Seattle PD has achieved ‘full, sustained and lasting compliance’ with federal regulations, judge rules

The judge freed the department from federal oversight in a move he called “the end of the beginning” of Seattle police reform

Seattle police.jpg

Borrowing a quote from Winston Churchill, U.S. District Judge James Robart said his ruling marks “the end of the beginning” of police reform in Seattle.

AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File

By Mike Carter
The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — After 11 years, three police chiefs and more than $200 million, a federal judge ruled the Seattle Police Department has achieved “full, sustained and lasting compliance” with most of the provisions of a federal settlement agreement that was intended to transform SPD.

The judge’s ruling, announced at a hearing Wednesday morning, is a landmark for the city and SPD and serves to essentially end court oversight of police reforms in Seattle, with the exception of two areas: U.S. District Judge James Robart said he would retain jurisdiction over the key areas of crowd control, including tactics and use of force, and officer accountability.

Robart was clear that it has been a winding and difficult path to compliance with the federal consent decree, established with an agreement between the U.S. Department of Justice and Police Department in 2012. Borrowing a quote from Winston Churchill, he said his ruling marks “the end of the beginning” of police reform in Seattle.

Robart, a senior judge who has had the final say on sweeping reforms reaching into every aspect of Seattle policing, from citizen stops to the use of deadly force, did not provide details of his order, which he said will be made public Thursday.

“This is a day to celebrate,” said police Chief Adrian Diaz, who attended the hearing with several members of SPD’s command staff. “The judge highlighted the hard work of the officers.”

Mayor Bruce Harrell, in a statement, said the judge’s ruling “is a critical milestone in our efforts to reform policing.

“It recognizes the significant changes in our approach to crime, behavioral health incidents and professional standards. I am grateful for the excellent work of our police officers that brought us to this point,” he said. “I am also thankful for the people of Seattle who have, from the beginning of this journey 12 years ago, wanted a police service that is fair, respectful and effective in keeping everyone safe in every neighborhood.”

It was clear Wednesday that the department’s handling of police accountability — one of the key issues that led to the implementation of the consent decree and has been at the center ever since — will remain under the court’s jurisdiction.

In a major blow to the city in 2019, Robart found the city had fallen partially out of compliance with the consent decree just as it was preparing to seek its resolution. His decision was partly the result of the City Council’s approval of a police contract that year that undermined a sweeping accountability ordinance the council had passed in 2017.

The rank-and-file police union contract expired in 2020, and the city and union have been negotiating ever since. Robart, meanwhile, had suggested at a May hearing that he’s unlikely to release the SPD from federal oversight on the accountability issue until the city restores the parts of the ordinance eroded by the last union contract.

On Wednesday, in pointed comments, Robart said he does not believe issues of discipline and accountability should be topics of collective bargaining — comments city officials agreed amounted to a “shot across the bow” of negotiations between the city and Seattle Police Officers Guild.

Robart said he is very limited in his ability to intervene in collective bargaining, the exception being when a contract might interfere with what the court believes is necessary for constitutional policing. There is precedent: When the union attempted to negotiate the use of body and dash cameras at the outset of the reforms, Robart ordered their use.

“They should be able to negotiate collective bargaining agreements,” the judge said. “The exception to that principle should be when a contract is used to lock in procedures” that inappropriately impact the disciplinary process or issues of officer accountability.

Robart, in remarks he claimed as “personal prerogative” after 11 years overseeing reforms, also spent part of Wednesday’s hearing lamenting misperceptions that the public have about police and what they can and cannot do, fueled by a steady stream of unrealistic television shows where actors, portraying police, routinely break the law and violate the Constitution. “Vigilante justice is glorified,” he said.

The public is misinformed by this and other unrealistic expectations of police and the legal system, making reform more difficult, he said. So, however, has the public’s “attitude about police violence,” which have combined to impact the ability of departments to recruit.

That said, the judge had high praise for the department and city, noting that use of force by SPD officers has been dramatically reduced, the city now has three independent police oversight agencies, officers are trained in crisis intervention and de-escalation, and stops and detentions are for the most part being conducted properly. Robart lauded the commanders and officers who have worked to implement sweeping changes and bring a significant measure of transparency to the department and its systems.

Last March, the Department of Justice had joined Seattle officials in asking Robart to find the city has complied with the bulk of the settlement agreement’s requirements.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kristen Clarke and Harrell proclaimed the SPD a “transformed organization” that has met most of the agreement’s core requirements.

Their motion asked Robart to find the SPD has reached “substantial compliance” with most of the settlement agreement’s requirements. Those requirements include model use-of-force policies, development and implementation of a sophisticated system intended to collect data and identify officers who may be having problems in their work, strong community participation and civilian oversight.

Harrell and Clarke, of the DOJ’s civil rights division, acknowledged in March that questions of sustained compliance remained in the areas of crowd control and officer accountability. They suggested to Robart that they enter into a modified “compliance agreement,” keeping those issues under the court’s jurisdiction — but only until the end of the year.

Robart did not indicate on Wednesday how long the court intends to continue oversight of those two issues.

The issue of crowd control was one the DOJ and city agreed should remain under federal purview, particularly given the SPD’s violent response to the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, where dozens of peaceful protesters were injured or exposed to pepper spray, blast balls and tear gas.

Robart had been skeptical of the city’s promise this spring that it would be able to achieve compliance in the area of officer accountability by the end of the year.

Another issue, biased policing, was added to the mix when Robart took the joint DOJ and city motion under advisement in May. Civil rights division investigators had initially raised that area as troubling in their 2012 report, but it wasn’t addressed in the consent decree itself.

The judge pointed to SPD-commissioned studies that showed disturbing racial trends in the use of force, although the data indicated the use of force department-wide is down significantly from 2012. The report showed Black people remain seven times more likely than white people to be the subject of police force. They’re also five times more likely to be stopped and questioned by an officer, according to the report.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, in its own filing, questioned whether the SPD should be released from related consent decree provisions, as did the attorneys for Anthony Sims, a Black man who sued the SPD for stopping him at gunpoint while he was making a delivery downtown. They filed a friend of the court brief urging Robart to review the case as he deliberated the fate of the consent decree.

Last month, another federal judge determined the SPD violated Sims’ civil rights by unnecessarily searching his trunk during the stop and said there’s evidence he was stopped because of his race.

Robart did not address the case in his remarks, and concluded the department was in compliance with the bias-free policing requirements addressed in the consent decree.

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