Op-ed: DOJ agreement with city of Seattle on police reform has potential
The Department of Justice and city of Seattle's consent decree to reform the Seattle Police Department has potential if the city takes the right steps.
Special to The Times
ON Friday, the Justice Department and the city of Seattle announced a settlement agreement in federal court, addressing concerns about the use of excessive force and racial bias in the Seattle Police Department.
None of us can be certain that it will turn out as we hope. The agreement is short on specific requirements. It does, however, create a process with the potential to achieve real improvements.
A broad array of community groups, led by the ACLU of Washington, originally asked the Justice Department to investigate the Seattle Police Department after a series of incidents involving seemingly inappropriate force by officers against people of color.
Not only civilians were dismayed by those incidents. Earlier this year, we interviewed a number of Seattle Police Department officers and sergeants to hear their reaction to the Justice Department investigation. Perhaps surprising to many, they agreed that there are significant problems in the department, including inappropriate use of force.
These officers opposed many of the remedial measures that were then being suggested by the Department of Justice — but not because they disputed that there are serious problems. Instead, they were concerned the Department of Justice's proposals would create incentives for officers to do less work. If you do nothing, they pointed out, you can be confident you won't be criticized for using force inappropriately or for bias in your work.
These officers wanted to see real changes that would revitalize the police department, renew a sense of mission, enhance officers' work ethic, and affirm a commitment to principled, constitutional police work.
Both dedicated officers and well-informed police-accountability activists, then, have been apprehensive about where this process might take us. Whether Friday's agreement actually results in an improved, revitalized Police Department will turn on three factors.:
• First, the parties must select a strong monitor who will oversee the implementation of the agreement. This must be someone with the strength to withstand still-powerful forces within the Police Department that oppose meaningful reform; the insight to discern who are the reformers within the department whose efforts need to be supported; and the vision to understand that community members also have expertise about effective policing.
• Second, the agreement calls on Mayor Mike McGinn to establish, by executive order, a community police commission that will have a broad scope of work, including examining issues of racial disparity in policing. It is critical that the commission be comprised of people who are ready to hit the ground running and who can hear one another out. This should not be a panel of neutrals without pre-existing views on these issues. By now, almost anyone who cares about these issues has a view. Those views need to be heard on the commission.
• Third, all parties should acknowledge that the question is no longer whether individuals are intentionally targeted for police attention due to race. The issue is whether the Police Department's practices have the actual result of systematically penalizing people of color for behavior that white people engage in with relative impunity. If so, we have a problem, even if no one intended it to be that way.
There is every reason to think this can end well. There are significant issues of racial disparity in Seattle Police Department practices — but some commanders have shown they are progress-minded by championing the most visionary drug-enforcement reforms anywhere in the country.
Community activists have been critical of the department — but many have rolled up their sleeves to suggest concrete reforms that would strengthen the department's relationship with minority communities. If the community police commission is given real authority and involves these leaders, there is reason for optimism.Lisa Daugaard, left, supervises the Racial Disparity Project at the Defender Association, a King County public-defense office. Martin Penner is a member of the Seattle Human Rights Commission; he interviewed Seattle Police Department officers as an independent project.