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Originally published July 17, 2012 at 9:01 PM | Page modified July 18, 2012 at 9:30 AM

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Dithering on police reform while gun violence erupts

If you believe City Attorney Pete Holmes, says columnist Danny Westneat, the feud between federal and city officials over the Seattle Police Department is about to boil over into a costly, avoidable lawsuit — and has cast a pall on both the police and the community.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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At a forum a month ago about Seattle's rising gun violence, I tried — and mostly failed — to get the mayor, the police chief and a city councilman to talk frankly about the festering fight over excessive force by police.

I had read an email from a Seattle cop who insisted the dispute between the city and the federal Department of Justice was causing rising crime. Police are either demoralized or unclear about the rules, the officer said, and so are working with one hand tied behind their backs.

"Is that officer correct?" I asked. "Are the police bollixed up in a big bureaucratic feud?"

The city leaders all told the crowd that no, it wasn't true. Police Chief John Diaz said his force is as engaged as ever. Mayor Mike McGinn said negotiations with the feds were progressing. And City Councilman Bruce Harrell said nobody was hamstrung by it at all.

Now the city attorney has exploded all of that.

If you believe City Attorney Pete Holmes, not only is the feud about to boil over into a costly, avoidable lawsuit, but it has cast a pall on both the police and the community. Plus, people are already using the unresolved allegations in lawsuits against the city.

"Times like these require strong leadership," Holmes wrote, all but pleading with the mayor and City Council to "re-engage" and solve this.

His letter is marked "attorney-client privileged," meaning it wasn't meant for public eyes. This is why it's probably true. Or at least closer to the mark than the soft soothings served up by others these past six months.

"Coordinated civilian leadership is urgently needed," Holmes wrote.

But Tuesday down at City Hall, there wasn't much urgency on display, let alone coordination. McGinn basically said he's staying the very course the city attorney just deemed a failure. Two men on the City Council said the mayor is clearly blowing it, but were murky on what could salvage the day instead.

"I think the longer this goes on, the more damage is done to our city," said Councilmember Tim Burgess. "Morale in the Police Department has plummeted. How can that be OK?"

At the core of the dispute is a very tricky issue. How much force can police use, and under what circumstances, to effectively fight crime while also respecting people's rights?

McGinn is right, in my view, that a reform as crucial as that won't work if it's imposed in a hurry without buy-in from most everyone.

But what's most damning about Holmes' letter is that it casts doubt, from the inside, on whether the city is even all that interested in any meaningful reform. He says the plan put forward by the mayor and the police was not only hollow, but driven by a "troubling victim narrative" in which the police are somehow the ones being bullied.

He also brings up depolicing — the notion that cops are lying low — and says that at least the perception that it's happening is both real and corrosive.

"The City cannot sympathize with such conduct; we should acknowledge it and refuse to condone it," Holmes wrote. Neither of those has happened.

The gist is that our leaders are dithering while we burn.

Tuesday, McGinn suggested he's worried police may not be able to combat gun violence effectively if he goes along with the Justice Department recommendations — that the new rules could unduly hamstring them.

That's a fair concern.

But it's also true there's a crisis happening right now that all this bureaucratic wrangling may be making worse. And that is that the shootings just keep coming. There was one in South Seattle on Monday. One in Belltown amid crowds of bar hoppers on Sunday. And one in Ballard on Saturday.

Another weekend in the city of endless debate.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

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