As Chicago faces police overhaul, are there lessons from Seattle?

Seattle’s version of Chicago's Laquan McDonald was John T. Williams, a Native American artist needlessly gunned down by a police officer. Since that incident, what has Seattle learned about police reform that is of value across the country and for the city?
seattle police demonstration bikes

SPD is not very diverse. It needs to work harder to fix that.

Seattle’s version of Chicago's Laquan McDonald was John T. Williams, a Native American artist needlessly gunned down by a police officer. Since that incident, what has Seattle learned about police reform that is of value across the country and for the city?

Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old, was shot 16 times and killed in Chicago in 2014. Officer Jason Van Dyke, with support from his fellow police, wrote in a subsequent report that McDonald was a threat. But, as the world knows now, the officers’ dash cam video tells a different story.

The young black man, while indeed holding a knife, is running away from officers as he’s leveled by the first bullet. After 15 more shots, a $5 million settlement from the city to his family, and the politically charged release of the footage, the ears of the Department of Justice are finally burning. Attorney General Loretta Lynch recently announced an investigation into the Chicago Police Department’s use of force and accountability practices.

Chicago is its own city with its own problems, but its story sounds familiar in Seattle. It was the exact sort of video – a man with a knife getting shot by a police officer as he walked away – that ultimately spurred Seattle’s own DOJ investigation. Five years later, it’s worth wondering whether Chicago can learn from Seattle — and the extent to which Seattle has achieved any kind of  lasting, worthwhile change in how the police and the community work together.

Seattle’s version of Laquan McDonald was John T. Williams, a Native American artist. He was hard of hearing and doing what he often did – carrying a knife and carving wood. He heard little if any warning before the fatal shots to his back.

The subsequent outrage led to a 2010 letter to the Department of Justice, composed by Jennifer Shaw of the ACLU and co-signed by 34 community groups, urging an investigation. “The ACLU asks that DOJ initiate an investigation…” read the letter, “because the disturbing incidents of excessive force inflicted on residents of Seattle, and especially on persons of color, have continued despite actions and statements from the Police Department and City leadership.”

After an eight-month investigation, the DOJ concluded that the Seattle Police Department indeed used excessive force and showed indications of biased policing. Justice sued the City of Seattle and months of tense negotiations resulted in a 2012 settlement. Thus began the consent decree to reform the Seattle Police Department.

The presence of the DOJ and police monitor Merrick J. Bobb may not always grab the biggest headlines, but has arguably been the story of this decade for Seattle. Mayor Ed Murray unseated Mike McGinn on a platform of effective reform and Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole would almost certainly still live elsewhere were it not for the pressure to fix the department.

The investigation in Chicago will likely lead to a lawsuit, perhaps with an accompanying settlement agreement, as happened here. Community activists in Seattle, however, are generally willing to concede that the problems facing Chicago run deeper than they do here.

Seattle may be Chicago's junior in size, but it is the elder when it comes to working with the Department of Justice. It’s gone through the negotiations, fought with the members of the Police Department, and gone too slowly for some and too quickly for others. After a tense summer, the city government, police department, and community representatives are more aligned currently. But the question remains: Has federal intervention been a good thing?

“Much has been learned as we’ve walked down this road over the last several years that would not have been visible to those who first designed our structure,” says Lisa Daugaard, public defender and co-chair of Seattle’s Community Police Commission.

Twenty-three police departments have come under federal investigation during the Obama administration, sometimes to more media coverage than others: Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland, for example. Seattle, however, is among the furthest along the reform path.

In the modern era — in which shootings often end up on YouTube — Seattle is setting many key precedents. When Attorney General Lynch came to town last September, she praised the City and the department. “These reforms have not only led to positive results in Seattle,” she said, “but have become a model for similarly situated departments throughout the country.”

Mayor Ed Murray has made it clear he wants the Seattle PD to be a national model. Officials from Los Angeles and New York have visited Seattle to learn from its new de-escalation training programs and use of force policies. And the New York Times recently ran a story painting the department’s efforts in a largely positive light (although the accompanying video led to the suspension of two officers). With that national attention, the responsibility is both burdensome and exciting for elected officials and community activists.

Former Mayor Mike McGinn

What does Seattle's experience demonstrate? Lesson one: The extent to which Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel welcomes the DOJ could determine his political future. McGinn got slammed for the way he handled the negotiations with the DOJ. For a time, he resisted the feds, hoping instead to carry out reforms on a voluntary basis. It likely cost him the election.

“One thing I’ve learned in our process — fighting the DOJ is counterproductive,” said Council President Tim Burgess, a onetime detective and among McGinn's harshest critics. “Embracing the need for independent third party review is extremely valuable … Seattle had a mix of that. We started out fighting DOJ under the previous administration and switched under the current administration.”

Newly elected Councilmember Lorena González echoes Burgess. "I’ve had a front row seat to many missteps, which Chicago could easily avoid," she said in an e-mail. "In my experience as a trial lawyer and police-reform advocate, I’ve found it critical to cultivate a strong relationship with the local U.S. Attorney's office."

There’s hurt in McGinn's voice as he looks back on that settlement. “Politically there are things I probably would’ve done differently,” he says over the phone. But two years after his failed re-election campaign, McGinn says he’s proud of what was accomplished, particularly regarding the creation of the Community Police Commission (CPC), which the mayorally appointed advisory committee meant to include the community voice in police reform. (There is still some debate as to whether it was McGinn or the DOJ who came up with the idea for the CPC.)

The CPC represents lesson number two: Community involvement is key. “Without it you could have the best policies and have everything else in place," said Diane Narasaki, former CPC co-chair and head of the Asian Counseling and Referral Service, "but if you don’t have the trust of the communities, there will still be difficulties. It’s a partnership between the community and the police department.”

This argument is common. On paper, things are progressing well in the Department. But skepticism of police is still tangible, possible proof that policy is, ultimately, second to a shift in culture. And that, says Narasaki, can only come with the community.

Diane Narasaki Credit: U.S. Department of Education

Civilian involvement in police departments is not new. Chicago has two civilian police offices, the Chicago Police Board and the Chicago Independent Police Review Authority. They are vaguely equivalent to Seattle’s Office of Professional Accountability in that, between the two, they can investigate officers and make discipline recommendations. The CPC is unique in that it was created as a piece of the federal consent decree, however, something not tried in other consent decrees across the country.

The CPC has been simultaneously the most celebrated and embattled piece of the settlement agreement in Seattle. When Cleveland entered into its consent decree, it too created a CPC, taking its cue from Seattle. On the campaign trail for Seattle City Council in November, making the CPC permanent beyond the consent decree became something of a requirement for hopeful candidates. All four newly elected council members pledged support for the body. Last week, nearly 50 community organizations signed a letter supporting the recommendations of the CPC for permanent reform.

The voice of the CPC has been heard in many respects, central to many of the initial recommendations for lasting reform. But the body has also occasionally been shocked at the limit of its powers. This was never more apparent than last summer when the U.S. District Judge James Robart accused the body of making a “power grab” and stopped the CPC’s recommendations for legislation by the City Council cold.

Both McGinn and Daugaard would urge Chicago to push for a more direct line into the reforms. “If we could go back in time,” said Daugaard, “[the CPC] needs a channel into the process. Not as a matter of grace from the court or monitor — which has been extended to us — but when we know something is important, we need to introduce it into the discussion.”

Councilmember Tim Burgess

Burgess, though, isn’t quite as willing to agree. “Things have gone fairly well,” he says of the CPC’s involvement. “The CPC has made recommendations — several dozen of them — and I think at the end of the day we will implement the vast majority of them. That doesn’t mean that every position they take is necessarily the right one.”

Now, months later, the City and the CPC have come back to the same place and appear ready to pass legislation together. The up-and-down experience of the CPC, says Daugaard, should be a lesson for Chicago. “If we could do it, anyone can do it,” she said. “There’s no degree of mistrust that could exceed what we’ve had at various points.”

The DOJ, in an e-mail sent by a spokesperson last week, asserted its own support for community involvement. “Experience shows that community involvement is essential to effective police reform,” it read. “The Department of Justice has always solicited and incorporated community input into its reform efforts.”

Still, with the ups and downs, it’s hard not to wonder if there is some regret among the cosigners of that first letter, the one that drew the DOJ into Seattle. Last week, the letter and press conference by many of the original signers supported the CPC, calling on the monitor and the judge to allow permanent police reform legislation to move forward. The call was, on the one hand, about speed and, on the other hand, a strong show of support for the CPC itself. Narasaki, who helped organize that press conference, said she could see no reason to wait.

The monitor, Bobb, has asked for more time to evaluate the progress of the department, something the mayor has supported. But as the CPC and the City have come together on legislation, the judge and the monitor appear to community organizations, now more than ever, like the outsiders getting in the way. Because although steps have been made toward implementing reform recommendations, nothing has been codified through legislation and is therefore vulnerable to political sea changes. McGinn said, "The community is — and appropriately — mistrustful of politicians’ focus."

Of the opposition to the monitor and DOJ, Burgess says, “I don’t agree with that analysis. The reason this is important is because we’ve been through multiple cycles through the '90s to have meaningful, sustainable reforms and they’ve all failed.”

There are alternatives to federally driven reforms. The New York Police Department, for example, is currently under a consent decree that was negotiated by the City’s Legal Defense Fund, not the Department of Justice, although the scope is more narrow.

But for Burgess, “having the DOJ bring their muscle, I think we’ll look back in several years and we’ll say this wouldn’t have happened without them.” No one argues it's been easy. Burgess says, though, "That tension between members of the CPC, DOJ, SPD, and the City? That’s a healthy, productive process that will lead to lasting reforms."

Asking for a broad view of the successes and failure of Seattle's DOJ experience is, admittedly, a little premature. There are clearly still frustrated parties, partially because their frustration has not yet been validated. Some of that could come this January when the monitor Bobb publicizes the recommendations he believes should be approved through legislation.

But the questions as to what's next for Chicago are already being asked. And Seattle will be a source of answers, even while it works out its own future.

Correction, December 9:

A previous draft of this story stated there were no federal investigations under the Bush administration. That is incorrect. The story had been revised.


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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.