Tag: Judge James Robart

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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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”

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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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 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.