national bandwagon and to bring in a school board that would stay the course for these tough decisions. They made considerable progress, particularly with a new teachers’ contract that Dr. Goodloe-Johnson somehow got through by force of will. Not surprisingly, a strong local backlash has arisen. The school board is now split, which doesn’t bode well for finding a good new superintendent. And the reformers (the Alliance for Education, the League of Education Voters, the Gates Foundation, President Obama, among others) are dispirited. Not Rob McKenna, by the way, who would probably take up the reform banner as governor. His opponent Jay Inslee will probably stay close to the teachers’ unions in such a tough race.

Finally, the blowing of these two political volcanoes raises a perennial question in Seattle politics. After the bold talk of change, when the actual changes start happening and affecting powerful interests, do we have the political coherence and leadership to persist? Even when it’s about two of the most important issues in any large city, cops and schools?

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