In Seattle as part of a six-city tour on “community policing,” U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch was welcomed with a standing ovation from Mayor Ed Murray, Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole, City Attorney Pete Holmes and a laundry list of law enforcement and community leaders on Thursday.
Lynch arrived as the city faces tensions and praise over police reform efforts. The Seattle Police Department is working to improve how it uses force and relates to minority communities. In his most recent report, the independent monitor overseeing reform efforts said the department had made significant progress in reporting force. But the city is struggling to codify reforms through long-awaited legislation, and some community advocates complain their voices aren't being heard.
Lynch shared upbeat impressions that largely reinforced an optimism that the city is managing federally mandated police reforms. She also emphasized arguments for the use of police body cameras, a practice the Obama administration favors. Murray told Crosscut he would include funding for cameras in his budget proposal next Monday, but did not say whether it would exceed the $600,000 the Department of Justice granted to the city for them.
After announcing a $1.5 million grant to Seattle to fight human trafficing Thursday morning, Lynch made her second stop at the Northwest African American Museum in the Central District, off 23rd Avenue. There, she hosted a roundtable for community activists and Seattle police officers. Seated between O’Toole and Murray (who had both come directly from the Ride the Ducks crash on Aurora Avenue), Lynch praised Seattle for the city's progress since entering into an agreement with the Department of Justice to fix patterns of excessive force and possible bias.
“Seattle has stood out,” she said. “You should be very proud of what you’ve done.”
Media were not allowed in on the roundtable discussion, though Lynch answered their questions afterwards. Her answers were light on specifics as she emphasized progress in the city and the positive discussions she’d had with city officials and community leaders.
Lynch’s visit and her praise coincided with the release of police reform monitor Merrick J. Bobb’s most recent status report. U.S. District Attorney’s Office in Washington Thomas Bates said the report had long been scheduled for Thursday, without an eye to the Attorney General’s arrival.
The latest report is not as sweeping as some of Bobb's past updates, instead focusing only on progress related to reporting incidents of force. For the most part, it is positive. Bobb found that patrol officers were adequately reporting all levels of force, and that field investigations of force were being done well, calling each "in compliance" with the settlement agreement. The one knock was on sergeants, lieutenants and captains who, the monitor concluded, were not properly chronicling mid-level uses of force.
The monitor will continue to release more detailed updates over the coming months, but the one released today reinforces Lynch’s sentiments that the SPD is making progress.
In the backdrop of Lynch’s visit, though, is the persistent dissatisfaction of the city's Community Police Commission, the civilian advisory board created as part of the settlement agreement. The body is not an official party to the agreement, which means it cannot initiate recommendations, and can only advise from the outside. Although the advisory status has been a longstanding frustration, the feeling lately is that its members are growing more and more disenchanted with the limited impact of their opinion. This was especially obvious in a CPC meeting Wednesday with the acting head of Justice's Civil Rights Division, Vanita Gupta.
The tension came up again Thursday on a number of occasions. Representatives of the CPC, Lisa Daugaard and Fe Lopez, were invited to sit on the Lynch's roundtable. They expressed obvious surprise when Murray did not verbally recognize them as a participant in the reform process. Daugaard at one point was seen shaking her head.
Additionally, while the roundtable itself was closed to media, CPC member Reverend Aaron Williams said the microphone skipped Lopez and Daugaard and they were not given an opportunity to address Lynch. When asked later about the tensions present within the CPC, Lynch said she only heard positive things from community representatives. For Williams, Lynch’s comments weren’t exactly helpful. “We need an honest discussion,” he said. “This was a lot of patting on the back.”
Both incidents serve to strengthen the conviction of CPC members that their voices aren’t being heard. As a concrete example, Daugaard points to the momentum around body cameras, which the CPC opposes “until privacy, dignity and safety issues for witnesses and victims are addressed.”
The Seattle Police Department and the offices of the Mayor, City Attorney, U.S. District Attorney all deny that the CPC is being shut out. With regard to body cameras, Murray told Crosscut his office has been committed to rolling them out carefully. “We won’t rush,” he said. “We’ll get it right.”
“This isn’t a conflict,” he added, implying that outstanding concerns would be addressed.
Still, Daugaard maintains, “Under current law, we don’t believe there is a solution for those important issues [privacy and the like], no matter how carefully it’s done.”
The presence of national media such as NPR and Fox News at Thursday’s roundtable is a testament to the fact that the Seattle model is being watched. The police department has recently received several grants from the DOJ, including for human trafficking, $260,000 for "crime prevention coordinators," and $500,000 to fight gun violence. Lynch, though, didn’t tip her hand with regards to what, if anything, might change with regards to the overall structure of DOJ-led reform. By all appearances she’ll leave town with a positive view — something that, whatever the skepticism of the CPC, will be a point of pride for Murray and O’Toole.