Tag: constitutional policing

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?”

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”