Judge not ready to sign off on Seattle police reform

Seattle City Hall

Seattle City Hall

When it comes to the mind-numbingly complicated process of making Seattle police more accountable, there is one yawningly wide dark hole: union negotiations. With labor relations largely hidden by strict confidentiality agreements, no one is completely sure what the unions want or whether they will fight the coming changes.

As a result of this uncertainty, the most significant package of police accountability measures ever approved by the city will be delayed, at least by days but potentially for much longer.

The package of reforms are key to fulfilling the terms of a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice to overhaul the Seattle Police Department. The Seattle City Council, the Community Police Commission, the Mayor’s Office and the City Attorney’s Office have plodded forward for years on the reforms to give civilians a larger role in watchdogging the department. In May, the council passed and the mayor signed a significant suite of new structures — designed to give more power to independent observers and less power to the employees of the department.

As part of the consent decree, however, federal Judge James Robart (the same “so-called judge” who first blocked President Trump’s travel ban) must give his thumbs up before any of the proposals take effect. And on Tuesday, he signaled that he has concerns about whether the shape of the reforms are clear enough to say, yes, he approves.

In a hearing attended by Justice and city attorneys, police officials and civilian reform advocates, Robart made it clear that the ambiguity of closed-doors negotiations with the unions is giving him pause.

His chief concern, delivered in his typically dry and often humorous speech, was that the union negotiations could mean the package he’s approving will change in negotiation. “You’re giving me a work in progress and asking me to approve it,” he said Tuesday, adding later, “How is it that you want me to say what’s there now is OK, when it is potentially impacted by developments that I can’t predict?”

The consent decree process is at an odd place. At this point, the parties to the lawsuit who are supposed to be adversaries, namely the city and the DOJ, largely agree on everything. The DOJ's attorneys said they approved of the legislation passed by the council. And for the first time since the agreement was signed in 2012, the Mayor’s Office, the council and the Community Police Commission have finally found enough common ground to establish a friendly détente.

In addition to the significant changes the legislation could trigger — such as establishing a civilian Inspector General — it is also seen by some as the last major hurdle the city must clear before the entire consent decree is fulfilled and federal monitoring of the police reforms would end. Especially in the wake of the police-shooting death of Charleena Lyles after she called to report a possible burglary, community members and city officials are anxious to see those changes rolled out.

Adding to the impatience are major transitions at home and nationally: Seattle’s division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office has so far gone unchanged since Donald Trump was elected president, but there’s no guarantee that will last. And a new mayor will soon take office. Robart noted both in the hearing.

With time clearly weighing on the interested parties, the hope Tuesday was that Robart would say the changes look fine and the city could proceed.

Robart declined to make any ruling until he receives a list from City Attorney Pete Holmes and the Justice Department of items in the legislation they believe should be approved immediately and items that may need negotiation with the union. What he will do with that list is unclear, but he could approve some items and backburner others, rather than let the whole package move forward.

How the unions fit in is by far the most complicated piece. They’ve never been part of the consent decree. So while representatives from the rank-and-file and leadership unions have voiced support for reforms, they’ve also never shown any sign of unilaterally surrendering their state-level collective bargaining rights to negotiate over any changes to their working conditions.

Robart, however, has been aggressive in his stance that those rights are limited. If the case is, essentially, about whether the policing in Seattle is constitutional, he said, “The Constitution trumps everything else. Against constitutional principles, labor negotiations will fall.”

“Citizens of Seattle are not going to pay blackmail for constitutional policing,” said Robart, apparently alluding to a widely held perception that the unions might seek better pay or other concessions in return for agreeing to the reforms.

Robart’s comments come one day after Mayor Ed Murray issued an executive order to deploy body cameras. Murray's decision comes after years of stagnation on the issue as union negotiations have dragged on. City Attorney Holmes said he would not be surprised if the union filed an unfair labor practice in response to the order.

The combination of Robart’s statements and Murray’s actions underline the potential for a conflict between federally driven reform and state-level labor rights, relatively uncharted territory.

Following the status conference, the parties were cautiously optimistic that Robart will, eventually, sign off on key portions of the legislation. Holmes said the delay “shows the public how complex and difficult” reform is, but he was hopeful of quick progress would be made shortly. Holmes said his list of potential bargaining items might go to Robart within a day or two.

Rev. Harriett Walden, speaking for the Community Police Commission, said after the conference, “We were hoping for a green light to go forward.” She added, though, “We’re always hopeful. We’ll always see the glass half full.”

As a parting note, Robart delivered a message to the rumblings he said he'd been hearing that the consent decree could soon be lifted. "Why don’t we declare victory and all celebrate?" he asked rhetorically. "It’s not going to happen."

Especially in the light of Lyles' shooting death, he said, "we still have a ways to go."


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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.