Five years after community activists wrote a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice, begging for a finetooth-comb examination of the embattled Seattle Police Department, many of the same advocates have signed another letter about law enforcement. This time, it is to deliver a message of frustration to Merrick J. Bobb, the federal monitor tasked with assuring progress toward reform.
Last Friday, Bobb submitted a memorandum urging a slower approach, saying he wanted more time to consider the progress of the Seattle Police Department before making any official recommendations to the court that oversees the entire reform effort.
Advocates, however, have clearly run out of patience. A diverse range of representatives from the Asian American, African American, Native American, Latino American and Muslim American communities held a press conference Monday urging Bobb to send legislation forward for approval. Diane Narasaki, executive director of the Asian Counseling and Referral Service, especially credits leaders from the Latino community for organizing the effort.
“We just really feel we’ve waited for far too long for these reforms,” said Narasaki in a phone interview.
At the heart of the frustration is the refrain, increasingly heard in recent months, that Seattle's Community Police Commission (CPC), seen as the conduit between the reform process and the broader community, is not being taken seriously. The proposed legislation, the result of an occasionally tense collaboration between the City and the CPC, would, among other things, make the CPC a permanent oversight body. As it stands, the commission would disappear with the Department of Justice police reform team when it eventually leaves town.
This latest expression of frustration is one of many between the players working to improve the SPD and its relations with the public, including various communities.
The 2010 letter, composed after the high-profile police shooting of Native American woodcarver John T. Williams, succeeded in getting the Department of Justice to investigate the Seattle Police Department. In 2012, the DOJ, concluding that SPD officers used excessive force and showed signs of possible bias policing, sued the City. Rather than go to court, the City and the DOJ agreed to carry out reforms, especially related to accountability and training.
The CPC was created as a part of that agreement and consisted of mayoral appointees from the community. In 2013, the group worked to create a list of 55 recommendations for police reform. Some of those recommendations have begun to be implemented without being passed into law, but other pieces, such as making the CPC permanent and increasing the autonomy of the police auditor in the Office of Professional Accountability, need legislation. In a press conference with community advocates and members of the CPC a year ago, Mayor Ed Murray pledged to submit legislation to codify the reforms.
After a tense couple months, in which the CPC threatened to run its own legislation independent of the mayor, the parties came together and agreed on a package last June. That process hit a snag when U.S. District Judge James Robart, who is overseeing implementation of the DOJ-Seattle case, sternly told the CPC that it could not run legislation without first obtaining approval from the court.
After a soul-searching couple of months, the parties came back to the table in August and, for really the first time, the CPC, the City, the City Attorney’s Office and members of Bobb’s team were all moving forward together.
Separately, the CPC seemed to get a major PR bump over the course of the elections. Candidates running on a police reform platform, including now-Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez, leading West Seattle candidate Lisa Herbold, councilmember-elect Debora Juarez and others, said they support a permanent CPC.
The combination of public support and the apparently united front on the legislation package seemed to create a narrative among community advocates that has the locals — the City, CPC, etc. — ready to move and the feds — Bobb and Robart — as the naysayers.
The Mayor’s Office, however, released a statement Monday supporting Bobb’s slower timeline. The CPC itself has not weighed in, although the nearly 50 advocates in City Hall Monday morning seemed to speak on its behalf.
This question of speed is not a new issue. Bobb has been working through a series of “systemic assessments,” the most recent of which was released on Nov. 12, evaluating the state of SPD’s internal accountability measures. His preference for patience seems to stem from his desire to finish those assessments.
As it stands now, Bobb hopes to wait until Jan. 20 before he responds to the recommendations.
“We believe the CPC recommendations that resulted from collaboration are well supported,” Narasaki said Monday. “What more could we want from the results of that process? I don’t think it gets any better than that.”
Arsalan Bukhari of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said that, with the CPC's work in hand, now is the right time to move forward. “The CPC recommendations have become the impetus that has led to substantial changes. The country’s eyes are on us and we have to make sure we follow a good path for the country.”
Correction, December 1: The list of communities at the press conference has been updated to include all groups present.