Mayor Ed Murray knew about Seattle cops' lawsuit months in advance

The mayor says he won't be deterred from police reform by lawsuits or threats of legal action. A U.S. Attorney says the suit over use of force policies is "without merit."
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Jenny A. Durkan, U.S. Attorney for Western Washington

The mayor says he won't be deterred from police reform by lawsuits or threats of legal action. A U.S. Attorney says the suit over use of force policies is "without merit."

A Seattle police officer asked to meet with the mayor months ago about a looming lawsuit, which he and his colleagues ended up filing earlier this week over the department's new use-of-force policies.

About 120 police officers filed a civil rights suit in federal court on Wednesday against the City of Seattle and a number of city and federal officials. The lawsuit alleges that the new policies, implemented as part of the federally mandated police reform process, unreasonably restrict officers' ability to protect themselves and others from danger. While city and federal officials did not comment directly on the specifics of the suit, they stressed that it would not slow down the reforms.

"I have full confidence that the lawsuit is without merit and will be dealt with quickly by the courts," U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan said during a press conference on Thursday.

Among the individuals the officers filed the suit against were: Mayor Ed Murray, current and former police chiefs, City Attorney Peter Holmes, U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr. and Merrick Bobb, the federally appointed monitor overseeing the police reforms.

Officer Sjon Stevens emailed the mayor on Feb. 22 about the lawsuit, asking to meet, according to documents Crosscut obtained through a public disclosure request. Stevens is listed as the second plaintiff on the suit.

"As you are no doubt aware by now, patrol officers are in the process of preparing to file a lawsuit regarding the recently released Use of Force policy," Stevens wrote in his email to the mayor. "Before taking that step, a few of us would appreciate the opportunity to sit down with you at your earliest convenience to discuss this very serious situation."

"We would like to meet with you alone to discuss this," he continued.

The meeting never took place, according to Murray's communications director, Jeff Reading.

"In fact, meeting with them without their [Seattle Police Officers Guild] representation present would have been a violation of labor law," he said in an email on Thursday.

Seattle Police Officers Guild representatives, Reading said, also notified the Mayor's Office in February that some of the officers they represent intended to file the suit. The police union officials also told the mayor that they did not support the legal action the officers were planning to take.

Detective Ron Smith, the union's president, did not return a call on Thursday asking for comment about the suit.

The mayor would not have met with the officer even if it had been permissible under labor laws, according to Reading.

In an emailed statement, Murray said: “Neither lawsuits nor the threat of lawsuits are going to back me down from my commitment to police reform or this City’s commitment to complying with the federal court order."

The policies the officers have filed the suit over outline when different levels of force, equipment and tactics can be used. The information included in the policies provides specific guidelines for when and how officers are permitted to use items such as batons, Tasers and firearms. Also included are steps that officers should take to de-escalate conflicts, and new reporting requirements for incidents involving force.

Bobb and his monitoring team worked with the police department as officials crafted the new policies, which are considered a key component in the reform process. A federal judge approved the policies last December. Officers have received preliminary training, explaining the new use-of-force rules. All of the department's officers will be fully trained based on the policies before this fall, Durkan said.

The police reforms stem from a 2011 investigation by the U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. The investigation found patterns of excessive force violations by officers, which violated federal law. The following year, Seattle entered into an agreement with U.S. Justice Department. The agreement outlined steps that the city would have to take to reform the police department.

The lawsuit brought by the officers claims that the new policies violate their own constitutional protections, infringing on their ability to "reasonably protect themselves and others from threats of harm." The claims included in the suit also raise issues about the simplicity and usefulness of the policies, calling them "overly complicated and contradictory."

The new policies, the suit says, require officers "to engage in mental gymnastics wholly unreasonable in light of the dangerous and fast evolving circumstances we face every day."

Durkan was skeptical of the suggestion that reform-related policies were making officers more hesitant to take action when they saw suspicious activity while on patrol.

"There is no evidence that I have seen that indicates that police officers are afraid to do their job," she said. "And if they are, they are a minority."

She also said that it is not possible to say that the new use-of-force policies are hindering police officers because the rules were only recently approved by the court and have not been fully implemented.

"There is no inconsistency and no conflict," Durkan said, "between constitutional policing and effective policing."

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