Tag: consent decree

Last-Minute Push for SPD Hiring Incentives Fails, Feds Impose New Rules on Consent Decree Monitors

1. The City Council voted on Monday to shore up several of its own priorities for rethinking public safety using $15 million in savings from salaries left unspent by the Seattle Police Department after another year of abnormally high attrition.

The council left almost two-thirds of the $15 million in the department’s budget, allowing SPD to cover the costs of downsizing—updates to timekeeping software to help deploy a smaller number of officers more efficiently, for example. Additionally, the council lifted a trio of provisos on the department’s budget, releasing roughly $8 million for the department to use as it wants.

Of the $5.2 million the council shifted out of SPD’s budget, $3 million will go to the Human Services Department to fund grants to nonprofits specializing in alternatives to policing. The council set aside another $700,000 to stand up a new civilian crisis response unit tentatively called Triage One.

SPD’s staffing crisis loomed over Monday’s budget vote, as highlighted by a pair of unsuccessful amendments introduced by Councilmember Alex Pedersen that laid out two options for scaling up the department’s recruitment and retention efforts. The more ambitious of the two would have set aside nearly $2.8 million for SPD to develop a loosely defined “retention program,” as well as $233,000 to offer hiring incentives to officers who join SPD—as much as $15,000 for officers who transfer from other agencies. To cover the cost, Pedersen proposed completely abandoning the plan to shift a portion of SPD’s salary savings to HSD; in a blog post on Friday, Pedersen wrote that “funding for those other programs can be extended at a later date, but we have a SPD staffing crisis today.”

A second, scaled-down proposal would have set aside nearly $900,000 for retention while leaving the amount earmarked for hiring incentives unchanged; the latter plan would have left the HSD dollars untouched, instead drawing from still-unassigned dollars in SPD’s budget to pay for overtime.

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Ahead of Monday’s meeting, both Mayor Jenny Durkan and Interim SPD Chief Adrian Diaz urged the council to support one of Pedersen’s amendments, casting the proposals as a vital intervention for a department in a downward spiral. “As a City, we need to address the real hiring and retention challenges at the Seattle Police Department,” Durkan wrote. “It’s a false choice to invest in alternatives or hire and retain officers to meet our current 911 response.”

But neither option found enough traction to move ahead on Monday. Council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda argued that scaling up civilian crisis response units should take priority over the police department’s retention and recruitment woes, while Councilmember Lisa Herbold noted that SPD is not the only city department grappling with a staffing shortage. “If we’re going to focus on recruitment, I think we need to think about vacancies across all departments,” Herbold said.

“Having a fair, accountable, cost-effective contract is the most sustainable path to save money for alternatives and to hire some officers to replace those who left.”— City Councilmember Alex Pederesen

Councilmember Andrew Lewis voted for Pedersen’s less-ambitious amendment, which failed on a 5-4 vote, citing the short-term need to stem SPD’s losses while civilian emergency responders build their capacity. “Right now, the only service that is to scale and that can provide exigent first response is our police department,” he said.

In an email to PubliCola Monday, Pedersen said his amendments were intended as emergency measures, not repudiations of the council’s plans to downsize the role of SPD. “It’s all about timing the investments based on the immediate needs,” he said. “We have already set aside tens of millions for additional upstream human services investments, which I also support.”

Pedersen added that the upcoming contract negotiations with the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) could help reduce SPD’s staffing costs by reining in expenses written into the most recent contract, which expired at the end of 2020. “Having a fair, accountable, cost-effective contract is the most sustainable path to save money for alternatives and to hire some officers to replace those who left,” he said.

2. Upcoming changes to the Department of Justice’s rules for court-appointed consent decree monitors are unlikely to impact Seattle’s own agreement with the police department, according to Emily Langlie, a spokesperson for the US Attorney for the Western District of Washington, because they only apply to new consent decrees.

Since 2012, the Seattle Police Department has operated under a consent degree—an agreement that the department will adopt reforms to address its history of racially biased policing and use of excessive force—administered by the Department of Justice and overseen by a monitor appointed by US District Court Judge James Robart. The proposed changes are an attempt to reform the monitoring system to avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest or financial improprieties. Continue reading “Last-Minute Push for SPD Hiring Incentives Fails, Feds Impose New Rules on Consent Decree Monitors”

Public Safety Fizz: “Less-Lethal” Weapons Restrictions Move Forward, Heat Wave’s Impact on Prisons Examined, County Searches for New Police Oversight Head

The Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County (Flickr: Brewbrooks; Reproduced with a Creative Commons License)

1. The Seattle City Council’s public safety committee voted out the latest version of legislation limiting the Seattle Police Department’s use of ‘less-lethal weapons’ on Tuesday, sending the embattled bill to the full council with a ‘do pass’ recommendation. If adopted, the bill would prohibit SPD from using five ‘less-lethal’ weapons, including blast balls, and place new restrictions on officers’ use of tear gas, pepper-ball launchers and pepper spray.

Last summer, the council passed an ordinance that would have prohibited police officers from using tear gas, pepper spray, blast balls and other ‘less-lethal’ weapons for crowd control.

After the US Department of Justice warned that the bill might lead officers to resort to more serious uses of force to control protests, Federal District Court Judge James Robart—who oversees reforms to SPD as part of an ongoing agreement between the US Department of Justice and the city of Seattle known as the consent decree—issued a temporary restraining order preventing it from taking effect. The version of the bill that passed on Tuesday reflects months of input from Seattle’s police oversight bodies, the DOJ, and the monitoring team appointed by Judge Robart to act as the eyes and ears of the consent decree.

Responding to the monitoring team’s concerns that the original bill would prevent officers from targeting small groups of people committing acts of violence at protests, the new bill outright bans less-targeted weapons such as blast balls and ultrasonic cannons while allowing officers to use more targeted weapons against individual people. The ordinance would also allow SPD to use pepper spray and tear gas to move crowds when twelve or more people in the crowd are engaging in violence—a legal standard that SPD might be able to skirt because of the difficulties of measuring the scale of violence within a crowd after the fact.

Although the committee voted to send the bill to the full council, that won’t happen immediately. Instead, Herbold opted to wait for the results of a hearing before Judge Robart on August 10 to review Seattle’s compliance with the consent decree, giving the council an opportunity for the council to hear more feedback on the bill.

2. Washington’s Office of the Corrections Ombuds (OCO), the oversight agency for the state’s Department of Corrections, issued a brief report on Tuesday describing conditions inside the Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County during the record-breaking heat wave two weeks ago.

Meanwhile, the DOC is also preparing to address Washington’s falling prison population—4,000 empty beds statewide, and a more than 50 percent decline in new prisoners since last year—by closing some units.

An OCO staffer who visited the prison on June 28 found substantial differences between conditions in the four different units they visited. In the prison’s Intensive Management Unit, temperatures in hallways remained below 80 degrees; in contrast, the investigator, Matthias Gydé, found cells in the Twin Rivers Unit, which houses more than 800 people, in which some surfaces reached nearly 100 degrees.

The unit-to-unit variations in temperature were partially the result of inconsistent cooling systems across the prison system. The Intensive Management Unit is outfitted with an HVAC system, whereas the Twin Rivers Unit relies on a vent that pumps air from the building’s roof to cool its common areas and cells. Gydé also noted that the Twin Rivers Unit’s skylights and cell windows contributed to the high temperatures. The DOC relaxed rules to allow inmates to cover their windows, but the skylights in the building’s common areas remained uncovered during the heat wave. Continue reading “Public Safety Fizz: “Less-Lethal” Weapons Restrictions Move Forward, Heat Wave’s Impact on Prisons Examined, County Searches for New Police Oversight Head”

Council Reviews New Version of “Less-Lethal” Weapons Ban

Seattle Police Officers fire tear gas at demonstrators on Capitol Hill in June 2020 (via Chase Burns on Twitter)

By Paul Kiefer

Seattle City Council member Lisa Herbold introduced the latest version of legislation intended to restrict the Seattle Police Department’s use of so-called ‘less-lethal weapons’ against demonstrators during a public safety committee meeting on Tuesday, more than a year after the council first began its efforts to limit SPD’s crowd control arsenal. The proposal would restrict the use of tear gas, pepper-ball launchers and pepper spray by SPD officers responding to protests and outright ban five other ‘less-lethal’ weapons, including blast balls.

If passed, the proposed legislation would replace an ordinance the council passed in June 2020, which SPD never implemented, that would have prohibited police officers from using tear gas, pepper spray, blast balls and other ‘less-lethal’ weapons for crowd control.

Shortly after the ordinance passed, US District Court Judge James Robart—who oversees reforms to SPD as part of an ongoing agreement between the US Department of Justice and the city of Seattle known as the consent decree—issued a temporary restraining order preventing it from taking effect. The order came in response to a warning from the US Department of Justice that any law preventing officers from using ‘less-lethal’ weapons against crowds might make officers turn to more serious uses of force, including hitting protesters with batons.

In the aftermath of Judge Robart’s restraining order, city council members turned to Seattle’s police oversight bodies—the Office of Police Accountability (OPA), the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), and the Community Police Commission (CPC)—and the team appointed by the federal court to monitor the city’s compliance with federal court orders to rework the legislation.

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The updated bill that Herbold introduced on Tuesday reflects the latest round of feedback from the DOJ and court-appointed monitoring team, who began an informal review of the draft legislation in February. In their recommendations to the council, the monitoring team emphasized that SPD officers need to be able to use targeted crowd control weapons against people committing acts of violence within larger peaceful protests, and that SPD will need additional time to adjust to any new restrictions on less-lethal weapons.

In its current form, the bill would ban officers from using “disorientation devices” like blast balls or ultrasonic cannons under any circumstances, with the exception of flash-bang grenades, which would still be available to SWAT teams. It would also allow officers to use pepper spray and tear gas to move crowds of protesters, but only in response to a “violent public disturbance”—a legal term to describe violence committed by a group of twelve or more people. Continue reading “Council Reviews New Version of “Less-Lethal” Weapons Ban”

Can the the Seattle Police Department Consent Decree Be Fixed?

Dr. Antonio Oftelie speaks to the Seattle Community Police Commission in May 2021.

By Paul Kiefer

On Tuesday, the Seattle City Council rejected a proposal to cut $2.83 million from the Seattle Police Department’s budget, bringing an end to a months-long debate and raising questions about whether federal oversight is the right path toward reforming the department.

For almost a decade, SPD has been under federal oversight through an agreement with the US Department of Justice called a consent decree. The consent decree, which Seattle entered in 2012, was supposed to ensure that SPD corrected a pattern of using unjustified force and racially biased policing, among other reforms.

But after nearly a decade, a growing contingent within city government and activist circles are questioning whether the consent decree is capable of changing SPD for the better.

Earlier this week, Councilmember Lisa Herbold was unable to pass legislation cutting millions from SPD’s budget thanks in large part to opposition from SPD and the court-appointed monitor tasked with tracking reforms, Dr. Antonio Oftelie. Herbold initially prosed cutting $5.4 million from the police budget to offset SPD overspending in 2020, and to channel resources to next year’s participatory budgeting program. 

When the plan finally fizzled on Tuesday, many who support additional cuts to the department’s budget blamed Oftelie and the consent decree. “We are seeing the consent decree being wielded as an obstacle to community demands to divest from policing and invest in community safety,” said Angélica Cházaro, a University of Washington professor and organizer with the activist group Decriminalize Seattle, “when in reality the surest way to address issues of racial profiling, use of force, and other violations of constitutional rights by cops is to reduce police power and contact and ensure that communities have what they need to be safe, survive, and thrive.”

“Seattle, as a city, has never come forward to the monitoring team to offer a new solution to a problem. My sense is that if the city could design some alternative response solutions and had plans to show how those were real solutions, then the court and DOJ would be amenable to that.”—federal monitor Antonio Oftelie

Herbold has occasionally joined those critics. During a public safety committee hearing on May 25, for example, she commented that she “often feels hampered by the consent decree because it requires us to get court approval before making any changes.”

Oftelie, however, argues that dismissing the consent decree as an obstacle overlooks its unused potential. At its most basic level, Oftelie told PubliCola, the agreement establishes “a floor” for new policies, better training, and more “constitutional” policing. “Everything can be built on that floor. If Seattle wants to be innovative and transformative, there’s room,” he said. Those reforms could include the creation of a larger-scale civilian unit to respond to mental health crises, or stricter regulation of police officers’ off-duty work.

And while the consent decree outlines a way to add new language to agreement that reflect newer priorities for reform, Oftelie says that Seattle hasn’t taken advantage of that provision.

“Seattle, as a city, has never come forward to the monitoring team to offer a new solution to a problem,” he said. “Some parties in Seattle say, ‘we can’t do something because the consent decree won’t allow it. Or they’ll say, ‘we want the consent decree to do something that it’s not doing at the moment.’ My sense is that if the city could design some alternative response solutions and had plans to show how those were real solutions, then the court and DOJ would be amenable to that.”

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In order to propose a revision to the consent decree, the mayor and the council would need to agree about the goals and details of the change. Some simpler changes, like replacing out-of-date and ineffective technology used to flag officers who are more likely to use excessive force, would only require the city to identify better software; others, like adjusting the consent decree to require a large-scale civilian crisis response program, would require lengthier debates and pilot programs to produce a workable proposal for the court and DOJ.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office did not respond to PubliCola’s request for comment about whether her office would support any changes to the consent decree. Herbold, however, said that she is open to proposing changes to the consent decree—so long as the changes aren’t up to the council or the mayor’s office.

Continue reading “Can the the Seattle Police Department Consent Decree Be Fixed?”

Council Vote Leaves Fate of Proposed SPD Cuts In the Air

Breakdown of Estimated Salary Savings Under Herbold Proposal

By Paul Kiefer

Months of debate on the City Council about how to distribute millions of dollars in unpaid Seattle Police Department salaries came to an end on Tuesday, though no one seemed satisfied with the result.

During the meeting, the committee considered a proposal to cut $2.83 million from SPD’s budget while simultaneously lifting a budget proviso on another $5 million that the council has withheld from SPD’s budget since the beginning of the year. Ultimately, the committee sent the ordinance to the full council with a ‘do not pass’ recommendation.

The committee’s discussion was part of the ongoing debate over the council’s promise to curtail overspending by SPD last December. When department leadership informed the council that SPD had overspent their budget by $5.4 million, the council expressed its intent to cut the same amount from SPD’s budget this year. The council hoped that the $5.4 million would support the participatory budgeting process this spring.

The planned cut didn’t jeopardize SPD’s plans to hire new officers, because the council had already passed a budget that provided enough money to pay the salaries of all officers SPD expected to hire or retain in 2021.

But the proposal set off alarm bells at SPD. In March, interim SPD Chief Adrian Diaz appeared before the public safety committee to argue that the department is already hamstrung by earlier budget cuts and staffing losses. Cutting an additional $5.4 million from the department’s budget, he argued, would plunge the department into a staffing crisis “beyond mitigation” by spurring more officers to leave for greener pastures.

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Later that month, in response to pressure from SPD to reconsider the cut, public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold revised the proposal: instead of cutting $5.4 million from the police department budget, the council could reduce the cut to $2.83 million. Most of the money taken from SPD’s budget would go to the participatory budgeting process; the rest would pay for civilian staff in other city departments who could support SPD, including evidence storage staff and five new mental health crisis responders. Herbold also proposed offsetting the $2.83 million cut by lifting a proviso the council passed last November that withholds $5 million in salary savings from SPD; the department’s budget also includes several million more dollars in salary savings unaffected by the proviso because of the abnormally high attrition from the department in the past year.

From Herbold’s perspective, the reduced budget cut still allowed the council to penalize SPD for spending beyond their budget in 2020 while also giving the department greater flexibility to fill budged holes as they appeared.

But Herbold’s proposal to reduce the size of the budget cut didn’t assuage SPD’s concerns. And it drew the attention of Dr. Antonio Oftelie, who leads the monitoring team appointed by a federal district court to track the progress of reforms to SPD. Oftelie’s team directed the committee to delay acting on their plans to cut SPD’s budget until department leadership answered a list of questions about the impacts of staffing losses and additional budget cuts on the department’s day-to-day responsibilities. Continue reading “Council Vote Leaves Fate of Proposed SPD Cuts In the Air”

Court Upholds Firing of Officer Who Punched Handcuffed Woman, Challenges Authority of Arbitrators

By Paul Kiefer

The Washington State Court of Appeals issued a ruling on Monday upholding the Seattle Police Department’s 2016 decision to fire Officer Adley Shepherd for punching a woman while she was handcuffed in the back of a patrol car.

After then-Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole announced she was firing Shepherd, Shepherd and his union, the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG), appealed her decision to an arbitrator—in this case, an attorney who can approve, adjust or overturn disciplinary actions for police officers. In 2018, the arbitrator sided with Shepherd, directing SPD to re-hire him and offer back pay.

But Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes stood by Shepherd’s firing, asking the King County Superior Court to vacate the arbitrator’s decision—a rare challenge to the authority of arbitrators in police disciplinary cases, whose decisions are typically final. The Superior Court agreed with Holmes; after another appeal by SPOG, so did the Court of Appeals.

The city’s success in the Shepherd case could have broader implications for police discipline in both Seattle and Washington State as a whole. The ruling underscores the importance of consequences for misuses of force by police; it also casts a spotlight on efforts to reform the arbitration process itself, which many reformers argue is biased in police officers’ favor.

In June 2014, Shepherd arrested 23-year-old Miyekko Durden-Bosley after stepping into an argument between Durden-Bosley and her daughter’s father, Robert Shelby. At the time, Durden-Bosley was drunk and agitated, but she hadn’t committed any obvious crimes—Shelby’s mother had called 911 to report that Durden-Bosley had threatened her son over the phone, and Shepherd arrived to investigate.

The Court of Appeals took the unprecedented step of outlining an “explicit, well-defined and dominant public policy” prohibiting the excessive use of force by police rooted in the US Constitution and underscored in Seattle’s 2012 agreement with the Department of Justice that requires SPD to address “unconstitutional practices” by its officers.

When Shepherd handcuffed Durden-Bosley and pushed her into the back seat of his patrol car, she kicked him in the jaw. Two seconds later, Shepherd retaliated by punching Durden-Bosley in the eye, leaving her with two small fractures in her eye socket. Shepherd himself was mostly uninjured by the kick. After investigations into the incident by several oversight agencies, including Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability (OPA), O’Toole decided to fire Shepherd for the unnecessary use of force. Throughout the investigations, Shepherd refused to acknowledge that he had made a mistake; after his firing, he maintained his innocence and appealed O’Toole’s decision.

The arbitrator who later reviewed Shepherd’s appeal didn’t dispute that Shepherd violated SPD policy when he punched the handcuffed Durden-Bosley. However, the arbitrator also concluded that the circumstances surrounding Shepherd’s punch—both the argument and kick that preceded it, specifically— had “mitigate[d] somewhat the seriousness” of his policy violation, and that firing Shepherd was an excessive response to his actions—before Shepherd, the arbitrator noted, SPD had never fired an officer for using “unreasonable non-lethal force on a suspect.”

Instead, the arbitrator ordered SPD to re-hire Shepherd and offer him back pay for all but 15 days of the time that had passed since his firing; those 15 days, the arbitrator decided, would suffice as a punishment for his policy violation. According to Seattle’s contract with SPOG, the arbitrator’s decision was final.

Nevertheless, Holmes decided to challenge the arbitrator’s ruling, arguing that reinstating Shepherd would violate the “public policy against excessive use of force in policing.” Despite SPOG’s objections, the Superior Court agreed that Shepherd had unambiguously breached an “explicit, well-defined and dominant public policy” and that a 15-day suspension wouldn’t suffice as a consequence. Continue reading “Court Upholds Firing of Officer Who Punched Handcuffed Woman, Challenges Authority of Arbitrators”

Federal Judge: Seattle’s Path to Compliance With Consent Decree Still Unclear

By Paul Kiefer

U.S. District Court Judge James Robart convened a hearing on Thursday afternoon to review the city of Seattle’s progress toward implementing police reform and address how Seattle’s path to compliance with the federal consent decree has changed in the wake of last summer’s racial justice protests.

During Thursday’s hearing, the first since the protests, Robart emphasized that the city is still out of compliance with the consent decree in the areas of discipline and accountability, and that Seattle’s path toward an end to federal oversight is still unclear. Robart added that the federal court is now reviewing another possible breach of the consent decree: specifically, whether SPD’s response to last year’s protests leaves the city out of step with the court’s standards for appropriate use of force.

The consent decree—the agreement between the city and the Department of Justice that empowers the federal court to oversee reforms to the Seattle Police Department—dates back to 2012, when the DOJ investigation found that SPD officers frequently used excessive force without consequences. To end federal oversight, the city first needs to achieve “compliance” with the terms of the consent decree and remain in compliance for two years; Robart uses input from the city, accountability experts, and a court-appointed monitoring team to decide what compliance entails.

The court-appointed monitoring team, led by Dr. Antonio Oftelie since last September, submitted a work plan Thursday morning to track the implementation of reforms to SPD and the efficacy of the city’s accountability structure in 2021. As SPD prepares to rework its use-of-force and crowd management policies, and while the OPA and OIG conduct follow-up investigations into protest-related police misconduct and systemic policy problems, the monitoring team will act as an auditor, said Monisha Harrell, the court’s deputy monitor. “Our ultimate goal is to not exist,” she told PubliCola. “If the system is working well, then we aren’t needed. So we look for cracks in the system.”

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Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

The city has nominally met Robart’s standards before: In 2018, the judge ruled that Seattle was in “full and effective” compliance with the terms of the consent decree. But less than a year later, Mayor Jenny Durkan and the city council approved a contract with the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG)—the largest police union in the city—that undercut an array of reforms to SPD  accountability. After outcry from accountability advocates, Robart decided that Seattle no longer met the court’s expectations for police accountability and discipline, leaving the city partially out of compliance with the consent decree.

In his ruling, Robart directed the City Attorney’s Office (CAO) to submit plans to restore the accountability reforms by July 2019. More than a year later, the city not submitted a plan. Nevertheless, in early May of 2020, City Attorney Pete Holmes filed a motion to cut back the court’s oversight of SPD, contending that SPD had “transformed itself” under the federal court’s oversight. But Robart never ruled on the city’s motion to end some portions of the consent decree, because the city withdrew the motion shortly after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers on May 25 sparked citywide protests.

City Attorney Pete Holmes, who represented the city during Thursday’s hearing, told the court that the protests were a “stress test” for SPD’s accountability structure. However, Holmes pointed to a letter published by Interim SPD Chief Adrian Diaz on Wednesday—entitled “Surpassing Reform: SPD’s Commitment to Accountability and Transparency”—as evidence of the “spirited tenacity of SPD to provide safety and constitutional policing even in the midst of the pandemic.” Holmes also expressed his belief that the accountability agencies—the Office of Police Accountability (OPA), Office of the Inspector General (OIG), and the Community Police Commission (CPC)—are “living up to the test” presented by SPD’s protest response. Continue reading “Federal Judge: Seattle’s Path to Compliance With Consent Decree Still Unclear”

Activists Criticize SPD Process for Approving Protest Policy Changes

By Paul Kiefer

On Tuesday night, Seattle’s Community Police Commission held a town hall to field responses to the Seattle Police Department’s proposed changes to their use-of-force and crowd management policies. The meeting was a rare opportunity for activist leaders to ask SPD representatives about the department’s policies and tactics; during a tense two-hour conversation, those activists pointed out that the lack of access to SPD leadership is itself a barrier to accountability.

Some of the proposals include the creation of a special team to investigate use of force at protests and allowing officers to use pepper-ball launchers as an alternative to blast balls, which can hurt protesters standing near the person an officer is trying to target. (The policies would not entirely prohibit officers from using blast balls.)

The CPC’s last public event was 2015, when the commission hosted a gathering to hear the concerns of protesters who had joined the post-Ferguson Black Lives Matter protests in Seattle. Tuesday’s gathering took a very different form: instead of public comment, the town hall paired a panel of police accountability and abolition activists—Nikkita Oliver, Travonna Thompson-Wiley of Black Action Coalition, Le’Jayah Washington from Colorful Communities and Braxton Baker from the Seattle Group for Police Accountability—with three SPD representatives.

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Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

The CPC arranged the town hall at the last minute; SPD had previously planned to stop taking public feedback by January 8, but the CPC pushed the deadline back to make time for the event.

SPD Assistant Chief Lesley Cordner, who presented the proposed changes to the CPC in December, said the goal of the policy changes is to reduce SPD’s “footprint” at future protests and “target individual law-breakers” in a crowd instead of breaking up otherwise peaceful protests. According to Cordner, the changes would bring the department’s official policies up-to-date with tactical adjustments SPD made after last summer’s protests.

However, any formal changes to SPD’s policies require the approval of the federal judge that oversees the department’s reform efforts. To get that approval, SPD first needs to solicit feedback from the city’s accountability agencies and the public. Before the CPC arranged the town hall, SPD only planned to gather public feedback through an online form posted to their blog in December.

In her initial remarks, Cordner told the panel that SPD reviews and reworks its policies every year; she added that the department considers public input for every round of policy changes, though she didn’t explain how the department has gathered that input in the past.

Cordner’s comments caught the panelists off guard. “I find it pretty flagrant that SPD is parading this as some kind of accountability audit if this is the typical process that happens yearly,” Oliver said. “It’s concerning that I haven’t heard of this policy revision process before,” added Baker. “Because if it wasn’t for [advocacy by the CPC and other accountability groups], this town hall wouldn’t have happened.”

Others criticized SPD for releasing more than 100 pages of proposed policy revisions less than a month before the deadline for civilians to submit their feedback. “BIPOC communities were given only a scrap of time to put together their thoughts on the policy changes,” said Thompson-Wiley. “Meanwhile, the department has already started making the changes.”

At the end of the two-hour town hall, Boatright and the other SPD representatives told the panelists that they would “think hard” about their criticisms of the policies, though they did not give any indication that they would adjust their proposed revisions in light of the criticism.

Baker, however, ended his comments by calling for SPD to extend its deadline for feedback once again. “One town hall isn’t enough,” he said. “We need to hear from the victims who were affected by these policies before we can approve them.”

Police Accountability Agencies to Review SPD’s New Protest Policies

By Paul Kiefer

At the end of October, after months of criticism from the city council, police oversight bodies and protesters, the Seattle Police Department announced in a blog post that they had “undertaken significant changes” to their protest management tactics. The post promised that SPD would reduce its visible presence at demonstrations to help quell tensions; that their officers would respect the roles of journalists, legal observers and protest medics; and that their protest response would focus on de-escalation and, when necessary, target individual law-breakers instead of largely law-abiding crowds.

But for more than a month, that promise of changes to SPD’s use-of-force and crowd management tactics seemed hollow. To have any real significance or consequence, the changes need to be enshrined in SPD’s policy manual. An crucial early step in that process took place last Wednesday, when SPD Assistant Chief Lesley Cordner appeared before the Community Police Commission (CPC), the civilian oversight body tasked with providing input on police reform, to present a slate of proposed changes to SPD’s protest response and use-of-force policies.

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The proposed changes include an update to the manual emphasizing the importance of the right to protest and  acknowledging that “the unlawful acts of some members of a crowd do not automatically turn an assembly from peaceable to unpeaceable.” They would also create a special team to investigate use of force at protests; specifically forbid officers from placing their knee on the neck of a person they’re arresting (a response to a well-publicized incident at a protest on May 30th); and allow officers to use pepper-ball launchers to target individual protesters they believe are breaking the law as an alternative to blast balls, which can hurt protesters standing nearby.

Other proposed revisions would require SPD command staff who lead protest responses (incident commanders) to provide explanations after the fact for any decision to issue a dispersal order to a crowd, and requires the incident commanders a “reasonable effort to ensure that the order is heard or received.”

According to Cordner, the department brought the tactical changes into the field before consulting with Judge James Robart, the federal district court judge who oversees police reforms mandated by a 10-year-old settlement agreement between Seattle and the Department of Justice known as a consent decree. Any changes to SPD’s use-of-force or protest management policies require Robart’s stamp of approval. Cordner’s presentation to the CPC is a step in that direction: the CPC, as well as the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) and the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), will review the proposed changes and suggest edits before a final draft of the policy revisions goes before Robart.

In response to last summer’s protests, the CPC, OPA and OIG issued their own recommendations for changes to SPD policy. During her presentation, Cordner claimed that the proposed changes to SPD policy reflected many of the accountability partners’ recommendations, including those the CPC issued in August.

That is only nominally true:  the current draft revisions do not include many of the OPA and OIG’s most crucial recommendations, including a wholesale end to the use of tear gas for crowd control and greater restrictions on when SPD can declare an unlawful assembly. For its part, the CPC generally avoided suggesting specific policy changes; Cordner called the one clear policy proposal included in the CPC’s recommendations—that SPD document every decision to issue a dispersal order and make the documents public within 24 hours of an incident—an “infeasible” proposition.

The CPC will have a chance to ask Cordner questions about the current draft revisions during their regular twice-monthly meeting on December 16 and will respond and suggest their own changes next year. The OPA and OIG will also have opportunities to weigh in on the proposed changes. Both offices began reviewing SPD’s protest response policies to identify areas for improvement during last summer’s protests; those reviews will play a crucial role in shaping their suggested policy revisions.

After the CPC issues a response, they will work with SPD, the OIG, the OIG and other accountability leadership to piece together a final slate of policy revisions. That final draft will go before Judge Robart in early 2021; if he approves to the changes, SPD’s policies could catch up with what they say are already their current tactics next year.

 

After Appointment of New SPD Monitor, Experts Reflect on the Past and Future of the Consent Decree

New Consent Decree Monitor Dr. Antonio Oftelie. Photo via Leadership for a Networked World.

By Paul Kiefer

Merrick Bobb, who served for seven years as the court-appointed monitor for reforms to the Seattle Police Department mandated by the Department of Justice in a 2012 agreement between the city and federal government known as a consent decree, quietly resigned from his position on August 31.

In a letter explaining his decision, Bobb expressed dismay that SPD’s responses to this summer’s protests left him wondering whether “lessons learned and techniques trained under the consent decree were lost, or, at least, set aside.” Looking beyond the department’s protest response, Bobb also pointed to SPD’s “‘bizarre and arcane’ discipline and accountability systems” (referring to the language of one of his team’s earlier reports on SPD) as another primary reason for the department to remain under federal oversight.

US District Judge James Robart appointed Dr. Antonio Oftelie, a fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, to replace Bobb as monitor. Robart appointed Monisha Harrell, the board chair of Equal Rights Washington and a (now outgoing) Community Police Commission commissioner, as deputy monitor. In a new order on Monday, Robart also appointed two associate monitors: Matthew Barge, a senior consultant at the Policing Project at the New York University School of Law, and Ronald Ward, a Seattle attorney who served as deputy monitor alongside Merrick Bobb.

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Oftelie is stepping into the monitor role at a time when the position demands a heavier hand than Bobb has provided since Robart ruled that the city was in compliance with the consent decree in 2018. After that ruling, Bobb said in an interview with KUOW’s Ross Reynolds on Thursday, he believed that his “job was done” as the monitor. “We’d brought the department to that point [of compliance].” But Bobb added that SPD’s protest response made it clear that “there needed to be a new monitor and new team to deal with new facts on the ground.” In that interview, Bobb did not mention that Robart ruled that the city had fallen partially out of compliance with the consent decree in May of last year because of accountability-related concerns.

Oftelie says that police accountability will be one of his priorities as monitor. In an email to the Seattle Times this week, Oftelie specifically said that his team’s focus will be on “SPD’s accountability and transparency structures”—the Office of Police Accountability (OPA), the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), and the CPC. But according to some local accountability experts, Oftelie’s proposal to reassess the city’s accountability structures will unnecessarily retrace the steps of longtime accountability advocates while real accountability reforms continue to languish. Continue reading “After Appointment of New SPD Monitor, Experts Reflect on the Past and Future of the Consent Decree”