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Seattle and the DOJ: political train wreck ahead

Why haven't the city, the police, and the Department of Justice been able to work out a settlement, short of trial? This whodunit starts with the obvious suspect, Mayor McGinn. Then it gets more interesting.
Mayor McGinn with the police leadership team planning a series of reforms

Mayor McGinn with the police leadership team planning a series of reforms Jen Nance (Office of the Mayor)/Flickr

Mayor Mike McGinn talks about the May Day protests and the Seattle Police Department's response.

Mayor Mike McGinn talks about the May Day protests and the Seattle Police Department's response. Office of the Mayor (Jen Nance)/Flickr

Seattle is heading for one of its trademark political train wrecks. Possibly Pauline can be snatched from the tracks of a hurtling locomotive (a lengthy legal battle over police with the Department of Justice) in the next two weeks. But for now, we seem to be emulating Congress with our own brand of high-stakes brinksmanship.

The blame-game got under way in earnest this week when a confidential letter from City Attorney Pete Holmes, skewering Mayor Mike McGinn for his foot-dragging tactics on the issue, made its way to Seattle Times reporters. City Council members quickly jumped in, pinning the tail on the stubborn-donkey mayor.

Well, maybe. Certainly the mayor is playing a lonely game here, stalling on negotiations with the DOJ, stiff-arming other parts of the city family such as the city attorney and the city council. He seems an odd-bedfellow friend of the cops, who also don't like the medicine the DOJ is proposing: years of expensive court-monitored reforms. The mayor's normal allies, minorities and groups like the ACLU, are also angry at being excluded from negotiations and the mayor's seeming preference for the cops' point of view.

Not that McGinn doesn't enjoy being lonely, as he was during his ultimately futile opposition to the deep-bore tunnel. Moreover, he could have some aces up his sleeve. One would be — having sided with the police as long as he has and thereby maybe bringing them along to accept the reforms — he forges a courthouse-steps agreement on the basic changes being advocated for the use of force by police when fighting crime. Another would be that a new attorney general under Obama 2 or Romney 1 would relax the legal pressure and settle out of court in a way more favorable to Seattle's budget and bruised local feelings.

Another complicating factor is that it takes two (or four) to tango in this way, and that McGinn's opponents have also been more eager to fight than to smoke peace pipes. In short, we have a kind of perfect storm of political ambition, ego, stubbornness, and defensiveness over mistakes by many parties, most definitely including the rookie mayor. Also, an absence of people who could resolve the issue.

Let me list the dramatis personae. You can start with the three members of the City Council committee who were supposed to work with the mayor in getting a unified response to the DOJ, which filed its sweepingly critical report eight months ago. Those three, who ultimately broke off cooperating with the uncooperative mayor, are Tim Burgess, Bruce Harrell, and Sally Clark — all of whom are pretty openly toying with running against McGinn in 2013. The City Council as a whole enjoys isolating the mayor in this way, creating more of a vacuum for the current regime of government-by-council.

Next is the city attorney, Pete Holmes, also a rookie at the job and a man with visible chips on his shoulder, particularly when it comes to police issues and the mayor. Holmes defied McGinn on tunnel issues, and McGinn, once offended in this way, rarely forgives. He's required by city charter to use the city attorney in "all litigation," but McGinn has pretty much been his own attorney (he is a litigation specialist) and used his staff attorney. (There's another political firecracker that would go off if the DOJ goes ahead and files its lawsuit: Who defends the city?) It's hard to see how McGinn and Holmes can really work together after Holmes wrote his scathing letter, with copies to the abovementioned three councilmembers.

There's more. U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan, who is another oft-mentioned mayoral possibility and has years of frustrating wrestling with the Seattle Police Department over reforms, is another forceful and stubborn player on this stage. By some inside accounts, the DOJ report suffers from serious flaws in analysis and naive prescriptions. Durkan and the D.C. feds in the DOJ were urged to find ways to identify the major problems and work with the city on reasonable solutions. This never really happened. A mediator was appointed, but one with little substantive experience in police work: again, no progress. An effort was made to agree on a monitor, who would do early mediation: not found.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Jul 19, 8:18 a.m. Inappropriate

A super-interesting and super-insightful "behind the scenes" article. Thanks, David!

lazowska

Posted Thu, Jul 19, 8:41 a.m. Inappropriate

Is there a city government more dysfunctional than ours? Why not just let the cops beat the hell out of the city council and the mayor? Maybe a trip to the woodshed is in order. These elected officials are not serving anyone but themselves.

rorric1

Posted Thu, Jul 19, 8:58 a.m. Inappropriate

Good stuff here, and timely. "Baffling" shows up several times in this take on the stiff-arm Mayor McGinn is giving DOJ over police reforms, and there's really no other suitable word. Brewster lines up all the usual suspects, but we're left wondering "where are the adults?" Seems many of them, fed up with the Mayor's intransigence, left the table and, as the article notes, other seasoned players have moved on or retired. The undertone here, of a city government drifting away from the stability of the last decade or so, is troubling.
This is not Podunk, USA, and these are not trivial issues (the police department works for citizens through elected officials; it is not an independent fiefdom), but we seem to have - in this case - Podunk government.
Simply see City Attorney Holmes' letter aimed at the bunker perspective in the Mayor's office: "A troubling victim narrative has emerged at SPD, in which DOJ is cast as a 'bully' seeking to impose a 'shadow chief' at an unverified, speculative cost." SPD as victim? Tell that to woodcarver John T. williams.
What's going on here?

Posted Thu, Jul 19, 9:30 a.m. Inappropriate

Early on (several months ago) there was a media theme of, roughly, "...the City can't negotiate with itself, we have to know what the DOJ is proposing." Has the DOJ ever explicitly asked the Police for any specific remedies? just telling our cops they are wrong and stupid can't be very helpful. Very good article, David.

kieth

Posted Thu, Jul 19, 10:33 a.m. Inappropriate

"The worst outcome, a full-bore, wash-all-the-laundry-in-public lawsuit, is likely to be filed in two weeks. With tempers even more inflamed, the court will impose new regulations, benchmarks, and a professional (high-priced) monitor to report to the court on progress, for many years. (It's possible, of course, that the DOJ could lose. But the community would be so outraged by all the evidence of police laxity and worse that it would force the kind of changes DOJ is pushing for.)"

I guess I was waiting for someone to tell me exactly why this is the "worst outcome". Contrary to an earlier comment, the SPD is indeed an independent fiefdom. I think McGinn probably understands this and knows that a quiet settlement will not create the political momentum to bring the department under effective control. So he's pretending to side with the SPD's unreasonable agenda precisely to assure that this mess gets to court and is publicly laid out in all its sordid glory. Then the resultant outrage may create the energy necessary to actually fix the problem.

woofer

Posted Thu, Jul 19, 10:54 a.m. Inappropriate

Anyone surprised at the intransigent/stubborn/clownish mayor has not been paying attention.

The problem is, whenever the DOJ sit down w/ McGinn to talk about the police, he always brings up how they need more bikelanes and road diets!

Posted Thu, Jul 19, 11:01 a.m. Inappropriate

"U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan, who is another oft-mentioned mayoral possibility "

Oft-mentioned? By whom, David? You, 100 times?

ivan

Posted Thu, Jul 19, 11:36 a.m. Inappropriate

Alas Mr.Brewster omits from his informative and otherwise thoughtful analysis the one local characteristic that explains perfectly why Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn has betrayed his moderately leftist allies and sided with the notoriously brutal, implacably fascist Seattle Police Department.

That omitted characteristic is of course Seattle's signature xenophobia -- its indigenous contempt (and often outright hatred) for anyone from anywhere else, especially "Back East." When that element is factored into the equation, the mayor's solidarity with the Gestapo-minded SPD becomes perfectly logical. It's the political variant of the Seattle Freeze, even unto its implicit hostility toward minorities and "New York intellectuals," the latter represented not just by the Department of Justice but by the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

McGinn is thus giving DOJ a variant of the standard Puget Sound Welcome, its message virtually unchanged since it was delivered to me, albeit gently, by the late Henry MacLeod when I applied for a reporter's job at The Seattle Times in 1973:"Your experience is all on the East Coast, and that doesn't count here. We do things differently...you should go back home." Another local editor, last name Fowler, first name forgotten, was a bit less restrained: "We don't like your kind here," he said. "Do yourself a favor and catch next plane back to New York City."

Since at last glance the voting majority in Seattle is still white and locally born, McGinn's decision to adopt the politics of xenophobia and implicit bigotry could well prove a winner. This strategy has certainly proven itself unbeatable in other realms, especially the region's 44-year war against adequate mass transit. Like encouraging police brutality, restricting transit (or labeling it “welfare” and abolishing it, as Pierce Transit voters began doing last year), is ultimately just another tactic to persecute ethnic and socioeconomic minorities and thereby ensure bourgeois white supremacy.

Hence – once again – we glimpse the ugly truth in the epithet “Mississippi on Puget Sound.”

Posted Thu, Jul 19, 5:18 p.m. Inappropriate

Loren, Think! You have previously supplied ample evidence that you can.

afreeman

Posted Thu, Jul 19, 11:58 a.m. Inappropriate

"So he's pretending to side with the SPD's unreasonable agenda precisely to assure that this mess gets to court and is publicly laid out in all its sordid glory. Then the resultant outrage may create the energy necessary to actually fix the problem."

woofer, I've done my share of bending over backwards to support my friends when they screw up, but that is some Cirque de Soleil style acrobatic logic you are using to give McGinn the benefit of the doubt there...

Posted Thu, Jul 19, 2:53 p.m. Inappropriate

David and all the commenters must have some idea of what DOJ wants, e. g.; sensitivity training for cops? fire all the cops and hire muscular folks with advanced degrees (half female, of course)? fire all the white cops and hire blacks and latinos? I ask these silly questions because it seems pretty obvious that just rearranging the SPD organizational chart is not going to make much difference. The Police Guild is big in Seattle; is DOJ trying to take it down a notch (what good would that do)? Durkan and the DOJ are all Democrts generally protective of public unions so what they specifically want to happen should be interesting. Could also be dumb. Maybe McGinn is more perceptive than people give him credit for (as David hints).

kieth

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