Policing accord stirs guarded optimism
"We have a lot of good words on paper, but what really is going to matter is how it's implemented," said ACLU spokesman Doug Honig, one of those reacting Friday to the hard-fought agreement reached by the city of Seattle and the Department of Justice to address the issues of biased policing and use of force.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Nineteen months ago, 34 community organizations ranging from El Centro de la Raza to the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington asked the Department of Justice to investigate the Seattle Police Department for biased policing and excessive use of force.
Late Friday, these community groups got their first look at the hard-fought agreement between the city and the Justice Department (DOJ), under which a federal-court judge will oversee years of reform. The groups greeted the agreement with cautious optimism.
"What we have is a starting line," said Doug Honig, a spokesman for the ACLU. "But now the marathon begins. ... We have a lot of good words on paper, but what really is going to matter is how it's implemented."
The agreement, negotiated behind closed doors, was a closely guarded secret. It was unveiled to the media about 3:30 p.m. Friday. The DOJ invited the community groups to a briefing at 4:30 for their first opportunity to look at about 100 pages of documents. Mayor Mike McGinn invited the groups to another briefing on Saturday.
The agreement puts in place a federal monitor, who will issue reports every six months for up to five years.
It calls for the creation of a Community Police Commission that will include representatives from minority groups, faith organizations and youth groups, among others. The commission will review reports and make recommendations through the course of the reform effort.
But, noted Chris Stearns, chairman of the Seattle Human Rights Commission, "There's no requirement that the city or the Justice Department take any of the recommendations."
While he called the settlement a "step in the right direction," he said it fell short of the sweeping changes the community was after in the first place. For instance, Stearns said, it does not require wholesale changes to the way officers are disciplined.
And instead of delving into the question of whether the SPD engaged in biased policing, it requires the department to revise its policies and training on the subject.
"Those are important," Stearns said. "But those weren't the major changes the community was after."
Moreover, Stearns said, the SPD emphatically states in the agreement that it admits no wrongdoing. "I think at the end of the day, you still have two different world views," he said.
City Councilmember Bruce Harrell, chair of the council's public-safety committee, said Friday that he had some questions, as well.
"I remain concerned over whether the Police Department and the community will embrace the consent decree, given how it was negotiated," Harrell said, noting that neither police nor council members were included in negotiations.
The police officers' union, on the other hand, said it was pleased with the agreement. Although the union "had hoped that the city of Seattle would force the DOJ to go to court to prove their allegations, we understand the need to get this issue resolved," Sgt. Rich O'Neill, president of the Seattle Police Officers' Guild, said in a statement.
Councilmember Tim Burgess, a former Seattle police officer, said the agreement marks a turning point for both the community and the department.
What's different from past reform efforts is the appointment of a federal monitor, overseen by a federal judge. "It brings muscle to make sure we do it right," he said.
"Public safety is the No. 1 priority of government," Burgess said. He echoed what city and Justice Department leaders said in the Friday news conference, that now "the real work toward fair and effective policing begins."
Maureen O'Hagan: 206-464-2562 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Seattle Times reporters Steve Miletich, Lynn Thompson and Mike Carter contributed to this report.