Feds cite breakdown in SPD reforms; mayor pledges changes
In a pointed letter to Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, two top federal attorneys said the city must work to correct problems inherited from the previous city administration.
Seattle Times staff reporter
The Seattle Police Department has failed to develop adequate plans to ensure sergeants have manageable workloads, according to federal attorneys, setting back a key element of a court-ordered consent decree to curb excessive force and biased policing.
The department also has failed to draft sufficient plans to train officers in new use-of-force policies, Jonathan Smith, a top Department of Justice (DOJ) civil-rights official in Washington, D.C., and Jenny Durkan, the U.S. attorney in Western Washington, wrote in a sharply worded letter sent last week to Mayor Ed Murray.
Work plans produced by the Police Department on Dec. 31 “were not serious attempts to move reform forward” and “dug us in a deep hole, from which we have had to climb out over the past two months,” the two officials wrote.
In addition, the city improperly inflated the costs of the reform effort to the extent it could “erode public support and trust for the process,” Smith and Durkan wrote in the three-page letter that underscored that the city faces a long road to compliance with the consent decree.
Smith and Durkan acknowledged that Murray “inherited” the problems from the previous city administration when he took office in January after defeating former Mayor Mike McGinn.
“We also recognize that, upon taking office, your administration made extensive changes to SPD’s command staff,” their March 27 letter said, expressing encouragement about some steps already taken.
But, they added, “While some delays are understandable as the new leadership gets up to speed, the reforms required by the consent decree cannot wait.”
“None of us can afford halfhearted efforts or box-checking measures,” the letter said.
Murray, in a response letter sent Tuesday, assured Smith and Durkan he shared their concern over “deeply troubling areas” even before receiving their letter, and that his administration was working hard to correct the problems.
“I cannot stress how appreciative I am of the DOJ’s recognition of the efforts we have made in the three months since taking office,” Murray wrote. “Nevertheless, as you rightly point out, there is much work to be done and we are committed to getting it done.”
The letter from Smith and Durkan came in advance of a court hearing set for Thursday, in which U.S. District Judge James Robart will get a report card on the reforms from the federal monitor, Merrick Bobb, who is overseeing implementation of the consent decree.
In a recent court filing, Bobb said the Police Department’s Dec. 31 submission to end the use of untrained acting sergeants and deploy a sufficient number of first-line supervisors did not “contain a sufficiently adequate plan,” despite some efforts to improve “unity of command.”
The department has until June 30 to meet the goal, Bobb wrote in the filing, which outlined his monitoring plan for the second year of the 2012 consent decree.
Murray wrote in his letter that a recently reworked action plan, developed by a newly formed compliance bureau in the department, was submitted to Bobb’s monitoring team March 21.
“We have received preliminary feedback that this was well received,” Murray wrote.
Bobb also cited delays in the department’s collection of computer data and the failure of some officers to activate shoulder microphones tied to the department’s in-car audio and video system in hampering efforts to track use of force.
The department has blamed the manufacturer of the system, while the maker has blamed officers for failing to turn on cameras and microphones, for not charging batteries and for resisting the policy that all incidents be recorded, according to the filing.
Whatever the problem, Bobb wrote, the department has agreed to resolve the issues by May 1.
It also has pledged, as a stopgap measure, to partially and then fully install by Sept. 30 a temporary computer-software program to collect data while a permanent system is completed, Bobb added.
Smith and Durkan, in their letter, referred to a Feb. 4 summit among the parties to the consent decree, calling the gathering a positive step forward.
Within the “spirit of that commitment,” the two officials wrote, they were “deeply” disappointed with the Police Department’s Dec. 31 work plans.
In particular, they wrote, “The relationship between first-line supervisors and line officers is recognized as one of the most critical elements of a well-functioning and accountable Department.”
In their comments on inflated reform costs, Smith and Durkan said McGinn’s administration included expenses for his “20/20” plan, which called for 20 reforms within 20 months, and for the city’s Race and Social Justice Initiative, even though they were “matters entirely unrelated” to the consent-decree process.
“It is unclear whether this was the result of sloppy accounting, or a purposeful attempt to stack costs and attribute them to the reform process,” they wrote.
While the public has a right to know the budgetary impact, it also is “owed accuracy,” they wrote, without citing specific monetary figures.
Both sides agreed in their letters on the importance of addressing the recent public controversy that resulted from the reversals of misconduct findings against seven officers, one of whom got his finding reinstated.
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org On Twitter @stevemiletich