Federal judge gives city blunt warning: Fix major lapses in SPD reforms or face years of scrutiny
A federal judge made clear the city must fix continuing problems in the Police Department, including recording of essential patrol-car audio and video and the collection of computerized data to track use of force, officer conduct and other vital information in the police department.
Seattle Times staff reporter
An exasperated federal judge warned Thursday that the Seattle Police Department could be under court supervision until 2019 unless it significantly improves the progress of reforms that have lagged as a result of missed deadlines and mismanagement.
“What will not be tolerated is a lack of will,” U.S. District Judge James Robart said during a 2 ½-hour hearing in which he bluntly listed “areas of concerns to me” and lamented breakdowns in the city’s 2012 agreement with the Department of Justice to curb excessive force and biased policing.
The landmark agreement set a five-year timetable for the city to be in compliance.
But Robart made clear that won’t happen until the city fixes continuing problems in the recording of essential patrol-car audio and video, the adequate staffing of sergeants to carry out front-line supervision and the collection of computerized data to track use of force, officer conduct and other vital information.
Speaking in stern but measured tones, Robart said there will no further changes to deadlines without his approval.
Robart also referred to problems in the police-disciplinary system, saying they “exploded earlier this year” when it was revealed that Interim Police Chief Harry Bailey had overturned misconduct findings against seven officers, one of whom had his finding reinstated after public outcry.
Robart said he didn’t plan to revisit the cases, but cautioned that in the future, notwithstanding the department’s labor contracts, he reserved the right to unilaterally change unconstitutional results as a “last resort.”
City and federal attorneys sought to allay Robart’s concerns, saying the new city administration under Mayor Ed Murray had worked hard since taking office to correct problems he inherited from the previous regime.
“There has been a marked change in the last 90 days,” U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan told Robart, building on major accomplishments regarding rules and training that will materially change what happens in the street.
Durkan also urged some forbearance, noting that flexibility was needed to “hard-bake” complex and difficult changes.
“It is a marathon, not a sprint,” she said.
Over recent months, the Police Department has adopted sweeping new polices on use of force, biased policing, crisis intervention, stop-and-frisk and an early-warning system to identify and mentor problem officers. Much of the emphasis will shift to training, along with new policies to bolster the internal-accountability system due in June.
City attorneys told Robart the Police Department, under a new compliance bureau, is pushing hard to reverse past foot dragging, meet new deadlines and develop a revamped accountability system that addresses what led to the reversal of the misconduct findings.
In closing remarks, Assistant City Attorney Sarah Morehead said officials are dedicated to developing a national model for constitutional policing, and Deputy Mayor Hyeok Kim stressed that Murray had set a new tone based on collaboration rather than conflict.
Merrick Bobb, the federal monitor overseeing implementation of the reforms, said he agreed that a “new spirit of cooperation” had been forged with the city, but added that it’s still unclear whether the Police Department is on track to comply with the court requirements.
He said there was still a question whether old fights within the department could be put aside in favor of dealing with the “deep and serious problems” cited by Robart.
To underscore the challenges, Bobb pointed to a detective’s fatal shooting of a bank- robbery suspect Thursday, saying the director of the Police Department’s Office of Professional Accountability was “shunted to the side” at the scene.
Deputy monitor Peter Ehrlichman recounted recent problems with a police sergeant who, twice within weeks, failed to log on to his patrol car’s audio-video system, leaving no recordings when use of force occurred during both shifts.
“One failure is one failure too many,” Ehrlichman said.
On Monday, Bobb sent a 10-page memorandum to city officials regarding a new computer-and-data management system that must be in place before the city can achieve compliance with the federal mandates.
City Council President Tim Burgess, on his blog, wrote: “The opening paragraphs of this memorandum are a stunning indictment of current practices and systems.
“The Seattle Police Department (‘SPD’) currently lacks data to access officer performance; manage constitutional violations; identify misconduct; manage the risk of litigation and liability; hold supervisors and managers accountable; and identify and reward those who are best at community based policing, communication, and constitutional, respectful, and effective law enforcement ... Furthermore, SPD’s existing database platforms make data retrieval and analysis time-consuming and frequently unreliable.”
Bobb noted the Police Department was about 20 years behind major law-enforcement agencies in tracking, managing and analyzing officer performance.
“For such a high-tech city,” Burgess wrote, “this is unacceptable. It reflects a major failure of the Police Department’s leadership for many, many years.”
In an interview after the hearing, Murray said, “I agree with the judge that reform is moving at a glacial pace.”
Murray said he was particularly concerned about problems capturing in-car audio and video, as well as delays in setting up a temporary computer system to collect data before a permanent one is completed. He said he was disappointed to hear Bobb’s account of the shooting scene Thursday.
His administration, he said, has a lot of work to do to meet the judge’s expectations.
“I have no disagreement,” he said. “It’s now my problem.”
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org
On Twitter @steve Miletich