Judge slams door on police reform legislation

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Seattle police: Changes under judicial review.

On the heels of a friendly agreement between the civilian Community Police Commission and the mayor’s office Monday evening, Judge James Robart of the U.S District Court for Western Washington essentially pressed pause on any progress made on police reform in the previous weeks.

No one, said Judge Robart, has the right to make any changes related to the agreement between the Seattle Police Department and the Department of Justice without first clearing it through the courts. In other words, recent talk of whether the civilian Community Police Commission would work with the mayor to advance legislation or go directly to council could be, until further approval from Judge Robart, irrelevant.

After a year and a half of work on the part of the CPC, it was something of a shock that they were just learning this today.

The Tuesday morning court hearing came just over 12 hours after the Community Police Commission, a board of civilians with the authority to make recommendations regarding police reform, agreed to send an ordinance codifying its recommendations to the city council in the next week. After threatening to bypass the mayor and introduce its own legislation, the CPC agreed in principle Monday evening to work with the mayor’s office moving forward. After weeks of stalemate and tension, the decision appeared to leave all parties feeling pleased.

But the CPC's mood after Tuesday’s court hearing was anything but pleased.

The court hearing was to touch base on the consent decree, the 2012 agreement between the city and the Department of Justice to overhaul the Seattle Police Department. The decree came out of the determination that SPD policing had been biased and excessively forceful, and it was out of this agreement that the CPC was created. Merrick J. Bobb, an independent overseer, is tasked with monitoring progress.

Judge Robart, the presiding judge on the agreement, wanted to accomplish two things Tuesday: First, to review language in the Seattle Police Department’s use of force policy; second, to consider CPC recommendations regarding SPD’s Force Review Board.

After fairly wide-ranging and somewhat inconclusive discussions of the use of force, police training and how the SPD's Force Review Board determines what cases need further investigation internally, Robart praised the collaborative and cooperative ways that CPC, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the City Attorney’s Office and the SPD have worked. He also said that if he had been told three years ago, when the decree first began, that the New York Times would use Seattle as an example for how to police correctly, he wouldn’t have believed it.

His praise ended abruptly, however, when he turned to the ordinance agreed upon the night before. That legislation would have done a number of things, including allowing the CPC to consult on the hiring of the director of the Office of Professional Accountability, the SPD’s internal oversight committee. It also would have guaranteed budget independence for the CPC, given the Office of Professional Accountability the ability to subpoena outside materials for use in officer investigations and, most significantly, made the CPC a body that would continue to exist after the end of the consent decree.

Judge Robart said he’d only read about the ordinance in the news, but said he was “very upset” to hear about it. “I don’t care what accord was reached last night,” he said. “You can’t take something that’s an instrument of the court [the consent decree] and change it to your liking. The court controls the settlement.” He then dismissed the court.

This decision may have been foreshadowed last week when police monitor Bobb sent a letter to chair of the City Council's Public Safety, Technology and Civil Rights Committee, Councilmember Bruce Harrell, asking him to delay any legislation he might receive from either the CPC or the mayor’s office. While there was, at the time, some confusion as to why Bobb was reaching out to Harell, it appears more clear today.

In theory, Judge Robart’s decision affects everyone involved in the legislation, including the mayor’s office, the city attorney’s office and the CPC. But  City Attorney Pete Holmes and Murray's assistant on police reform, Scott Lindsay, remained relatively upbeat. "As planned," said the mayor in a statement, "I will be working with the Department of Justice, Federal Monitor, CPC, labor unions and City Attorney to achieve meaningful reforms to our civilian oversight system and improve accountability.”

Members of the CPC, on the other hand, were livid, especially with the team representing police monitor Bobb. The CPC has been working on passing police reform legislation since January 2014. Co-chair Lisa Daugaard said the CPC would be issuing a statement, but in a heated interaction between her team and Bobb’s team outside the court, she clearly felt the CPC had been misled into thinking they did have the authority to pass real changes.

Bobb told the CPC members that he didn't have any immediate comment.

Negotiations around the legislation have been quite public. As far back as last November, Murray promised he would introduce a bill, and there was no suggestion there could be a lack of authority to make changes.

The ordinance from CPC is not dead because, while Robart said the proposals had to go through him, he didn't object to the principles that had been outlined. The CPC's goal of introducing it to the council in a week, however, looks unlikely. If the CPC chooses to go forward, the group will need to, as OPA director Pierce Murphy said, “run it through the process.”

For legislation that has already seen something of a wait, the prospects are for more time on hold.


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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.