As she stood beside Mayor Mike McGinn and Police Chief John Diaz to present a 72-page document that describes how the Seattle Police Department will be reformed, u.s. Attorney Jenny Durkan called it “a Seattle solution.”
Seattle’s solutions are usually big on community meetings, scant on details and extensive in process.
The settlement Durkan presented July 27 is no different. The plan to resolve the Dec. 16 report from the Department of Justice (doj) that found Seattle police have a pattern and practice of excessive force disproportionately affecting people of color contains squishy language and yet another community commission.
Seattle has the next five years to implement reforms under the watchful eye of an independent, court-appointed monitor and a federal judge.
It’s one of some 30 such settlements hashed out among the doj’s Civil Rights Division and law enforcement agencies across the country. Each of these was prompted by alleged civil rights violations, and many have also included allegations of excessive force or biased policing.
But the details of Seattle’s settlement are unique. The agreement creates robust documenting and reporting requirements on uses of force, but it is weaker on regulating how police officers should behave in everyday situations. The agreement calls for a community police commission to recommend revisions to the police department’s bias-free policing policies, but it does not require the city to listen to the commission. There are guiding principles for police officers, but the language is murky and unenforceable.
Advocates who’ve long called for police accountability nonetheless say the mere existence of this consent decree is a win, even if it’s riddled with unknowns.
“This settlement is really a starting point for what’s going to happen over the next three, five, 10, 20 years,” said aclu attorney Jennifer Shaw. “We can celebrate a little bit and then get right back to work.”
A community police commission
The man seen as shutting out city councilmembers and the community in this process got praise for bringing people together. When city, police and doj officials announced the plan, Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general of the doj’s Civil Rights Division, gave Mayor Mike McGinn all the credit for the new community police commission, calling it “a signature component… which was your idea, Mayor” and predicted McGinn had set a precedent.
“Imitation is a form of flattery. I expect to see this elsewhere in the country,” Perez said.
The commission will form in 90 days, but little else is known about its size and membership.
It will need experienced members and plenty of resources, said Chris Stearns, chair of the city’s Human Rights Commission. It won’t do to have random community members on board who are unfamiliar with police accountability issues, Stearns said.
But even with experienced members and, ideally, staff to support them, the group is stuck in an advisory role.
“It can make recommendations to the monitor, mayor or city council, but there’s no teeth to that,” Stearns said. “Those are just recommendations. The city is free to disregard them if they want.”
Seattle’s forthcoming commission reflects a new direction for the doj, said Sam Walker, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska in Omaha and author of “The New World of Police Accountability.”
The only other settlement to include anything similar was filed in New Orleans just a week before Seattle’s. That settlement, the product of an incident in which officers shot six people while policing looters after Hurricane Katrina, calls for a community engagement campaign to build trust.
Police departments across the country have long been in need of better community engagement, Walker said.
“They come as no surprise,” he said of the agreements in Seattle and New Orleans, “and I think it’s a good thing.”
In New Orleans police will simply be required to do community engagement, but Seattle’s settlement is more specific, creating a large group with assigned tasks and the ability to make recommendations and reports to the city and police department.
In Seattle, the community police commission will form by October and will consist of representatives from the police department, faith communities, minority groups and community organizations.
spd will work with this commission to revise its bias-free policing policies. Some see this as a response to demands made by the Multi-Racial Task Force on Police Accountability, which called for more involvement in police reform in June.
“It means the mayor heard us,” said Jay Hollingsworth, a member of the task force and chair of the John T. Williams Organizing Committee. “The commission could morph into something permanent and have the power to maintain the public interest.”
Use of force
How the city will report and investigate uses of force is the largest section of the Seattle settlement, and it contains more details than settlements made in Los Angeles and New Orleans.
spd lacks data collection, and its investigations of use of force are weak, according to the doj’s Dec. 16 report.
To address this, the settlement creates three categories of use of force and calls for three different methods of reporting and investigation. A new Force Investigation Team and the existing Office of Professional Accountability will investigate more serious uses of force simultaneously.
Walker said the settlement shows practice is as important as theory.
“There’s an understanding that it’s more than a matter of having the best written policies in place,” he said. “It’s how they’re used. It’s how incidents are reported and investigated.”
Where’s the teeth?
Despite these measures, the consent decree has some apparent weaknesses. The language, in particular, reflects a lot of unknowns, advocates say.
Officers “should” use verbal warnings before using force, “should” de-escalate confrontational situations and “should not” use force against people who are verbally confrontational, according to the settlement. Seattle’s consent decree specifically says that the “shoulds” it outlines are not mandatory.
The consent decree in New Orleans outlines the same principles, but uses the word “shall.”
The difference is not lost on aclu attorney Shaw.
“The ‘shoulds’ seem to leave an awful lot of room,” she said.
u.s. Attorney Durkan said an independent monitor will provide the necessary enforcement. Within two months, the city will hire someone to examine the department, guide reforms and report to a federal judge. All this has to be done within five years, or the doj can extend the consent decree.
“We put into place a very firm framework and time frames,” Durkan said.
The fuzzier details didn’t concern Walker, who has been watching police reform across the country for decades.
“The city has to satisfy the monitor and the U.S. Justice Department. They’re not off the hook until those people agree,” Walker said. Of Seattle’s settlement, he said, “It’s got some real teeth.”
This is especially true because the consent decree mentions one item: Title VI, which gives the doj the authority to withhold federal funding of any kind to the city if it does not resolve the issue.
This includes pulling funding for science research, higher education or anything. “It’s like the nuclear weapon,” Walker said.
Things that are in the consent decree, like the feds’ ability to withhold funding, are ironclad because they have been settled in court.
But things outlined in the memorandum of understanding are not overseen by a federal judge. Through the memorandum of understanding, McGinn agreed to create, by executive order, the community police commission.
McGinn said he is committed to the commission, and he plans to be re-elected to carry out its purpose.
Even if he’s no longer in office, McGinn said the next mayor would be foolish not maintain the commission.
But there’s no law against acting foolishly.