A lot happened related to police reform and the Consent Decree today, with an extra large helping of political commentary from an unusual source.
This morning, the court-appointed police monitor submitted a proposed work plan for 2021 that not only lays out his office’s work but also commits SPD and the triumvirate of police-accountability bodies to specific deliverables and deadlines throughout the year. Then early this afternoon the monitor, the DOJ, and the City of Seattle went in front of U.S. District Court Judge James Robart to explain the plan and express their consensus support for it.
The consent decree is in an awkward place right now. As originally envisioned, the city would spend several years coming into compliance with it, and then once it was deemed in full initial compliance it would need to sustain that for two years in order to terminate the consent decree. The city reached initial compliance in all but two areas (accountability and discipline) in 2018, but then in 2019 Judge Robart split his evaluation into two parts, finding that the city had remained in compliance on most areas but was out of compliance on accountability and discipline. And then with the events of last summer, Robart is now also considering SPD’s compliance with the use-of-force and crowd control provisions to be “under review.”
For many years the annual work plan for the police monitor documented the steady progress toward coming into compliance through a series of reviews. But since reaching initial compliance the work has shifted, and with the recent backsliding out of compliance the precise role of the police monitor is less clear.
This afternoon Dr. Antonio Oftelie, the recently-appointed new police monitor, and representatives from the DOJ and City of Seattle told Robart that the monitor’s work plan was a collaborative effort, representing what they collectively believe need to be the next steps for getting the city back into compliance. The plan is built around four areas: evaluating the status of compliance; improving accountability; providing technical assistance to support SPD innovation and risk management; and providing technical assistance to support re-imagining public safety.
Evaluating the status of compliance: the work plan commits to semi-annual reports on the six primary focus areas of the consent decree commitments: use of force, crisis intervention, stops and detentions, supervision, bias-free policing, and officer misconduct.
Accountability: the plan splits it into “back-end” and “front-end” accountability, where the back-end is “ensuring that systems for addressing officer misconduct and deficient performance are fair, rigorous, unbiased and thorough,” and the front-end is “ensuring that there are clear rules in place before officials act, which are transparent, and formulated with public input.” For the back-end, the plan promises quarterly updates from the city on the status of its effort on misconduct and discipline, and a timetable for the OIG’s long-planned Sentinel Event Review. For the front-end, it focuses on revising SPD’s policies for use of force, crowd management and “active bystandership and peer intervention.” Revisions for the use of force and crowd management policies are already underway, and the plan dictates deadlines for completing those revisions by November. The plan also commits SPD to requiring Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement (ABLE) training for all SPD officers by the end of April.
Technical assistance for innovation and risk management: this revolves around tracking the status of three specific initiatives within SPD:
- Compstat for Justice;
- an overhaul of SPD’s Early Intervention System (an effort that has been underway for a few years now);
- an Officer Wellness Initiative.
The city is committing to monthly meetings with the DOJ and Monitor on these efforts, and to filing quarterly updates with the court.
Technical assistance to support “Re-imagining Public Safety”: both the DOJ and police monitor will designate representatives to attend meetings of the city’s Interdepartmental Team that is driving this ongoing effort, and the city will again provide quarterly updates to the court. Yesterday interim Chief Diaz released a statement on his efforts to reform and re-imagine policing in Seattle.
In the hearing this afternoon, Judge Robart seemed generally happy with the monitor’s proposed work plan, noting that he would be open to comments from other stakeholders for the next few weeks before he decides whether to approve it.
And then he did something uncharacteristic and surprising: he launched into a speech on the state of local politics as it relates to police reform.
Robart began by highlighting many of the reasons why this is not a good time to be trying to be re-evaluating so much of SPD and the consent decree, including:
- the Mayor is not seeking re-election, making it unclear what the new Mayor will think about police reform efforts twelve months from now;
- two City Council positions will also be up for election this year, potentially restructuring the components of that body;
- the city has an interim Chief of Police, at a time when “we desperately don’t need an interim Chief”;
- the labor contract with SPOG has expired;
- a pandemic continues to rage through the city and country.
Robart took a moment to praise the work of the OPA and OIG over the past year, with regard to their investigations and recommendations for further policy changes and reforms. But he then expressed “harsh words” for the Seattle City Council, related to their actions last summer to hastily defund SPD and pass a ban on crowd-control weapons that Robart ultimately blocked:
“I have some rather harsh words for the City Council over the last six months or so. I think they have lost sight of the fact that the 100 paragraphs in the consent decree are not 100 paragraphs. They are not even commitments. They are obligations, orders from this court of things that will be done. And when they decide to take matters into their own hands in contravention of the Consent Decree, then they drag me into a situation that I don’t want to be in, which is telling them, ‘no, you can’t do that.'”
He took the Council to task for announcing a 50% reduction in SPD with headcount and salary cuts “without talking to the police and ignorance to the consequences,” subsequently claiming that they were “shocked” when SPD Chief Best subsequently resigned.
He closed his comments with more words of warning for the City — and by implication, the Council as it looks to push further with cuts to SPD and another revision of its crowd-control weapon ban that is entirely independent of SPD’s own efforts to revise its crowd-control and use-of-force policies:
“You have a lot of leeway in where you go, but you can’t simply charge off in a direction without knowing what the consequences are, and having in place plans to replace essential services currently being provided by the police. If you do that, then you start to violate provisions in the court’s consent decree. So I see this as a collaborative effort. I’m pleased to hear the reports that were given today. I’m sure we will get further comments from various stakeholders, some of whom choose not to participate actively in this process. There are a lot of fronts that have been opened in terms of areas of activity. Let’s simply make sure that we are all moving in one common direction ,and not fracturing into a whole series of everyone running off in their own lane, catering to whatever the wish of the hour is, as opposed to a plan that makes sense for the long term.”
Judge Robart’s reference to stakeholders “some of whom choose not to participate actively in this process” is most likely SPOG, the police officers union, whose stonewalling of police reform and accountability efforts have infuriated him in the past. However, SPOG is not a party in the consent decree legal proceedings, which limits Judge Robart’s ability to require SPOG to take specific actions or comply with court orders.
You can watch today’s hearing here; jump to 32:20 for Judge Robart’s commentary. (the court seems to have taken the video down) Councilmember Lisa Herbold and Council President Lorena Gonzalez have not responded to requests for comment on Judge Robart’s critique of the City Council today. A spokesperson for Mayor Durkan has not responded to inquiries as to whether Robart’s comments on having an interim Chief of Police at this delicate moment would cause her to rethink her decision to delay a search for a permanent Chief.
Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who chairs the Council’s public safety committee, provided this statement in response to Judge Robart’s comments today:
“First, it’s important to note in considering the implications of budget reductions on consent decree obligations that the 2021 budget includes sufficient funding to fully support SPD’s own 2021 hiring plan.
Further, the Mayor instituted a SPD hiring freeze in 2020.
In November, when some members of the public were contacting Council in support of a 2021 hiring freeze, I reached out to the Monitor, shared the SPD analysis of the impacts on sworn force strength for 2021 & 2022, and I asked for his feedback about the potential consent decree impact of a hiring freeze. Based upon SPD projections of future years’ hiring and separations, a 1 year hiring freeze would result in an additional 51 fewer fully trained officers at the end of 2021 and still 98 fewer at the end of 2022. The monitor acknowledged my request and said he was in receipt of similar inquiries, he thanked me for providing the information that would help him understand the implications. He told me that he would review the information but he provided no specific feedback. I and a majority of the Council opposed the hiring freeze nonetheless.
The [City Attorney’s Office] filing appropriately recognized the role of the racial reckoning in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in the Council’s efforts. The CAO is also careful to clarify to the Court that SPD departures were a result of retirements and transfers:
Under the proposed plan, the Monitor and DOJ will provide technical assistance to ensure that budget cuts or structural changes to policing are not undertaken in a manner that undermines the City’s compliance with the Consent Decree. This past year, City leaders and community groups have called for funding cuts to SPD accompanied by reinvestment of resources into policing alternatives. Concurrently, SPD lost a number of officers to retirement and transfer and experienced significant budget cuts due to COVID-19. The City recognizes that additional, major reductions to SPD’s staffing could threaten to undermine Consent Decree reforms in areas such as supervision, training, and use of force reporting, investigation, and review. The City will work with the Monitor and DOJ to help prevent that outcome.”
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