By Erica C. Barnett
The city of Seattle and officials from the US Department of Justice asked US District Judge James Robart to release the Seattle Police Department from federal oversight under a 2012 agreement known as the consent decree yesterday, asking Robart to find SPD in “substantial compliance” with the consent decree with the exception of two areas—crowd control and accountability—that the city says will finish addressing this year.
“After more than a decade of cooperation, the United States and the City of Seattle… agree that the Seattle Police Department (SPD) has implemented far-reaching reforms and achieved remarkable progress through the hard work and dedication of SPD officers and civilian staff at all levels of the organization and from extensive contributions by community members and leaders throughout Seattle,” the draft agreement says. Specifically, the motion cites improvements SPD has made to its policies on use of force, investigative (“Terry”) stops, bias-free policing, and supervision of officers.
The city has been under federal oversight since 2012, after a 2011 DOJ investigation found police had engaged in unconstitutional policing practices, including bias and excessive use of force, and that it lacked meaningful oversight and accountability mechanisms to address unconstitutional behavior by officers.
Since then, Judge Robart has repeatedly declined to rule that the city has complied with terms requiring the department to address the problems outlined in the consent decree, citing incidents of excessive force and the city’s failure to implement an effective accountability system.
In 2019, Robart ruled the city out of compliance with the consent decree after the council adopted, and then-mayor Jenny Durkan approved, a contract with the city’s main police union, the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG), that conflicted with historic police accountability legislation the council adopted the previous year.
And then, in 2020, police responded to protests against police bias and brutality by using force against protesters and tear-gassing Capitol Hill, prompting more than 19,000 complaints against the department.
The risk of a victory lap is obvious: The next time SPD uses force inappropriately or fails to be transparent about potential officer misconduct (as it has, most recently, with the January death of pedestrian Jaahnavi Kandula, who was struck by patrol officer Kevin Dave), the department could find itself back in Judge Robart’s crosshairs.
Although the agreement notes that the end of the consent decree will not end the department’s commitment to “continuous improvement” and ongoing reform, separate memos and statements from city officials make yesterday’s proposed agreement sound like a conclusive vote of confidence in SPD’s commitment to bias-free policing, accountability, transparency, and reasonable use of force going forward.
For example, the city’s official memo supporting the agreement, signed by City Attorney Ann Davison, calls SPD “dramatically transformed”—a department whose use of force “now presents a night-and-day contrast to the practices found by DOJ in 2011.” SPD’s dramatic use of force against people protesting against police violence in 2020 represented “one, temporary lapse” in the department’s reduced use of force in general, the memo says, and overall, “SPD’s hard work over the past decade has improved outcomes for the people of Seattle.”
The risk of a victory lap is obvious: The next time SPD uses force inappropriately or fails to be transparent about potential officer misconduct (as it has, most recently, with the January death of pedestrian Jaahnavi Kandula, who was struck by patrol officer Kevin Dave), the department could find itself back in Judge Robart’s crosshairs. Robart has demonstrated repeatedly that he’s willing to withhold a finding of full compliance and send SPD back to square one in the past, most recently after the 2020 protests, so overconfidence is probably ill-advised.
Many of the memos and statements supporting the new agreement, including a declaration by the city’s labor negotiator, Danielle Malcolm, explicitly mention the ongoing contract negotiations between the city and SPOG, highlighting the significant changes SPOG’s sister organization, the Seattle Police Management Association, accepted as part of their new contract in 2022. Those reforms included a higher burden of proof for arbitrators to overturn misconduct decisions; a change in policy that makes it harder for arbitrators to overturn the police chief’s disciplinary decisions, such as firing an officer for misconduct; and improved transparency into the arbitration process.
The implication is that any contract the city signs with SPOG will need to include similar reforms. However, the proof will lie in the contract itself; again, the city council, which included now-Mayor Bruce Harrell, adopted reforms in 2017, then immediately abandoned many of them in the SPOG contract it signed the following year.
The proposed short-term agreement acknowledges the police department still needs to make progress on “ensuring sustainable accountability and improving policy and practices for using force in crowd settings,” and commits SPD to adopting a revised crowd management policy and “alternative reporting and review process for force used in crowd settings”; in addition, the city will hire a consultant to make recommendations about the accountability system.
Many of the memos and statements supporting the new agreement, including a declaration by the city’s labor negotiator, Danielle Malcolm, explicitly mention the ongoing contract negotiations between the city and SPOG, highlighting the significant changes SPOG’s sister organization, the Seattle Police Management Association, accepted as part of their new contract in 2022.
According to a statement by SPD COO Brian Maxey, the changes to crowed management will include things like “meeting with event organizers ahead of a protest, maintaining a low-profile (less visible police presence) when feasible, and using social media to communicate information to protestors in real time.” Maxey also cites new officer trainings, including Before the Badge and a system called Outward Mindset, which was developed in Utah by the LDS-affiliated Arbinger Institute.
In a statement, Seattle City Councilmember and public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold said, “When I share the data that demonstrates SPD’s reduced rates of force use, I often hear concerns about growing racial disparities. I appreciate SPD’s commitment in the Agreement to identify, study, and work towards ‘eliminating policies and practices that have an unwarranted disparate impact on certain protected classes’ and ongoing work to ‘develop a plan that details the technologies, policies, and practices that it will seek to employ to reduce disparities in policing.'”
Critics of the consent decree have argued that it has, paradoxically, prevented the city from adopting reforms because substantial changes to the way the department functions, such as funding cuts or proposals to replace some police with civilians, would require approval by the federal monitor.
Once the consent decree is lifted in its entirety, which could happen later this year, the city’s Office of the Inspector General (established during the consent decree) will take over the bulk of the responsibility of ensuring SPD is complying with its commitments to reform—the so-called pillars of the consent decree.
This work could include providing more transparency into the work of the Force Review Board, which reviews serious uses of force, and expanding the scope of its investigations; doing a deeper dive into potential bias during stops and detentions; and making policy recommendations. The agreement notes that Harrell’s budget included funding for three new staffers at OIG—positions that will become permanent after the consent decree is lifted.