This afternoon, the City of Seattle and the U.S. Department of Justice jointly filed a motion asking Judge James Robart to terminate nearly all of the 2012 consent decree over the Seattle Police Department’s biased policing practices. What would remain, assuming Robart approves the order, are the issues related to accountability and SPD’s discipline system that have dominated the discussion over the past three years.
Both the City and the DOJ filed accompanying memos detailing the history of the consent decree and SPD’s efforts to come into compliance. Just over two years ago Judge Robart ruled that the city had come into compliance. That kicked off a two-year timer for the department to sustain compliance in order to allow for the consent to decree to be terminated.
Last year, however, Robart found that SPD had fallen out of compliance with regard to police accountability and discipline, specifically with regard to terms in the most recent SPD officer’s contract as negotiated with SPOG, the officers’ union. However, Robart specifically noted that those issues were separate from the vast majority of the terms and compliance work specified in the consent decree, and he was willing to contemplate splitting the sustainment period into two separate threads so that the two-year clock could continue on for the parts still in compliance and those parts of the consent decree might still be terminated at the conclusion.
In that spirit, today’s motion requests that Robart terminate those parts that have successfully completed the two-year sustainment period: everything except the issues the judge raised last year with regard to accountability and discipline. With the assent of the Department of Justice, Robart is very likely to grant the request.
The city’s 27-page memo also briefly addresses the status of its work on coming back into compliance on the remaining issues. It notes, however, that the COVID-19 emergency is requiring its focus, and promises to fully address the issues by August 1.
The City acknowledges the Court’s May 21, 2019 Order regarding accountability and discipline issues and, without waiving any objections to the Order, seeks to implement its commitments to making ongoing, systemic improvements to ensure constitutional policing. The City has taken significant steps to address the Court’s concerns and intends to respond to the issues raised by the Court’s May 21, 2019 Order, in a pleading to be filed by August 1, 2020. The City is unable to fully address the accountability issues in this filing, because it is now confronting an unprecedented public health crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, the City is required to focus substantial resources—both human and financial—on addressing a myriad of urgent issues in order to protect the public health and safety of its residents.
The city goes on to argue that terminating most of the Consent Decree at this point would in fact help the city to address the COVID-19 crisis by allowing it to “reallocate scarce resources toward pressing new demands.”
An order from the Court terminating the Consent Decree provisions covered by the Sustainment Plan and associated monitoring activities would allow the City to reallocate scarce resources toward pressing new demands.1 Despite these extraordinary circumstances, the City remains committed to maintaining and continuing the reforms achieved under the Consent Decree. The City views reform as an ongoing process of continuous innovation, accountability, and improvement that requires the sustained investment of public resources.
In support of this, the city submitted a declaration by City Budget Director Ben Noble detailing what the COVID-19 response has required the city to do — and the effect on the city budget. Noble also says that the city will save $1 million per year after the termination of the consent decree, funds currently being spent to pay for the Police Monitor appointed by the court under the terms of the consent decree. He notes that the city will continue to have significant ongoing expenses in sustaining the reforms that occurred during the consent decree, including $4.7 million annually for the OPA, $1.7 million for the OIG, and $1.5 million for the CPC.
The Community Police Commission issued the following statement in response to the filing today:
“The Seattle Community Police Commission is reviewing the city’s court filing relating to the Consent Decree and sustainment plan. We anticipate holding a special meeting to discuss the filing and any potential responses to it in the coming days.”
UPDATE: City Council President Lorena Gonzalez provided the following statement on the filing today:
“The City’s court filing and request to terminate certain portions of the Consent Decree is a reflection of the marked progress the City and SPD have made since 2012, when the City of Seattle and the U.S. Department of Justice entered into the Settlement Agreement that has guided critical reforms to the Department’s policies and operations over the last 8 years. SPD and City leadership, rank-and-file officers and, most of all, the communities that pushed for police reform should be proud of the work that’s been accomplished to date. At the same time that we seek the Court’s recognition and approval of this progress, we know that this work is far from finished.
“If Judge Robart approves our request to terminate aspects of the Consent Decree, there will be reduced Federal Court oversight of SPD. The responsibility of advancing police reform will then fall more squarely on the shoulders of the City’s leadership and the civilian-led accountability system that was born out of the Consent Decree (namely the Community Police Commission, the Office of Police Accountability and the Office of Inspector General for Public Safety) .
“As highlighted by Judge Robart’s May 2019 order with regard to police accountability, we know that we must continue striving to strengthen our accountability system and the policies, recruitment and training that influence our policing practices in order to safeguard the rights and safety of communities of color that are still deeply impacted by the vestiges of institutionalized racism and over-policing. I, for one, will remain committed to this effort in partnership with these communities and my colleagues at the City and SPD.”
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