Federal judge wants more say over Seattle police reforms
The changes will affect almost every aspect of how police officers interact with citizens, from casual contact to the use of deadly force.
Seattle Times staff reporters
The federal judge overseeing a historic settlement between the city and the Department of Justice to curb excessive force by the Seattle Police Department said he wants more say in picking the monitor who will track reforms and more frequent reports on how the changes are working.
On Friday, U.S. District Judge James Robart in Seattle gave his provisional approval to the settlement, starting the clock on several deadlines, including the selection of the monitor and the formation of a Community Police Commission that will play a key role in suggesting many of the reforms.
Robart expressed concern about ceding such important duties to "an entity that has not been created" and said the commission's formation and membership "would require the vigilance of the court."
But it was the qualifications, funding and appointment of the monitor that Robart said was the court's top priority.
Both sides now have 60 days from Monday to agree on a monitor and submit a name to the court. Robart questioned whether that was enough time, saying he had spoken with other judges nationally who have overseen similar police-reform agreements and emphasized the importance of a monitor.
"I view this as the linchpin to making this work," the judge said of the monitor's role.
Robart likened the requirements of the job to the talents of "a lawyer ... a deputy chief, a deputy mayor and being able to change his clothes in a phone booth."
The agreement, announced July 27, grew out of the Justice Department's demand for changes after a series of high-profile clashes between citizens and police, including the fatal shooting of woodcarver John T. Williams in 2010. It calls for the monitor to make twice-yearly public reports to the public and court.
Call for more reports
"That's not going to work," the judge said, suggesting that quarterly or even monthly reports might be necessary.
Robart also sought assurances that the monitor was going to have an adequate staff and budget.
During an hourlong court hearing Friday afternoon, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Diaz and Assistant City Attorney Jean Boler outlined the settlement agreement, calling it a "fair, adequate and reasonable" way to resolve the Justice Department's contention that Seattle police routinely use excessive force and exhibit troubling signs of biased policing.
Robart asked about the clouded status of the civilian director of the Police Department's Office of Professional Accountability, saying he was concerned about that situation in a unit that oversees internal investigations.
Boler replied that the mayor's office planned next week to reappoint Kathryn Olson and submit her name to the City Council for confirmation. Olsen's initial three-year term expired in May 2010 and she has been working without required council confirmation since then.
Jennifer Shaw, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, said Friday that the city should consider placing a limit, perhaps six months, on Olson's tenure until the commission has an opportunity to make its recommendations.
Robart's acceptance of the agreement represents just the beginning of a long process that will bring unprecedented outside oversight of the Police Department.
Among the challenges is lingering skepticism in the police union and rank-and-file over the changes. In the most recent issue of The Guardian, the newspaper published by the Seattle Police Officers' Guild, the lead headline states: "Consent Decree does not trump labor law."
City officials disputed the Justice Department's conclusions but agreed on the need for reforms to avoid a protracted federal civil-rights suit to compel the department to make changes.
Among the conditions of the agreement is that officers be specifically trained to use each weapon they carry and report any use of force. The more force used, the more detailed the reporting and the greater the scrutiny it will receive.
The agreement also calls for officers to look for ways to de-escalate confrontations and, within safe bounds, decrease their use of force.
In its findings, released in December, the Justice Department alleged that illegal force was most often used against people of color and those who were either mentally or chemically impaired.
As part of the settlement, the Police Department also will establish a Crisis Intervention Committee to focus on training, researching best practices, and providing officers with new and additional resources to deal with the mentally ill on the streets.
The Community Police Commission will review the monitor's reports to the court, hold public meetings, make recommendations to the city, and engage the community in police reforms. It also will review possible changes to the department's internal-investigations structure.
Mayor Mike McGinn will appoint the commission's members, who must be approved by the City Council.
The city also has agreed to set aside $100,000 to help hire the monitor, who will report to Robart.
Talks have already begun with a former monitor in Cincinnati, Saul Green, who has been under consideration for some time, according to sources. Green, a Detroit lawyer with considerable public-service experience, oversaw reforms of Cincinnati's police in the 2000s after a Justice Department investigation.
There, Green brought in a team to improve police practices, meeting considerable resistance from law enforcement. However, six years after he began, Green issued his final monitoring report and declared the process "one of the most successful police reform efforts ever undertaken."
Green served as a U.S. attorney in Michigan from 1994 to 2001 and as Detroit's deputy mayor for three years, resigning from that post last year.
Under the agreement, the Seattle Police Department must name a compliance coordinator to serve as a liaison between the police and the monitor and Justice Department.
Beyond these moves, the city pledged to provide "sufficient first-line supervisors" to assure that use of force is reviewed and documented, and that officers are assigned to a "single, consistent, clearly identified first-line supervisor."
The city also must take steps to deal with biased policing of minorities, even though the city officials at one point resisted incorporating that into a settlement.
The agreement would be in place for five years, possibly less if both parties agree the city and Seattle police have been in compliance for at least two years.
Although the agreement represents a significant turning point, the city did not admit to the Justice Department's findings but entered into the agreement to ensure that the Police Department is "functioning at an exceptional level and that it has positive relationships with all its communities."
The city already is pursuing its own "20/20" reform plan, which calls for 20 initiatives in 20 months.
The police guild, which has steadfastly rejected the federal findings, issued a statement when the settlement was announced, saying it wished the city had let the Justice Department sue. The union said litigation would have required the Justice Department to prove its allegations in court.
Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this story.
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or email@example.com
Information in this article, originally published Aug. 24, 2012, was clarified Aug. 25, 2012. A previous version of this story did not clearly describe the appointment process of Kathryn Olson as director of the Police Department's Office of Professional Accountability.