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Originally published October 30, 2012 at 6:31 PM | Page modified October 31, 2012 at 10:46 AM

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'Stakes are very large' in reshaping Seattle police force, monitor says

Merrick Bobb, appointed Tuesday as the independent monitor to oversee Seattle police reform, says he is aware of resistance but hopes to move forward

Seattle Times staff reporters

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Merrick Bobb, the man with the task of putting Seattle's police reform in place, says he hopes everyone involved "rolls up their sleeves" to make the changes work.

It is also the time to let lingering differences surrounding the effort become "water under the dam," Bobb says.

In a telephone interview Tuesday, the 66-year-old consultant, whose groundbreaking work on police accountability dates to the 1991 beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers, offered his views on the challenges he faces in Seattle.

"The stakes are very large," he said.

Bobb spoke shortly after U.S. District Judge James Robart named him to serve as the independent monitor overseeing the city's settlement agreement with the Department of Justice, which calls for changes to curtail excessive force and address biased policing.

The appointment of Bobb, president of Police Assessment Resource Center (PARC), a nonprofit in Los Angeles, represented a watershed moment in Seattle's decadelong struggle to deal with police-accountability issues, which came to a head with an officer's unjustified fatal shooting of woodcarver John T. Williams in August 2010.

But, in keeping with various disagreements between the city and Justice Department that preceded the settlement, Bobb's appointment didn't occur without a last-minute fight. Mayor Mike McGinn, Police Chief John Diaz and police commanders opposed Bobb on the grounds a board member of his nonprofit helped write the Justice Department report in December that led to the settlement agreement in July.

After Seattle's ethics chief found no conflict of interest, the City Council forced the issue, voting 8-to-1 last week to join the Justice Department, which had made Bobb its top choice, in recommending him for the position. McGinn called the action a mistake, but reluctantly agreed to it.

Bobb, known for his rigorous standards in bringing about police reforms, said he is aware of the resistance.

"It will be overcome," he said, by people "hopefully seeing that I am a fair, honest and credible source of information."

In his application letter to the city, Bobb wrote that his nonprofit is "not an advocacy organization" and "sees itself as an honest broker providing counsel and advice on best practice and constitutional policing to all who are interested."

He also wrote that he listens to "what law enforcement has to say," and has established good relations with police and political officials where he has worked.

But, he added, "I do not hesitate to disagree if I must" and "I call them as I see them."

After Rodney King

Bobb, who earned his law degree at the University of California, Berkeley, and worked for years as a private attorney, served as deputy general counsel to eventual Secretary of State Warren Christopher on the so-called "Christopher Commission," which investigated the Los Angeles Police Department and spurred changes there after the King beating.

He went on to perform similar work involving the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and the Detroit Police Department before forming his nonprofit in 2001 and working with cities throughout the country.

His work, he said Tuesday, has been driven by a desire to "improve American policing" and the reward of seeing "marvelous results obtained in various communities."

The King beating, he said, created a "sea change" in policing, moving it from a suppression model to a community-policing model.

Bobb has carried out his work while dealing for about 10 years with Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that attacked the sheathing around his motor nerves. As a result, he was left paralyzed and uses a wheelchair.

The illness has not affected his stamina or other abilities, he said.

Bobb, whose city-funded pay and budget are still being worked out, will be surrounded by a monitoring team that includes Patrick Gannon, a former deputy chief in the Los Angeles Police Department who was recently named chief of the Los Angeles Airport Police Department; Seattle attorney Peter Ehrlichman; and Joe Brann, a former police chief in Hayward, Calif., and the first director of the Justice Department's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), which works nationally with law-enforcement agencies to improve community policing.

Brann served as a consultant to Seattle officials during the negotiations with the Justice Department.

"This is a critical milestone," Thomas Bates, executive assistant U.S. attorney in Seattle, said in a statement. "Mr. Bobb and his team are highly respected professionals and bring a wealth of law enforcement experience, including Chief Pat Gannon, who is third generation LAPD and one of the most respected law enforcement leaders in the country. The focus for everyone is coming together around meaningful reform and positive change."

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, who has led his department through sweeping court-supervised changes and who is credited with building strong community ties, said Tuesday that Bobb and Seattle should be a good fit.

Recalcitrance and suspicions are common among police at the beginning of the process, Beck said, noting Bobb has experience with that.

"The LAPD did not entirely buy into the findings of the Christopher report," Beck said. "Eventually, we came around to much of it."

"I've known Merrick his entire professional career," said Beck, whose department has used PARC to investigate and make recommendations about several issues, including some involving use of force. "I have tremendous respect for him and his work. He is a pioneer in the field."

Los Angeles lessons

Beck said he has spoken several times with Seattle Police Chief Diaz in recent months, mostly about how Los Angeles police navigated through a consent decree that went significantly further than the agreement in Seattle.

While some practices that worked in Los Angeles might not work in Seattle, Beck said, the fundamentals are the same: regaining the trust of the communities and addressing the issues in the department that contributed to the breakdown.

Beck said Seattle moved closer to those goals through Bobb's selection as the monitor and by involving Los Angeles civil-rights attorney Connie Rice, a renowned figure in the changes in that city's Police Department whom McGinn has tapped as an adviser.

In an email Tuesday, Rice wrote, "I have worked with Merrick Bobb for over 15 years. The Court and the city will find that he is a superb choice for monitor. His knowledge of and respect for policing is deep, and there is no one with a better understanding of why departments fail to meet constitutional standards — and what it takes to help them meet those standards."

In Seattle, Rice added, the challenge will be to bring all parties together.

Bobb, whose appointment could last up to five years, agreed, saying the settlement will be fulfilled only when there is "mutual trust" between Seattle's communities and the Police Department that make the city safer for all.

Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or smiletich@seattletimes.com

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