Judge Approves Draft Police Accountability Legislation, with a Few Changes

Today U.S. District Court Judge James Robart ruled on the draft legislation that the City of Seattle submitted in October for his review, which would create a new accountability structure over the Seattle Police Department. His concerns were few, and should be easily addressed.

Robart is the judge responsible for overseeing the implementation of the Consent Decree between the U.S. Department of Justice and the City of Seattle related to reforming police department abusive practices.

A quick timeline review: Back in August, Robart ordered the Mayor’s Office to submit draft legislation to him for review before it was transmitted to the City Council for their deliberations. In that order, he promised he would provide feedback within 90 days. The Mayor submitted draft legislation, which had been painstakingly negotiated between the DOJ, the City, and several other stakeholders, on October 7th. On November 4th, the Department of Justice filed a brief raising four issues (we’ll get to those in a moment). On November 15th, the Community Policing Commission (CPC) filed its own brief in support of the city’s draft legislation and pushing back on some of the DOJ’s concerns. Today, exactly 90 days after the City’s submission, Robart issued his ruling.

The city, the DOJ, the CPC, and Judge Robart all point out that of the 260 paragraphs in the legislation, the vast majority has unanimous support from the stakeholders. There are only 23 points of contention, which is amazing and a testament to the broad support for strong police reform. On those remaining 23 points of disagreement, the City took an interesting approach: rather than write in its preferred terms, it laid out the various options for each issue so that Robart could review all of them. This was done in the hope that, regardless of which option the City Council chose, another protracted review could be avoided after the Council finishes its legislative process. Robart wasn’t expecting to be presented with several options, but he appreciated the city’s intent in doing so – and perhaps that partly excuses his taking the full 90 days to review the legislation.

Here’s my previous write-up of the City’s proposed legislation. The DOJ raised four substantive issues:

  1. The legislation states that the burden of proof for terminating an officer’s employment for dishonesty is “clear and convincing evidence,” a higher bar than “preponderance of the evidence.” The DOJ argues that this “undermines confidence in the disciplinary system without any clear basis.”
  2. In the new version of the CPC under the legislation, there are no SPD officers on the CPC. However, the Consent Decree specifically requires that SPD officers be members. DOJ claims this was a “deliberate and bargained for position of the Decree,” and they have “found that having SPD offices on the CPC has been helpful in ensuring that the CPC has ready access to the expertise and perspectives necessary to do their work effectively.”  The City has argued that it may “have some administrative concerns related to having sworn officers participate in this body,” given the inherent conflicts of interest in an employee of SPD also serving on an oversight board. The DOJ seemed open to the possibility that might be an insurmountable barrier to having officers on the CPC, but even in that case pointed out that an amendment to the Consent Decree would be required to resolve the issue.
  3. The DOJ is concerned that the new scope of the CPC’s responsibilities would be too vast, particularly since it is already having trouble meeting its obligations in a timely manner. As such, the DOJ argued for a change that explicitly prioritized the CPC’s obligations under the Consent Decree over all its other responsibilities.
  4. The DOJ objected to the CPC having the responsibility to formally evaluate the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), rather than just providing “input” into its evaluation, arguing that it would be redundant and confusing.

The CPC’s response is silent on issues 1 and 2. On the third issue, it conceded the point and said it would be fine with amending the draft legislation to explicitly prioritize Consent Decree obligations.  It reserved the majority of its comments for the fourth issue, beginning by re-asserting a point at one time or another made by all the major stakeholders that there is no one-size-fits-all model for police accountability, and ending by claiming “Any further dilution of the CPC’s authority is of deep concern.” In between, it made its case that having the CPC evaluate the OIG violates neither the letter nor the spirit of the Consent Decree, that it would “create redundancies as checks against system failures or weaknesses,” and “it is critical that political appointees are not evaluated solely by those who appointed them.”

Which brings us to Robart’s ruling today. Overall he commended all the stakeholders for their work, and made clear that his job in reviewing the legislation was to answer a single question: does the proposed legislation conflict with the terms or the purposes of the Consent Decree? To that end, Robart found no concerns with anything in the draft legislation outside the bounds of the four issues that the DOJ raised. On those four issues, he addressed each in turn:

  1. He agreed with the DOJ that the lower standard of “preponderance of the evidence” should be used in determining whether an officer should be fired for dishonesty.
  2. He also agreed that excluding SPD officers from the CPC was in conflict with the letter of the Consent Decree: either officers need to be added, or the Consent Decree needs to be amended.
  3. Since the DOJ raised the issue about prioritization of the CPC’s Consent Decree obligations, and the CPC itself conceded the point, the legislation should specifically prioritize them.
  4. On whether the CPC should evaluate the OIG, Robart sided with the CPC and the City, stating “the Government does not believe that CPC review of the OIG is the best policy option, but the Government fails to establish that this provision violates either the terms or the underlying purposes of the Consent Decree.”

Robart formally approved the draft legislation, modulo his rulings on the four issues above, which frees the Mayor’s Office to formally transmit the bill to the City Council to begin its work.  I have an email in to Council member Gonzalez, whose committee oversees SPD, about her expectations for the timeline for moving the legislation forward now that the judicial roadblock has been removed.