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Originally published August 21, 2013 at 7:45 PM | Page modified August 21, 2013 at 8:45 PM

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Judge is asked to delay new use-of-force policy for Seattle police

The fledgling Community Police Commission is asking the federal judge overseeing reforms in the Seattle Police Department to postpone implementing a new use-of-force policy to allow more time to review it.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The Community Police Commission (CPC) is asking the federal judge overseeing reforms in the Seattle Police Department to postpone implementing a sweeping new use-of-force policy because the community and the department’s rank-and-file haven’t had enough time to review it.

In a letter to U.S. District Judge James Robart, the CPC is seeking a two-month delay in the Aug. 31 implementation of the new policy, which is the top priority of the city and the court-appointed monitor overseeing the reforms.

The federal monitor, Merrick Bobb, presented the draft policy to the CPC earlier this month and, according to the letter, offered the commission a chance to gather and give comment on Aug. 8. The deadline was set when the city and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) entered into a federal settlement agreement over police reforms a year ago.

“We are deeply concerned that the time allotted is insufficient to ensure our considered review and will not serve the reform effort or the intent of the Court in establishing the CPC as a vehicle for community input,” wrote CPC acting director Betsy Graef in a letter filed with the court Wednesday.

The letter said Bobb intends to approve the new policy at the end of the month.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office said it would not oppose a delay in the deadline.

“We plan to ask the court to extend the deadline for public comment, including from the CPC and unions, so that everyone has sufficient time to review the policies and make recommendations,” said Executive Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Bates. “We need to make sure reform efforts — and the deadlines that were created as part of Monitoring Plan — stay on track while doing everything we can to get reform right. The community’s input will help us get it right.”

Bobb said he would be willing to go along with a “reasonably short extension” to the deadline. Mayor Mike McGinn’s office likewise said, “We have no position on a timeline.”

The final decision on any delay belongs to Robart.

The policy is key to the reform efforts at the SPD and would completely overhaul the SPD’s current rules on when and how officers use force, from their fists to their firearms.

Where the department’s current policy is about five pages long, the new policy is 70 pages and includes “core principles” that state the community expects police to use the minimal force necessary to accomplish their job.

The sweeping new policy is central to addressing issues identified in a DOJ investigation that found Seattle police routinely use unnecessary and unconstitutional force during arrests, most often against the mentally ill or chemically impaired.

It found that SPD officers often escalate minor situations into incidents that require force, and then use a lot of it. The DOJ cited the improper use of impact weapons like batons and flashlights, and incidents where several officers would subdue an individual, often resulting in injuries, and situations where force was used against individuals merely for mouthing off.

The department’s use-of-force reporting mechanism was also faulted, and the DOJ said the city’s Office of Professional Accountability, which investigates police misconduct, was broken.

Last year, after intense negotiations, the city and DOJ entered into a settlement agreement. Bobb, the court-appointed monitor from Los Angeles, is overseeing changes that are expected to take years to fully bring about.

The new force policy, for instance, specifically tells officers that, when time and safety allow, they should do everything possible to de-escalate potentially violent situations. For the first time, the policy will specifically describe when and how officers can use less-than-lethal weapons such as Tasers, beanbag guns or impact weapons.

Officers will also, for the first time, be required to report when they point a firearm at someone.

It is because of the very fact that the proposed policy is so crucial to the reform effort that CPC officials want more time to talk about it before it is adopted and implemented — even though use-of-force is not a topic the CPC was necessarily intended to address, according to its charter.

Mostly, the CPC’s job is to ensure “community engagement” and address issues of accountability with the SPD, including a hard look at the OPA.

“We just don’t think this is enough time for us to go through this and ensure the community has an adequate chance to respond,” said CPC co-chair Diane Narasaki.

“The use of force is the very reason the DOJ investigated, and that is what led to the formation of the CPC,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense for us not to review the policy that is key to the reason we are here in the first place.”

Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or mcarter@seattletimes.com

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