SPD cops in lawsuit ‘scared for their lives’
Lisa Battalia, an attorney in Washington, D.C., who advised officers who filed a civil-rights suit challenging the department’s new use-of-force policy, says they shouldn’t have to wait for one of them to be killed on duty before objecting to unreasonable risks they say they face.
Seattle Times staff reporter
The Seattle police officers who filed a federal lawsuit to block a new use-of-force policy did so because their union wouldn’t and they believed they needed to act quickly, a Washington, D.C.-area attorney who is advising the officers said Friday.
“Bottom line: They are scared for their lives and they had no choice,” Lisa Battalia, a divorce mediator who previously oversaw sex-discrimination issues for the federal Department of Education, said of the policy that went into effect Jan. 1.
The policy, which led 123 officers to file the civil-rights suit on Wednesday, places unreasonable restrictions on them, Battalia said.
She said the officers are representing themselves in the case because of litigation costs and because she is not local and is not a trial attorney. But they are looking for a local attorney to represent them, Battalia said.
One of the first challenges they likely will face is a move to dismiss the suit, she said.
The suit was brought against U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and others, stemming from the city’s 2012 settlement agreement with the Department of Justice (DOJ) to curb excessive force and biased policing.
In March, the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild reached a memorandum of understanding with the city over terms of the use-of-force policy, in which the union agreed not to oppose or contest adoption or implementation of the policy.
Battalia said she was sought out by the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, Officer Robert Mahoney. They attended the same high school in New York and college in Connecticut, she said.
Although the suit does not contain specific claims that officers have been injured because of the policy, Battalia said, they shouldn’t have to wait until one of them is killed on the job.
The suit, she said, adequately spells out the unreasonable risks imposed on officers who, at times, face split-second decisions.
It also shows that the policy conflicts with a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision that established “objective reasonableness” as the standard to be applied in assessing claims of excessive force by police, Battalia said.
Samuel Walker, emeritus professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and a nationally recognized expert on policing, said the suit contains unsupported allegations contrary to language in the policy that gives officers discretion to use force when necessary.
“It’s a rant,” Walker said of the suit, which he predicted will be dismissed.
Walker, who said he has looked at almost every consent decree reached nationwide between the DOJ and police departments, called the suit “unprecedented” because it was brought by the officers on their own, without union support.
Even when brought by a union, a similar suit filed in California failed.
In that case, the Los Angeles police union sought in November 2000 to block a consent decree between the DOJ, the city and the Los Angeles Police Department. In the suit, the Los Angeles Police Protective League alleged the consent decree, crafted to remedy excessive force, false arrests and improper searches, was unconstitutional.
A federal judge dismissed the suit three weeks later, even before the defendants responded, according to court papers. In a one-line order, the judge found the suit failed to state a proper claim or controversy, a decision later upheld by a federal appeals court.
Battalia said the officers who sued realize they face a steep hurdle.
“It’s a scary thing to go alone,” she said.
The suit alleges that the use-of-force policy is so “long, complex and contradictory” that instructors at the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission in Burien have related that they have no idea how to train for it and won’t do so. Seattle police send their recruits to the center for basic training.
Sue Rahr, the commission’s executive director, said her staff provides training in case law and fundamentals of use of force, but not specific policies of individual departments who send recruits.
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @stevemiletich