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Originally published Saturday, July 28, 2012 at 8:04 PM

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McGinn struck balance in DOJ accord for police reforms

Mayor Mike McGinn was called upon to balance long-standing community calls for police reform, his selection and continued support of Police Chief John Diaz, and an instinct to fight what he saw as unproven federal allegations.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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At a news conference Friday announcing the settlement of a U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit over Seattle police reforms, Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez joked that Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn's fingerprints were all over the agreement.

It was an acknowledgment of the mayor's intense engagement during the negotiations' final 10 days, but also a suggestion of his link to the rancorous, high-stakes debate of the previous eight months.

Since the Department of Justice (DOJ) said in December that Seattle officers routinely used unconstitutional force, and that it found troubling, if inconclusive, evidence of biased policing, McGinn has been at the center of a politically charged situation.

With the city facing a potentially expensive and damaging courtroom battle, McGinn was called upon to balance long-standing community calls for police reform, his selection and continued support of Police Chief John Diaz, and his own combative instinct to fight what he saw as unproven federal allegations.

McGinn ultimately agreed to federal demands to overhaul the Police Department's use-of-force policies, boost training and include measures to address biased policing in the settlement. The Justice Department, in turn, modified its proposals by not requiring, for example, costly changes in the oversight of internal investigations.

The agreement, subject to a federal judge's approval, keeps Diaz and his command staff in place.

At Friday's news conference, McGinn explained that three goals guided him throughout the negotiations: effective police reform, enhanced public safety and staying within Seattle's budget.

But by initially appearing to resist the Justice Department findings, McGinn alienated other elected officials and risked the support of community activists who helped elect him and who had asked for the federal investigation of the police.

In the end, McGinn was able to bring the community into the settlement by creating a Community Police Commission to help guide an independent, court-appointed monitor and ensure community involvement in the reform effort.

The settlement also addressed another of McGinn's key concerns: It held down the potential city costs by eliminating the DOJ call for a one-to-six ratio of sergeants to street officers. The agreement instead calls for the Police Department to provide sufficient supervisors to ensure that use of force is reviewed and documented, and that officers are assigned to a "single, consistent, clearly identified first-line supervisor."

Perhaps most important, the mayor avoided the "nuclear option" of forcing the DOJ to prove its case against the city in a lawsuit that would have involved revisiting the videotaped incidents of police use of force, many against minorities, that brought about the federal investigation.

McGinn also avoided a major distraction and a loss of political capital as the city and county councils prepare to vote on an agreement for a new Sodo arena, a deal he helped negotiate and has championed.

McGinn initially showed defiance in the face of the DOJ's findings of excessive use of force, siding with police in their complaint that the feds overstated the problem and failed to back up their claims with proof.

After several months with no apparent progress, the Justice Department in March handed the city a 107-page plan that included proposals to enhance oversight, expand training and add sergeants to improve front-line supervision. McGinn called the plan burdensome and said it could cost the city up to $41 million a year.

He largely shut out other elected officials from the DOJ negotiations. No members of the City Council attended the announcement of the settlement agreement. The three originally named to take part in negotiations, but who bowed out over frustration with McGinn, included Councilmember Tim Burgess, a former police officer and past chairman of the council's public-safety committee — and a potential McGinn challenger in the 2013 mayor's race.

McGinn seemed to thumb his nose at the U.S. attorney for Western Washington, Jenny Durkan, whose office investigated the allegations of excessive use of force and biased policing, by flying to Washington, D.C., in June and meeting directly with Perez. McGinn credited the direct talks with breaking the logjam.

A lawyer himself, McGinn seemed to endorse an aggressive and legalistic strategy in fighting the DOJ allegations. He relied on his staff attorney Carl Marquardt to craft responses to the feds. The city omitted measures that would deal with biased policing because, McGinn said, the Justice Department stopped short of reaching a separate finding on that issue.

McGinn also seemed to work only reluctantly with City Attorney Pete Holmes, a former chair of the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) Review Board, a citizen panel that reviews complaints against police.

The two have had frosty relations since Holmes filed a lawsuit to try to block a public vote on the Highway 99 tunnel after tunnel opponents, with McGinn's support, collected enough signatures to put the measure on the ballot last year.

Holmes wrote a sharply worded letter to the mayor this month warning that his legal strategy in the DOJ negotiations put the city on the verge of a civil-rights lawsuit.

It was Holmes' earlier recommendation that a mediator could help bring the city and Justice Department together and craft the settlement.

The mediator, Teresa Wakeen, said she "required the mayor's personal engagement" in addition to his city team, the City Attorney's Office and DOJ officials. She characterized McGinn's contributions as "collaborative and creative."

Wakeen and federal officials credited McGinn for the idea of a community commission. But community members are already questioning whether the commission will be any different from others over the past two decades whose recommendations for reform have produced few results.

There are no requirements the members have any expertise in policing. And it's not clear how the group will work with or supplant the existing OPA review board.

Still, Estela Ortega, executive director of El Centro de la Raza, one of the organizations that pressed for federal intervention, said she was pleased with the results.

"The fact is, we have a consent decree, we met the deadline and we have community involvement that can lead to meaningful discussions and other improvements."

Staff reporter Steve Miletich contributed to this report. Material from Seattle Times archives is included.

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or lthompson@seattletimes.com.

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