Regardless of whether people see the Seattle Police Department (SPD) as a "transformed organization" from more than a decade ago, everyone from abolitionists to the cops themselves are ready for the federal government to butt out of Seattle policing.
At the end of March, Seattle city officials and the Department of Justice (DOJ) asked a federal judge to remove federal oversight on all but two issues: crowd control and officer accountability. Under the joint proposal from the City and the DOJ, the federal monitor would continue to oversee improvements to those areas under a compliance agreement. Within a year, possibly earlier, the judge would review whether that agreement would also go away.
Get Out of the Way
The city of Seattle spent 11 years and $200 million on reshaping the police department in ways the federal government often dictated. The reforms often fell short of what community leaders wanted, with transformative policies set aside in favor of more muted and conservative ones, said Lisa Daugaard, director of the Public Defender Association and one of the first co-chairs of the Community Police Commission (CPC).
“We need to get busy fixing policing, and we can’t do that until these people get out of the way,” Daugaard said.
Seattle is in a different place than it was 12 years ago when the DOJ first came to town, said Enoka Herat, an attorney focused on policing for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington (ACLU). For her, the consent decree helped shape some good structures, such as the Office of the Inspector General, the Office of Police Accountability, and the CPC. But those structures also draw plenty of critique, and the tools needed to move forward with reform may no longer come from federal oversight, she said.
Zachary Powell, a California State University - San Bernardino assistant professor who studies federal consent decrees, said Seattle’s 10+ years of oversight trends toward one of the longer, more expensive versions of these programs. On average, these agreements cost about $7 to $10 million per year and last between five to seven years, Powell said.
The high costs of consent decrees drain city funds while sometimes standing in the way of local police reform, Herat said. Any time the Seattle City Council or Mayor wants to address policing, U.S. District Court Judge James L. Robart must approve. In 2020, for instance, Robart restrained the council from banning the use of tear gas, pepper spray, and bast balls ahead of a weekend of protests.
The way the DOJ and the federal judge would reduce the community’s role in reforming the police department was apparent from “negative day one,” Daugaard said. Though the consent decree created the CPC to empower communities to control their own institutions, more often than not the judge favored federal monitor Merrick Bobb’s policies over CPC proposals, she added.
Community organizations brought the DOJ to Seattle in the first place in 2010, when the ACLU of Washington and other 35 organizations asked the feds to investigate the SPD for an unconstitutional pattern of excessive force, especially against people of color.
All these years later, Seattle police are still four times more likely to stop a Black person than a white person, and they’re six times more likely to stop a Native American person, Herat said.
When court-appointed monitor Antonio Oftelie reviewed SPD’s use-of-force data last year, he found overall numbers at an all-time low, but disparities for Black and Native American people remained.
Between 2019 and 2021, officers used the most serious type of force against Black people 21 times, against white people 14 times, against people of an unknown race eight times, and against Asian people six times. This included force such as firing guns.
“Yes we are in a different place than we were 12 years ago. And yes, there’s still so much work to do,” Herat said.
When Powell looks at the efficacy of DOJ consent decrees, he sees two primary ways to judge the outcome: civil litigation and community relationships.
In general, civil litigation declines in the years after a consent decree, Powell said. However, judging the improvement in relationships with the community gets messier and varies by community.
Former Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn said his administration knew community engagement was essential when it began negotiating the DOJ’s oversight of the Seattle Police Department in 2011. Consent decrees in other cities failed to create positive change when federal monitors, mayors, and judges drove the process, he said. While many criticized him at the time for resisting federal intervention, he said the naysayers mischaracterized his attempts to keep control more local.
“Police reform and public safety depends both upon community trust and engagement as partners, and a judge can’t create that through policy decisions,” McGinn said in an interview with The Stranger Tuesday.
But Robart certainly tried to. The DOJ and the City of Seattle entered into a consent decree in July 2012 with the idea that the CPC and the city council would work together to reform the SPD. From Daugaard’s perspective, the CPC was constantly stymied in their efforts, and their role in reform was minimized.
In 2017, both the City and the CPC admitted the need for more reform, but they just didn’t want to have the DOJ involved anymore. Both the City and CPC asked the judge to start the two-year sustainment period, where the department would prove SPD could maintain compliance. The judge started the clock on the sustainment period in January of 2018.
However, a bad contract between the City and the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) allowed an arbitrator to reinstate an officer who punched a drunk woman while she was handcuffed. After that, Robart ruled that SPD was out of compliance with the consent decree. While the City and Robart were still negotiating SPD’s return to compliance, the 2020 protests over the killing of George Floyd began in Seattle. A few days later, the City withdrew its request to end federal oversight.
However, almost three years have passed. Mayor Bruce Harrell says SPD’s policies now reflect the best use-of-force training available, and it created new accountability agencies with civilian oversight. The department also collects a wide range of data and monitors for potentially problematic officers. Whether or not people believe these reforms are effective, SPD has met most of the requirements of the consent decree.
At the CPC meeting on April 5, a dejected-sounding SPD Officer Mark Mullens asked those who opposed ending federal oversight what more the department could do.
“We would just like to hear someone say we did a good job,” Mullens said.
Nobody Wants This
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, Seattle entertained the latest version of the old argument between abolitionists and reformers. In another show of how Robart’s role stymied local policy priorities, the judge pushed back against calls to reinvest police funding into upstream services in 2021, warning that funding reductions could violate the consent decree.
Herat, the lawyer with the ACLU, pushed back against that argument. However, Powell at California State University said smaller budgets wouldn’t make maintaining compliance any easier.
Whether the city council could have reduced SPD’s budget by 50%, as some of them initially proposed, doesn’t really matter anymore. The political will to make such a significant cut waned that very year, when the council only cut “funding” by removing some departments from SPD’s purview and refusing to set aside money for vacancies the cops couldn’t fill anyway. After that, nominally progressive city council members such as Andrew Lewis reneged on their non-binding commitment, calling the pledge to defund a “mistake.”
BJ Last, an organizer with Defend the Defund, wonders if reformist policies such as the consent decree ultimately aim to prevent–rather than promote–meaningful change. Whenever the community developed the will to create transformative policies, the feds threw up a final barrier.
Last hopes the DOJ really is ready to leave. He described the consent decree’s legacy as one that failed to stop the cops from disproportionately targeting BIPOC communities, all while securing more money for police and less money for all other programs.
“Our biased policing got incredibly more expensive,” Last said.
Interested parties have until April 25 to tell Judge Robart how they feel about booting the feds. If he approves the plan, then the monitor’s first scheduled report to the court on SPD’s compliance with the smaller agreement over crowd control tactics and accountability would come out a year from the day it went into effect.