U.S. attorney swings back at lawsuit filed by Seattle cops
U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan says Seattle police lawsuit challenging use-of-force policy is without merit and promises that reforms are under way and here to stay.
Seattle Times staff reporters
U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan says allegations by Seattle police that new use-of-force policies are putting officers and citizens in danger are groundless and she expects a lawsuit on the issue to be dismissed.
Durkan on Thursday defended the detailed policy, adopted in January and still being implemented, arguing that it was created “with the police, by the police and for the police” as part of court-monitored reforms. She said the policy will, in the end, make both police and citizens safer.
She predicted the concerns of many officers will be eased as training for the new policy is ramped up this summer.
Within every organization undergoing change, Durkan said, there are those who resist. She said she expected pushback from police.
But Durkan said resisters within the SPD need to know that the mayor and police commanders, from the chief down, are on board with the reforms and “for the first time in decades,” have a single, clear message to the troops: “Reform is under way. Get on the train, or leave.”
Durkan called an impromptu news conference the day after 123 Seattle officers joined as plaintiffs in a federal civil-rights lawsuit alleging the new use-of-force policies have hampered officers and emboldened criminals, placing police and the public in danger.
The officers claim the changes have effectively created “hesitation and paralysis” among police, stripping them of their constitutional and legal rights to make reasonable, split-second judgments in the line of duty.
As a result, officers are afraid to do their job for fear of being second-guessed over burdensome, complicated and voluminous policies, the suit says.
The plaintiffs make up about 10 percent of the SPD’s rank-and-file officers.
Durkan believes the lawsuit was “without merit and will be dealt with quickly by the court.”
“Nobody can say the use-of-force policies make things harder for police officers, because they haven’t been implemented yet,” she said.
Thursday afternoon, the SPD posted an item on its online blotter stating the lawsuit “does not represent the views of the Seattle Police Department.”
"The department is committed to reform,” the SPD said.
Indeed, Durkan believes the lawsuit actually “represents some progress” since the Department of Justice concluded in 2011 that Seattle police routinely used unconstitutional force during arrests and demonstrate disturbing, if inconclusive, evidence of biased policing. The reforms stem from that finding.
Two previous lawsuits filed by officers at the outset of the reforms — both since dropped — were sponsored by police unions and handled by lawyers. The latest lawsuit was filed by the individual officers, representing themselves, without the approval of their union, the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild.
The new policy resulted from a 2012 consent-decree entered into by the city and the Department of Justice (DOJ). A federal judge and court-appointed monitor are overseeing the reforms.
It states officers shall “use only the force necessary to perform their duties” and “with minimal reliance upon the use of physical force.”
It requires them, if circumstances allow, to attempt to de-escalate tense situations through “advisements, warnings, verbal persuasion, and other tactics” to reduce the need for force.
When using force is unavoidable, the policy cautions officers to use only the force necessary to make the arrest, and says their conduct before force was used may be considered by the department in determining whether force was appropriate.
The policy also requires all officers be armed with one “less-lethal” tool, such as a Taser, pepper spray or a “beanbag” shotgun, in addition to their sidearm.
Durkan took the opportunity Thursday to take a swipe at a recent report presented to the Community Police Commission two weeks ago that showed an alarming drop in the enforcement of low-level crimes in Seattle.
The report, written by SPD compliance official Bob Scales and attributed on its cover to the department, suggested officers had been less willing to seek out illegal activity. During some of the time, the department was under intense scrutiny by the DOJ, but different enforcement and prosecution standards also were in place.
Durkan said there was “no purpose” to the report, which she said “asked the wrong questions and looked at the wrong data.”
She also disputed that the report was sanctioned by anyone involved in the reform process.
“That report is not anything that anyone who knows anything about law enforcement would rely upon,” she said. “I was surprised anyone would hand it out.”
Scales, a lawyer who works in the SPD’s Compliance and Professional Standards Bureau, couldn’t be reached for comment.
A source familiar with the matter said Thursday that Scales was authorized within the bureau to produce the report. The report was required under the terms of a new policy — mandated under the consent decree — to address biased policing, the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Scales presented the report to Interim Chief Harry Bailey and Assistant Chief Mike Washburn, the department’s chief of staff, on May 12, the source said.
They approved the report, the source said.
Scales presented the findings two days later to the Community Police Commission, a citizen body created as a result of the consent decree.
Another source disputed some of that account, saying Bailey and Washburn only let the report go forward because it had been effectively launched, but that it had never been officially authorized or endorsed by senior command staff.
In an email Thursday, the department said it “has concerns about the lack of context for some of the data presented in the report, and will be conducting an in-depth examination of the report over the coming weeks.”
Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.