Judge finds city in compliance with police consent decree, police reform shifts to phase 2

This afternoon, U.S. District Court Judge James Robart issued a ruling in the police use-of-force case brought by the U.S. Department of Justice that led to the consent decree and several years of police reform efforts.

Robart granted the City of Seattle’s motion to declare the city in “full and effective compliance” with the terms of the consent decree.  That means that Phase One, in which the city enacts practices in order to reach compliance, is now complete.  Implementation of the consent decree now enters Phase Two, wherein the city must remain compliant continuously for two years. At the point it successfully reaches that milestone, the city and the DOJ can jointly ask the court to terminate the consent decree.

Early in the implementation process, Robart appointed a police monitor to conduct a series of ten assessments to gauge the city’s level of compliance. The last of those assessments was completed last fall. In his ruling today, the judge cited statistics from those assessments as clear evidence that the city had made significant progress in reducing both the incidents of use-of-force and the level of force applied. It also helped that both the DOJ and the city’s Community Police Commission filed briefs asking the judge to find the city in full and effective compliance.

The lone naysayer was the estate of Charleena Lyles, who was fatally shot in her apartment last June by two Seattle police officers after threatening them with knives. Late last year they petitioned Robart to intervene in the case in order to argue that the city is not in compliance. Today Robart also denied that motion, arguing that the consent decree is about a pattern of behavior by SPD and not about any individual incident. He also pointed out that if he set the precedent of letting the Lyles estate intervene, then he would be forced to allow any party accusing SPD of unnecessary use of force to also intervene in the case. The city had previously argued that according to the terms of the consent decree, the decision as to whether the city has reached compliance should be evaluated solely on the results of the ten assessments, which were completed before Lyles was shot — but that forthcoming information about SPD officers’ behavior in the Lyles shooting can be incorporated into further assessments during the two-year period to follow when the city must sustain compliance.  In his ruling today, Robart was clear that he would not hesitate to reset the two-year clock if the city fell out of compliance at any time.

In a hastily-arranged press conference this afternoon after Robart’s ruling was released, Mayor Jenny Durkan, City Attorney Pete Holmes, City Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez, interim Police Chief Carmen Best, and CPC Co-chair Enrique Gonzalez all celebrated the milestone but cautioned that the work is far from done to solve the issues with police use of force in Seattle — and that sustaining compliance for the next two years will be challenging.  They also noted Robart’s comments in his ruling about outstanding issues that need to be resolved, including addressing bias-free policing and finalizing the labor agreement with SPOG, the union representing rank-and-file officers.

Mayor Jenny Durkan discussing Judge Robart’s ruling, as Police Chief Carmen Best, Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez, and Reverend Harriett Walden look on.
City Attorney Pete Holmes

Robart has refused to approve the police-accountability legislation that the City Council adopted last year until labor agreements are in place with both unions representing SPD employees (SPMA and SPOG), since some provisions of the legislation are subject to collective bargaining under state law. The city reached an agreement with SPMA last fall, but still doesn’t have an agreement with SPOG. SPD officers have been working without a contract for three years, and under Mayor Murray negotiations broke down and were sent to mediation. (SPOG President Kevin Stuckey was present at the press conference this afternoon; more on that below)

When asked this afternoon about her plan for reaching an agreement with SPOG, Mayor Durkan answered:

“We will continue to work with SPOG. I’m glad to see President Stuckey here. We have meetings scheduled to see if we can move things off the dime. There’s a lot of legal things, various things, that have been challenged in an arbitration, perhaps Pete Holmes will announce, but I will make this commitment: we want to get a contract. We want there to be labor peace. The judge has made if very clear that that’s a requirement for moving forward. And so we will work very hard to get that done. And at the same time, and it’s not going to come as a surprise to anyone at SPOG because we’ve worked on this before, is reform will not be compromised. And so the only question is how do we build that into a contract looking backwards but most importantly looking forward.”

Mayor Murray made negotiations more difficult last summer by issuing an executive order directing SPD to roll out body cameras to all SPD officers, despite it being a topic arguably subject to collective bargaining. When Durkan was asked today about the body camera issue, she responded:

“Body cameras will be fully implemented. It’s one of the things obviously that we have to negotiate with SPOG on, you know they’ve briefed us on, But I want to be clear that my predecessor signed an executive order, body cameras have been implemented, and I think the ironic thing is, police officers are now finding that body cameras are helping them, because in many cases they help show that a complaint did not occur. I think there’s a question of working with the ACLU. We have to show that the privacy of people that go to the police are protected, and that our body cam footage doesn’t become shock video on late night cable, but I think those privacy issues can be worked out and we can have the accountability that we need.”

After the process conference concluded, Stuckey answered questions from the press. When asked about the meetings that Durkan had mentioned, he replied that the first meeting is tomorrow (Thursday):

“We meet tomorrow. And we’re going to meet tomorrow and we’re going to sit down, but that’s going to be the first of many. We’ve actually sat down and done some things as far as our contract because we have been and currently are in mediation, so my hope is we can get there and she’ll say “ok, let’s get back to the table.” Because I’m offering to clear, when I sit down with her, what I’m going to say to her is ‘here’s my olive branch, I will clear my schedule.’ I will clear everything off my schedule for the next three weeks if this is really serious and you want to get something done, so we can get to those things that we’re talking about, so then this is about the accountability package and the legislation that the people of this community have been sold, that this is how we bridge this gap, so we can get to it, then let’s do that. Let’s make sure it happens and we can get to it.”

When asked about why body cameras were a sticking point in negotiations, Stuckey said:

“Because we have to wear body cameras. This is a voluntary program for lieutenants and captains. They don’t have to do that. And even if they were wearing body cameras, they’re not interacting with the public the way that we do. So we have different issues with that. And this is going to be: how rules apply, when is the video going to get looked at, if it’s allowed to be looked at, there’s a whole lot of different things, nuances that we can sit down and get together, but we’ve got to have those meetings to do that.”

And when asked to respond to suggestions that SPOG is using police reforms as leverage to negotiate pay raises for officers, Stuckey responded:

“If we were not three years without a contract, we’d be talking about the accountability package as is… I haven’t even had a contract in three years. So there’s going to be money involved in it, because it’s a contract. And that has nothing to do with accountability legislation. If it was that important they would have taken care of that before we got to this point. But they didn’t, so I’m willing to sit down and listen and do anything. You can talk to me about anything as long as we are playing by the rules. You can talk to me about money, you can talk to me about benefits, you can talk to me about working conditions. These are all part of a contract. These are the things that we’re going to sit down typically go through. So the question is, yeah, money is going to play a factor. But is it the factor that is holding anything up? Absolutely not. It’s about saying ‘ok, this is the process, how are we going to do it, and how are we going to get it right.’ Because we can’t just punt it, for lack of a better term, down the road and see how things work, and then see if we change it before, because that’s not being good stewards, because there’s a lot of money already being spent. This community has paid a lot for this settlement agreement/consent decree, and it will probably continue to pay. So we have to be good stewards of that money, and make sure that if we’re going to be spending it, we’re spending on the right things.

We will see whether a new Mayoral administration can bring a thaw to the collective bargaining process.

You can watch the full press conference on the Seattle Channel here. Here is the text of Mayor Durkan’s remarks.  SPD Chief Carmen Best also issued a statement, and U.S. Attorney for Western Washington Annette Hayes also issued one.

CPC CO-chair Enrique Gonzalez
City Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez
SPD’s top brass awaiting the start of Mayor Durkan’s press conference


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