Mayor, police must lead to make fed deal work
Mayor McGinn was absolutely right to settle over Seattle police tactics. Not that all is settled. The big question now is: Will this work?
Seattle Times staff columnist
Making a deal with the feds over Seattle police tactics is the best thing — the most mature thing — our first-term mayor has done to date.
I don't imagine it was easy. Ever since the U.S. Department of Justice charged last year that police here use excessive force too often, Mayor Mike McGinn has been nitpicked by just about everyone — including me — for every imaginable flaw in his response.
The leading complaint was that he fundamentally didn't buy the gist of the feds' findings and intended, in headstrong fashion, to make them prove it all in court. To take the city to war with the federal government.
It was going to be like the downtown tunnel all over again. Our mayor against the world.
That would have been quite a contrast to, say, the mayor of New Orleans, who invited the feds to help reform that city's troubled Police Department.
But last week, McGinn cut a deal. Crucially, it appoints a monitor to oversee the practices of the Seattle Police Department, and gives a federal judge the power to order changes if the city balks at making them.
Nobody likes giving up control like that. By doing so, McGinn risks alienating the police, who have insisted the feds' case against them was overblown.
But the reason the New Orleans mayor chose to welcome the oversight was that it's all but impossible for an entrenched bureaucracy to change from within.
Our cops are nowhere near as out of control as the police were down in Los Angeles a decade ago, or as violent as they got in New Orleans. But a spate of incidents and growing mistrust in the neighborhoods were reasons enough to force police here to re-evaluate how they do business.
Rising violent crime in the city was also a clarion call to get the uncertainty of this dispute behind us.
So McGinn was absolutely right to settle. Not that all is settled. The big question now is: Will this work?
Recently, Oakland has been threatened with a total federal takeover of its Police Department, despite nine years of supervision through an agreement much like what Seattle just signed. Even after all that time, outside monitors say Oakland still fails at disciplining over-aggressive officers and continues to see record numbers of citizen complaints and lawsuits.
But federal minding of the Los Angeles police has been hailed as saving that department from itself. Three criminal-justice researchers for Harvard University concluded, in a landmark study in 2009, that a corrupt, violent police force there was completely transformed by a federal consent decree.
"We see a staggering scale of change," the authors concluded, citing both better crime-fighting by police and dramatically higher trust and satisfaction in the cops on the part of the public.
Tellingly, the study found the federal oversight led police to use force more intelligently. The number of times police used force fell every year after 2004, the study said. But police did not lay low on fighting crime, as has been feared here. Arrests went up, and more were "quality arrests" in that they led to charges being filed against the suspects.
"The Department responds to crime and disorder with substantial force, but it is scrutinizing that force closely and it is now accountable through many devices for its proper use," the study found.
Why did LA work out so well? It wasn't the words on paper, of the sort Seattle signed last week. It was an elusive quality that can't be ordered up by any judge.
"At best, federal oversight and a consent decree can keep shortcomings in view, but only police leadership and strong local governance can bring the changes," the study concluded.
Not always Seattle's strong suit, those last two. But there was a sighting of them last week. In the nick of time.
Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or email@example.com.
About Danny Westneat
Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
email@example.com | 206-464-2086