Courts consider lifting federal oversight of Seattle police

The SPD has been under a Department of Justice ‘consent decree’ since 2012 due to excessive use of force.

a crowd of police officers in riot gear

Protesters face off with Seattle Police Department personnel in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood, July 25, 2020. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

U.S. District Judge James Robart held a hearing Tuesday to consider whether to release the Seattle Police Department from many of the stipulations of its ongoing federal oversight, as the city and U.S. Department of Justice recently requested.

Robart said he’s proud of the progress he’s seen on the department’s use of force, Seattle’s accountability systems and more. But, the judge declined to make a ruling Tuesday, expressing skepticism that the city was ready to quickly stand up stronger accountability measures and concern that the police union’s current contract negotiations could undermine efforts. 

In late March, the City of Seattle and the DOJ filed a joint motion arguing that SPD had transformed in the 11 years since the federal “consent decree” was implemented. The motion says the police department has complied with the core requirements of the oversight agreement while acknowledging that progress is still needed in two key areas.

The city and DOJ argue that Seattle police have made sufficient progress in reducing use of force; improving responses to behavioral health crises; improving responses to investigative stops; improving its biased policing policies and training; and improving officer supervision.

The motion concedes that the department still needs to improve its use of force in crowd-management situations and its oversight and accountability systems.

As such, the city and DOJ’s motion requested that the U.S. District Court release the police department from federal oversight on those improved areas and institute a new, narrower federal oversight agreement on crowd management and accountability.

Judge Robart, who has overseen Seattle’s consent decree for more than a decade and has final say on compliance, agreed with the city’s claims of progress at the hearing Tuesday.

“I am immensely proud of the Seattle Police Department,” said Robart. “I know that’s not a feeling shared by everyone … But in the 13 years I’ve presided over this issue, I have seen significant changes in operations and administration [and] significant reductions in use of force.” 

Still, the judge did not grant the city and DOJ’s joint motion on Tuesday. One issue is the speed with which the city and DOJ have proposed implementing improvements around accountability.

“You can put me on the record as extremely skeptical that this work will be complete by December 2023,” said Robart. 

Robart also worried that because the Seattle Police Officers Guild and city are in ongoing contract negotiations, it’s unclear how the contract could impact efforts to enhance accountability. The prior police union contract removed accountability measures, which led to Robart’s finding that the city was out of compliance with the consent decree. 

Assistant city attorney Kerala Cowart, representing Seattle at the hearing on Tuesday, assured the judge that all accountability goals are on the table and actively being negotiated in contract bargaining. 

Robart also expressed concern that the language of the joint motion is not strong enough to require that the city continue staffing and funding the Office of Inspector General for Public Safety and Office of Police Accountability, two departments that, along with the Community Police Commission, were created under the consent decree to provide oversight and accountability.

The SPD has been under federal oversight since 2012 after a DOJ investigation into the police department’s use of force concluded it was excessive to the point of being unconstitutional. The investigation came at the behest of 35 Seattle community organizations following several high-profile incidents of police violence, including an officer kicking a Latino suspect in the face and making racialized threats while he was detained on the ground; kicking and punching teenage suspects; and the killing of Native American woodcarver John T. Williams.

Since then, the city has spent hundreds of millions of dollars updating police department data collection practices and training policies and has developed new government-led and community-led accountability systems, all to comply with the terms laid out in the consent decree. The decree signed said that the city must comply for at least two years to be released from federal oversight.

There have been several setbacks on the path to compliance. In 2014, former SPD Officer Adley Shepherd punched a handcuffed woman in the face, fracturing a bone near her eye. Shepherd was fired after an internal investigation, but was later reinstated by an arbitrator following the mandatory arbitration stipulated by the Seattle Police Officers Guild contract. Robart ordered the city to explain how that reinstatement did not violate the consent decree. 

The Police Officers Guild contract once again became a factor in noncompliance in 2018. The contract, which the City Council approved over objections from the Community Police Commission, rolled back new accountability measures. In 2019, Robart ruled that the contract put the department partially out of compliance.

SPD fell further out of compliance due to officers’ violent response to the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd. In June 2020, U.S. District Judge Richard Jones issued a temporary restraining order on SPD’s use of pepper spray, tear gas and projectiles, ruling that the department was using excessive force and violating protesters’ free speech rights.

Despite those past incidents, a 2022 report compiled by a court-appointed monitor found that the department had made significant progress and was in compliance on general use of force, de-escalation, stops and detentions. From 2015 to 2021, SPD uses of force declined by 48%.

The report also found the department still needs to reduce use of force in crowd-control scenarios and improve accountability measures, the two areas the city and DOJ’s motion acknowledge should still be monitored. It also said the department must address racial disparities in its policing, with Black and Native American people still disproportionately stopped, detained and subject to use of force.

It is now up to Judge Robart to decide whether or not to reduce the city’s federal oversight to crowd control and accountability measures only. He made clear he intended to rewrite the city and DOJ’s joint motion to strengthen the language around the areas he flagged during Tuesday’s hearing. The timeline for completion is open-ended. 

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