City, Justice Dept. in mediation over police changes
The city and the Department of Justice are engaged in intense talks with a mediator as they attempt to reach an agreement to bring about sweeping changes in the Seattle Police Department.
Seattle Times staff reporters
After months of unfruitful talks, city officials and the Department of Justice are engaged in intense negotiations with a mediator as they attempt to reach an agreement to bring about sweeping changes in the Seattle Police Department, Mayor Mike McGinn said Thursday.
"Even without the mediator, progress is being made," McGinn said of the effort to resolve the Justice Department's finding that police officers routinely use excessive force.
The mediator, identified as Teresa Wakeen, is highly regarded in her field and was immediately acceptable to both sides, according to sources familiar with the talks. Reached at her office Thursday, Wakeen said she could neither "confirm nor deny" her role in the talks and declined further comment.
According to her website, Wakeen, the president of Wakeen & Associates in Seattle, has successfully mediated more than 4,000 disputes nationwide since 1992.
Federal officials declined to comment on the talks, even as the city's negotiating team was seen taking a lunch break outside the federal courthouse in Seattle on Thursday.
Meanwhile, the community groups that had pressed for a Department of Justice investigation of the Police Department denounced the pace of the negotiations and demanded a place at the negotiating table.
At a news conference Thursday, the Minority Executive Directors Coalition and its Multi-Racial Task Force on Police Accountability dealt the mayor a blow, saying its members would stop cooperating with efforts by the Police Department to implement its own reform plan, called "20/20" for 20 changes in 20 months, until the plan has some mechanism to enforce its changes, preferably a court-enforceable consent decree.
Their comments came six months after the Justice Department released findings that the Police Department engages in a "pattern and practice" of using excessive force, mostly against minorities and the chemically or mentally impaired. The investigation also found unsettling, but inconclusive, evidence of biased policing.
Both sides promised quick action to resolve the problem and avoid a federal lawsuit that could force changes. However, once talks began, they have been strained and difficult, sources have said.
The delay has worn on the communities of color, and their leaders Thursday said they feared the people most likely to be the victims of police abuse have been cut out of a process in which they have made 95 recommendations to the Justice Department and McGinn.
"Let's be clear, it is a travesty of justice to lock out the very people most directly affected by police misconduct from taking part in the ongoing consent-decree negotiations,"said Jaime Garcia, a coalition member and the executive director of Consejo Counseling and Referral Services. "We need to have a seat at the negotiating table with the Department of Justice and the city of Seattle."
Jennifer Shaw, the deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, said she was reminded of a saying: "If you're not at the table, you're on the menu."
She said a number of meetings over the months with both the Justice Department and the mayor's office have proved unsatisfying.
"We've had a lot of 'thank you for comings,' and 'We'll see you later,' comments," Shaw said. "So I think now is the time we need to be invited and allowed to fully participate with both the city and the Department of Justice."
Later in the day, Shaw called bringing in a mediator "a constructive step" that she hopes will "lead to a much-needed agreement to have a consent decree with a court-appointed monitor for reforming police practices in Seattle."
However, the Rev. Harriett Walden, who heads Mothers for Police Accountability and is co-chairwoman of the police-accountability task force, said the fact the group was unaware that a mediator was involved in the negotiations only underscores the need for community involvement in the talks.
According to a source, a proposal to try mediation initially was made several weeks ago by Terrence Carroll, a retired judge who has served as a mediator. The idea was passed along to City Attorney Pete Holmes then to McGinn.
Carroll said Thursday he suggested to the parties that mediation would be a "good idea."
Shaw called for both sides to make public copies of the documents they've been negotiating — a proposed Justice Department consent decree and a response by the city.
The city has refused to turn over its response to this point, delaying a public disclosure request from The Seattle Times while waiting for the Justice Department to decide if it will object.
"Our concern is not, 'Who do we trust more?' " Shaw said. "It's a little hard to know who to trust when you don't know what's being discussed."
Perhaps most unsettling to the community groups — and a driving force behind the public push to be involved in the negotiations — was the city's stance in a federal civil-rights case against a police officer who threatened to "beat the (expletive) Mexican piss" out of a prone Latino man and stepped on the man's hand during a robbery investigation two years ago.
In recent filings in the lawsuit filed by the Latino man, Martin Monetti Jr., the city defended the officer's actions and said the offensive language was not racist, but rather a department-condoned control technique.
The Justice Department, in its proposal to the city, has asked the Police Department to bolster training and add 54 sergeants to improve supervision, according to a confidential city memorandum previously disclosed by The Times.
McGinn responded with the city's "20/20" plan, announced in March, which U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan labeled a "framework" that lacked substance to assure changes would be made.
On Thursday, the community groups called the plan "vague" and said they were not going to cooperate with the department in its implementation until it is fleshed out and, more importantly, contains an enforcement mechanism.
The mayor, when he announced the plan, said residents would be able to track its progress on the Police Department's website. A review of the site Thursday showed the last update had been posted May 1.
McGinn met last week in Washington, D.C., with Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, who oversees the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.
McGinn said Thursday that limited talks had preceded the visit, and that his discussion with Perez got the Justice Department back to negotiations and engaged in intense talks.
"We've always been eager to talk," he said.
McGinn said he hoped to keep working with the community groups regarding the "20/20" plan, and to eventually include them in the discussion of a settlement.