By Paul Kiefer
For the first time since the pandemic began more than a year ago, representatives from the US Department of Justice, Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, and other police oversight figures gathered for a status update on Seattle’s consent decree—a nearly decade-old agreement empowering the DOJ to oversee police reform in Seattle.
Though the city has spent years re-working Seattle Police Department policies and training to satisfy several of the court’s key expectations including reductions in the use of deadly force by police officers, Seattle’s progress slipped in the past three years—in part because of a widely-criticized 2018 Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG) that undercut landmark improvements to the city’s police oversight system. That reversal on reforms, along with the SPD’s heavy-handed response to last Summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, raises the prospect that Seattle will remain under the consent decree for much longer than expected.
Federal District Court Judge James Robart, who has overseen the consent decree since its conception in 2012, is grappling with two key questions as he tries to determine the path forward: First, whether the city and police department has successfully re-implemented police oversight reforms that the (SPOG) contract wiped out; and second, whether SPD’s response to massive citywide protests in 2020 will set back the city’s progress towards ending the consent decree.
Tuesday’s hearing at the US District Courthouse in downtown Seattle did not provide Robart with clear answers on either front. While making a case that the city has made progress towards meeting the court’s demands, City Attorney Pete Holmes pointed to some notable accountability victories in the past three years. Unfortunately, he offered no promises that the upcoming SPOG contract negotiations won’t upend the city’s commitment to accountability. Meanwhile, Dr. Antonio Oftelie, the court-appointed consent decree monitor who acts as Robart’s eyes and ears on police oversight, told the judge that his team is still reviewing last summer’s SPD response to protests; they won’t decide whether SPD’s actions during the Black Lives Matter protests put the city out of alignment with the consent decree until the end of 2021, he said.
The hearing came at a critical point for the future of the consent decree. In its tenth year, a growing number of community activists argue that the consent decree has become an obstacle to efforts to downsize SPD and invest in alternatives to traditional policing. But an array of unknown variables—including the next contract with SPOG, which the city will likely begin negotiating in the next six months—raise the possibility that the consent decree could end up shaping Seattle’s police reform efforts for years to come. “This was supposed to be a five-year gig,” Judge Robart quipped; instead, come January, Seattle will inaugurate its fifth mayor since the consent decree began.
“My role is to tell you when you don’t get things right,” he said, “not how to do things.” —Federal District Court Judge James Robart
During Tuesday’s hearing, Robart took time to criticize the Community Police Commission (CPC), a civilian group that acts as a quasi-think tank on police accountability, for filing a request on July 27 to direct Oftelie’s monitoring team to take a more active role in SPD accountability, including in negotiations with police unions. Edgar Sargent, an attorney representing the CPC, told Robart that union negotiations are really just “a black box,” and suggested the monitoring team should be privy to union contract negotiations and provide progress updates directly to the court.
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