Frustrations rise around Seattle police reform

Seattle police protest

A protest against police brutality last year in the wake in the wake of deaths in New York and Missouri.

On Wednesday, the civilian Community Police Commission (CPC) approved their final recommendations for police reform in the city, marking notable movement on a long-clogged process. The approval came in response to a ruling from federal judge James Robart the previous day, which curbed the ability of elected officials to pass police accountability legislation, demanding he see drafts before they move to committee.

The majority of the CPC's recommendations have literally been around for years, but haven't found their way through the complicated court processes that make up the federally mandated police reforms. After adding a few recommendations to their slate of suggested reforms — which include greater civilian involvement in the disciplinary process, more authority to independent watchdogs and greater access to the public, and making collective bargaining negotiations public — the judge's actions gave the CPC an opportunity to finally send them along to City Hall.

While Robart's order spurred the CPC to action, their frustration with it was palpable. The organization had hoped to pass legislation more than a year ago. They've expressed that the process has bogged it down, and that Robart's order will slow things down even more.

“Although we appreciate that the order allows the city to start moving again, we are now looking at a long-drawn-out process that has no realistic chance of producing legislative results until 2017, at the earliest," a statement from CPC read. "By then it will have been five years since the consent decree and three years since the CPC’s original accountability recommendations. As 47 community leaders noted in a 2015 letter to the Court Monitor in support of the CPC’s recommendations, time is of the essence. We don’t see that urgency reflected in this order.”

Recently the CPC, which serves as the community voice in the process, asked Robart to turn over the reform process to elected officials, as did the City of Seattle and the Department of Justice. This is a reversal from when reform proposals were mostly crafted in back rooms, to be sent to the judge for approval and then passed onto the city. Reform advocates like the CPC have advocated for a more legislative process for years, as a means to encourage greater public involvement.

On the one hand, Robart's order indeed frees up the Seattle City Council and the Mayor’s Office to publicly work through proposals. However, his shadow will now never be too distant from the elected officials’ work. Robart said he did not want to be put in the position of wielding anything close to a veto pen, hence his insistence that that he vet early drafts. Robart said he was doing so to avoid wasting the council’s time, but the assertion runs the risk of reinforcing the already widespread belief that this federally driven process is overly top-down and excludes the people with the most at stake in police reforms: the community.

It seems fitting that Robart issued the order on the same day the New York Times published a scathing Department of Justice report indicting the Baltimore Police Department for consistent racial bias. With the release of the report, Baltimore will start where Seattle did four years ago, under the watchful eyes of a federal judge and independent monitor demanding an overhaul of department practices.

Under the Obama administration, the Justice Department has launched nearly two dozen of these so-called consent decrees; it has been his favorite response to police-community tensions stoked in the wake of high profile deaths in places like Ferguson, Missouri and Cleveland.

To a certain extent, Obama and the DOJ have used Seattle as proof of the approach's effectiveness. Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole sat near Michelle Obama at the President’s final state of the union; Attorney General Loretta Lynch praised the city as a model during her visit to Seattle a year ago; representatives from other departments around the country have visited Seattle to take example; and Cleveland modeled its own citizens’ advisory board after Seattle’s Community Police Commission.

If successful, federal intervention into local police departments could be the premier example of good government. The idea, one in which Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes and Mayor Ed Murray staunchly believe, is that a top-down approach will guarantee reforms stick. Many within the city and the DOJ point to recent changes in training and use of force reporting as proof the reforms are well under way.

The DOJ Tuesday issued a positive statement in reaction to Robart's order, despite formally requesting an open legislative process.

"This is an important step forward and an opportunity for the City — its elected officials and community stakeholders — to come together to propose an approach that reflects best practices of accountability and is consistent with the terms and purposes of the consent decree," it read. 

But on the community side, frustration was more palpable. It was a 2010 letter from 34 community groups that spurred on the DOJ’s investigation into Seattle. Since the process began, those same groups have often felt that their voice has not been heard. It's the struggles of involving street-level voices in a court case of this magnitude that could be the process' Achilles Heel.

Compared to other cities, Seattle has much more community engagement in its police reform process; most other consent decrees do not include anything like the CPC. Regardless, even the CPC has struggled to engage wide swaths of the public. The group has recently increased its social media presence, broadcasting its meeting and answering questions on Facebook, but rallying public support around the court process is a challenge.

Robart is protective of the consent decree, condemning anything he views as tinkering with the agreement outside formal processes. It is exactly for this reason the commission — with the support of the city and the DOJ — had hoped the whole process could be flipped, starting in City Hall and ending in the court. Giving Robart an early look at any possible legislation will do little to change the perception of the reform process as top-down.

Robart will host a formal status conference Monday, at which point he's expected to elaborate on how he sees the process moving forward.


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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.