Judge: Step back, be patient on police reform

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Those anxious to pass police reform legislation before a new Seattle City Council takes office in January may be in for a disappointment. On Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge James Robart asked all parties to step back and ensure they understand exactly how the many moving parts of police reform should work together.

In taking a more patient approach, the idea is to create a system in which the various bodies responsible for police oversight and discipline are not isolated, but collaborative.

Two months after a tense court hearing that put city legislation on hold, Judge Robart called the parties involved in Seattle’s federally mandated police reform efforts back to his courtroom Wednesday. This included the U.S. District Attorney’s Office, the Seattle Police Department, the Mayor’s Office and the City Attorney’s Office. Robart also invited members of the Office of Professional Accountability, the oversight body housed within the police department, and the Community Police Commission(CPC), the civilian advisory committee. Neither of those two groups are technically parties in the settlement agreement, but both play major roles in issuing recommendations and even crafting legislation.

The reason for Wednesday’s hearing, the judge told the courtroom audience, was “to create some framework of accountability and discipline that are interrelated.” His concern, one shared by others, including OPA auditor Anne Levinson, was that the internal police review boards meant to provide accountability and direction —  like the Force Review Board, the Force Investigation Team, the OPA, and the Early Intervention System — were being developed and implemented without regard to one another.

“I’m concerned we’re not approaching this in the most efficient way,” said Robart.

After a U.S. Department of Justice investigation found excessive use of force and indications of possible patterns of bias within the Seattle Police Department, the City of Seattle and the DOJ entered into a settlement agreement in the summer of 2012. Since that time, the City and the Seattle Police Department have been working to implement recommendations regarding changes to oversight, training, discipline and structure in the department.

However, no legislation has been passed, leaving any progress vulnerable to political changes and creating a roadblock to structural changes like making the civilian CPC permanent. In November of 2014, the city and the CPC presented 55 recommendations to be made permanent through reform. Mayor Ed Murray pledged to pass them quickly, but the process dragged out, aided in part by a bump in the relationship between city and the CPC.

Eventually, the two bodies agreed to send legislation forward together. It was at this point Robart issued a stern warning: legislative changes to the settlement agreement must first get his approval. Again, progress slowed.

Last Friday, the City, with support from the CPC and the OPA, sent a letter to Robart outlining what they hoped to accomplish with legislation. They were obviously careful to not make these recommendations look like a piece of legislation, but rather a brief to the judge so as to keep him up to speed on progress. “I’m happy to see something get down on paper,” said Robart.

More than anything, the hearing was a chance for the Seattle Police Department and the Department of Justice to recap exactly how use-of-force and bias investigations take place within the department. By using flow charts, each party conveyed its understanding of how each case makes its way through review boards, supervisors and, eventually, to the police chief or mayor. It is this comprehensive view of how these different oversight measure work together that Judge Robart hopes to emphasize.

What comes next, though, is a little trickier. Robart asked the DOJ and SPD to submit a comprehensive approach for accountability and review systems by September 30. He then asked for comments from the CPC and OPA by October 16.

By this schedule, it seems unlikely that Robart would approve any actual legislation before the new Seattle City Council takes over in January. At that point, legislation would likely be delayed even further as new elected officials settle into office.

Judge Robart suggested that some of the recommendations were “outside the scope" of the settlement agreement, meaning they could be passed through legislation without his approval. The question, then, for the City and the CPC, is whether it makes sense to pass this legislation piece by piece or all at once. While the former would mean swifter action, passing the package as a whole could guarantee that no recommendations get lost in the mix.

One point consistently Robart repeatedly made during the hearing was that, even without legislation, reform in the police department is under way. But until those reforms are made permanent, participants in the police reform conversation are likely to feel at least a little nervous.


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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.