At a time when Seattle’s model for police reform is being sold as a national precedent, deep-seated frustrations continue to fester for Seattle’s civilian oversight body, the Community Police Commission. This has never been more obvious than Wednesday, when members of the CPC asked the head of the U.S. Civil Rights Division Vanita Gupta, in town this week with U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, to help tip influence in the reform process toward the volunteer civilian commission.
At the base of this frustration is the feeling that the CPC has not been a respected or recognized voice at the police reform table. As the presiding U.S. District Court Judge James Robart sternly reminded CPC members last June, the group is largely an advisory committee, free to make recommendations but not an official party to the settlement agreement between the Department of Justice and the City of Seattle. On one occasion, the CPC applied for party status, which would have given the commission a more direct line of communication within the reform process. The court denied the request.
The group’s frustration began to come to a head earlier this week when the city announced it was offered a $600,000 dollar federal grant to fund body cameras for police officers. The CPC has consistently voiced concern over cameras, calling their deployment premature until there is state policy on their use and answers to questions of privacy and unintended consequences. While CPC co-chair Lisa Daugaard did not exactly condemn the DOJ grant, she was clearly worried that this money could seal the deal on the City and the Seattle Police Department moving forward with the program. “We have spent a lot of time on this position and have a very nuanced view on it,” said Daugaard. So when the CPC learned about the grant Tuesday, Daugaard said they “felt more of the same” exclusion from the process.
The CPC was born out of a 2012 agreement between the Department of Justice and the City of Seattle to reform the Seattle Police Department. Much of the frustration from the CPC stems from what was — or was not — included in that initial agreement. Leading up to the June status conference with Robart, the CPC members clearly thought it afforded them considerable power. So when the CPC, with the Mayor’s Office, put forward legislation to codify reforms within the department, Robart called it a “power grab.”
Representatives from the offices of the Mayor, the City Attorney and the U.S. District Attorney mostly shrugged their shoulders at Robart’s rebuke, which, in the end, was without any legal substance. The CPC, though, felt publicly disrespected and dismissed. And while technically nothing changed after that hearing, many of its members came to what they regarded as an awakening to how the other parties viewed them.
On Wednesday, Ron Ward, assistant to the independent monitor overseeing the reforms, warned the CPC not to get too caught up in who speaks the loudest or gets credit for what. Ward’ opinion, which he was careful to say was his own and not that of the monitor’s, was that the CPC’s issues were rooted in wanting credit. In fact, he argued, the focus should be on collaborating on the best reform recommendations. “I think it’s extremely important a total point of view is submitted,” he told the CPC commissioners. “I think you’re missing an opportunity to put your best foot forward.”
This message was met with a sharp backlash from the commissioners. “We’re setting a precedent for the country,” said commissioner Enrique Gonzalez. In fact, Cleveland’s Community Police Commission, modeled after Seattle’s and already complaining of feeling shut out, was holding its first meeting at the same time. This clearly added urgency to the commissioners’ feeling that Seattle needed to set an example.
Gupta, who is acting as head of the U.S Civil Right Division, is here while Attorney General Loretta Lynch is visiting to hear about the SPD reform efforts. “We’ve had a pretty intense year at the civil right division,” Gupta said, referring to the many high profile and racially charged police interactions over the last year. She came directly from the airport to the CPC meeting Wednesday. “It’s an important thing that this is my first meeting here,” she told the CPC. “For us doing this work, the role of the community — the real community engagement — is what is required for sustainable and lasting reform.”
Her friendly words encouraged the commissioners, who took turns voicing their commitment to the CPC, optimism for the future and, mainly, their concerns. “It doesn’t always feel that we’re included in that process,” said Gonzalez. “The difficulty we face now is how do we make sure our communities are being heard.”
“It was the community’s voice that brought the DOJ here,” said Reverend Aaron Williams. “For them to say the CPC doesn’t have a place at the table really means the community doesn’t have a place at the table.”
“We’re asking from the DOJ,” said Daugaard, “to the extent that DOJ can, here and in other cities, [to] put its weight on the community perspective when decisions are made. It will avoid unnecessary antagonism, support long-term reform and avoid errors.”
While there is general support for the CPC from those involved in police reform, its unclear whether the city or DOJ would, or could, seek to bump up its role. When asked for comment, Mayor Ed Murray said, “The CPC plays an important role as a convener of community concerns, one that I agree we need to make permanent.” Gupta also agreed that the community voice was an important one, but did not offer any immediate promise of specific action. And Judge Robart has already been very clear about how he interprets the CPC’s role as laid out in the settlement agreement. As much as the CPC may wish it could directly initiate reform recommendations, the standing interpretation, at least so far, seems to be: That ship sailed when the agreement was signed in 2012.