U.S. judge grants Seattle police more time to meet key reform
Before revealing his decision to give the Seattle Police Department nine months to seek proposals for a new computer system, U.S. District Judge James Robart said events in Ferguson, Mo., caused him concern over the delay.
Seattle Times staff reporters
Invoking the turmoil unfolding in Ferguson, Mo., a federal judge chastised the Seattle Police Department Tuesday for seeking a nine-month delay in the development of a sophisticated computer system to track use of force, biased policing and other vital information.
“I find myself today, once again, in the situation of being asked to extend a deadline,” U.S. District Judge James Robart said during a progress hearing in Seattle on the Police Department’s compliance with a July 2012 settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice to curb excessive force and biased policing.
Despite what he labeled an unexplainable delay 25 months into the process, Robart said he would grant the extension because there was no other choice in order to get the job done right.
But before revealing his decision, Robart said the backdrop of events in Ferguson — where violent unrest has followed the fatal shooting of an unarmed black 18-year-old by a white police officer — offered a clear explanation of his concern over the delay.
“We have an unfortunate situation in Missouri” that has sparked national concern about police actions and damaged law-enforcement officers throughout the country, Robart said.
He said the same problems that led to the settlement agreement in Seattle — use of force and the tracking of such incidents, training, stops and detentions, bias-free policing and supervision of officers — are at issue in Ferguson.
In Seattle, people will be deprived of constitutional policing until the computer system is “up and running,” Robart said, adding, “We don’t need armored personnel carriers. We need the public to support us.”
Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole, who took over the department June 23, assured Robart she was fully committed to overcoming past resistance to the computer work and seeing that it is completed.
Citing her past experience as the monitor of federally mandated police reforms in East Haven, Conn., O’Toole said she had her “ducks in order,” including the appointment of a civilian chief operating officer, Mike Wagers, to focus in part on upgrading technology.
O’Toole said she also was getting advice from Maggie Goodrich, the chief information officer in the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD).
Goodrich was hired by the LAPD in 2006 after court-ordered reforms imposed on that department were extended three years, due in part to a failure to implement an early-warning system to identify officers at risk of violating policies. She fixed the problem, bringing the department into compliance with a federal consent decree.
A 5-year timetable
Robart set Tuesday’s hearing after Seattle city attorneys filed a motion to extend a July 30 deadline to seek formal proposals to develop a business intelligence system. The attorneys asked Robart to extend the deadline until March 1, 2015, saying the Justice Department and the federal monitor overseeing the reforms, Merrick Bobb, supported the request.
Robart told the parties Tuesday that he feared the delay could extend the Police Department’s compliance with the settlement agreement for at least another five years — two years beyond the five-year period originally contemplated in the agreement.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Diaz said he believes it is possible to maintain the five-year timetable, as long as the city continues its ongoing effort to collect reliable data and then is able to analyze it when the computer system becomes operational.
The Police Department is currently using a stopgap computer system to collect data on use of force, but not other crucial information, Bobb told Robart.
Bobb attributed the delay in developing a permanent fix to intransigence in the Police Department during the first year of the settlement agreement, marked by efforts to defeat the agreement and objections to his own role.
Seattle’s new mayor, Ed Murray, along with O’Toole, City Attorney Pete Holmes and federal attorneys, are working together, leading to wholesale changes in the past month that bode well for success, Bobb said.
Assistant City Attorney Sarah Morehead said she wanted to underscore that the city’s commitment to carrying out constitutional policing was not awaiting the development of the computer system.
Robart referred to resistance to change among some in the ranks, pointing to a federal lawsuit filed by more than 100 Seattle officers on May 28 challenging the constitutionality of new use-of-force policies drafted under the settlement agreement.
“To those individuals,” Robart said, “I simply say: ‘Get over it. The train has left the station. It’s not going to turn around. The good old days are not coming back.’ ”
Disciplinary issues, too
Robart also said the Police Department still needs to address its disciplinary process, expressing concern about O’Toole’s recent decision to return a bicycle officer to regular duties pending the outcome of an internal investigation into his writing of 80 percent of the tickets for using marijuana in public this year.
The officer’s reference in some of the tickets to City Attorney Pete Holmes — a strong advocate of pot legalization — falls between “insubordination and abhorrent judgment,” Robart said.
After the hearing, O’Toole reiterated that, in consultation with the department official who oversees internal investigations, they agreed the officer, who had been placed on administrative duties, could be returned to the street.
O’Toole said during a meeting with the officer he “looked me in the eye,” was extremely contrite and took responsibility for his actions.
Sources have identified the officer as Randy Jokela.
O’Toole said the officer had carried out a “silly political agenda” of the kind that won’t be tolerated in the department.