The cloud that has hung low over the head of Seattle’s police reform efforts is this: while progress has surely been made, none of it is codified through legislation, especially regarding questions of civilian oversight. While not likely, any progress made since the city's 2012 agreement with the Department of Justice could theoretically disappear with a shift in political winds, be it in the mayor’s office or atop the Seattle Police Department.
In a filing Tuesday from City Attorney Pete Holmes, following weeks of closed door meetings, the road toward legislation is perhaps more clear, even if some involved believe the road could have been laid a long time ago. Still, it is to a certain extent a significant step because, while SPD has already undergone significant internal policy changes, oversight and civilian involvement remain significant question marks. Writing the answers in stone would make reversing or diminishing future oversight much more difficult.
Although the Department of Justice has not officially agreed, the filing points toward an agreement by DOJ and the city to request that complex reform questions are turned over to the Seattle City Council and the Mayor's Office, which would finalize a package for approval by the court.
It’s a mini-treaty between representatives from the Mayor’s Office, City Attorney’s Office, SPD, and the Community Police Commission with the DOJ. And to a certain extent, it’s an acknowledgement that complex reform questions should be decided by elected officials in public. "There were a lot of questions that we could debate as subject matter," says Holmes in an interview Tuesday night. "But at the end of the day it will be the mayor and the council who decide what is the best set of options for Seattle."
It's also a frustration to those who wonder what they've been working on for the last two years.
If letting the council and the mayor hash out legislative questions sounds obvious, that isn’t necessarily the case when a federal judge is involved. In fact, the Mayor’s Office and the Community Police Commission (CPC) — the civilian oversight body created as a part of the settlement agreement — agreed on a legislative package last summer. But Merrick J. Bobb, the monitor tasked with overseeing police reform in Seattle, asked Councilmember Bruce Harrell to hold off on even considering the package until specific questions, such as civilian oversight, were discussed more thoroughly.
Shortly after Bobb made that request, Federal Judge James Robart gave a forceful admonition of any efforts to advance legislation without his approval. Robart accused the Community Police Commission of making a “power grab,” in part because the proposal addressed questions of the CPC’s own future.
To say the CPC disagreed would be an understatement, but after several weeks of existential examination, the parties came back to the table to try again. Robart instructed the parties to create a “framework” for moving forward.
This process has been slower than the CPC and community groups have hoped. After the parties submitted proposed frameworks last September, Robart came back with more questions. The CPC felt they were turning long turned stones. But at the behest of city Attorney Holmes, who has contended that this is the city’s last chance to get reform right and should therefore take as long as necessary, the parties agreed to the closed door meetings. Tuesday’s filing represents the fruits of those meetings.
The most pressing questions relate largely to oversight and accountability: When an officer screws up, who handles it and how? Right now, much of the disciplinary process is done through the Office of Professional Accountability, which is housed inside the police department. Although its director is a civilian, it’s staffed with sworn officers. Should there be more civilian involvement? What are the limits of the person who oversees OPA? And when an officer screws up, how should discipline be handed down? When deadly force is used by officers, as two recently did on African American Che Taylor in north Seattle, how is it vetted? And should the CPC live on after the feds leave town?
These questions are not new; the frustration of groups like the CPC is that many hours have already gone into their consideration without anything to show for it. What, some may ask, was the purpose of their work over the last two years?
But the decision to push the most complicated issues toward the council and the mayor may also represent a united front not yet seen from the many parties to the consent decree. And Holmes takes issue with what he sees as an assumption of legislative influence on the part of the CPC. "No one turned it over to the CPC in the first place," he says, adding, "there’s nothing in the consent decree that suggests the CPC was to be basically given the council’s legislative authority." The CPC's work will inform the legislation that is finally submitted, he says, but it will not be verbatim.
Regardless of what Holmes may think, the anguish of the CPC is real. In a meeting Wednesday morning, members struggled with what, exactly, was accomplished in these closed door meetings that could not have been accomplished a long time ago. "Where we’re at is exactly where we should have been a year ago," said CPC co-chair Lisa Daugaard. The commission will file its response by May 24.
The DOJ will file its response at the same time, at which point the stipulated order will likely go on to the Judge. The DOJ declined to comment, a spokesperson saying they were reviewing the document.
Judge Robart too has to sign off on the stipulated order. If he does and it moves into the hands of the council, it's unclear how much longer it will be until an actual ordinance is passed. For something this complicated, it's possible the process could run through the summer, into budget season next fall and even into next year. Holmes didn't rule out 2017 — or later — as an end date.
This isn't the legislation to clear away lingering questions of permanent reform. Not yet. But nearly a year after some had hoped that legislation would be on the books, perhaps the council can now unclog the sink.
Wednesday, May 11: This post has been updated to reflect the CPC's Wednesday meeting.