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File: Seattle Police Officers
Credit: KUOW Photo/Ashley Ahearn

Seattle Police in compliance, but there is more work to do

The Seattle Police Department has reached a major milestone in their reform effort. On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge James Robart found the department in full and effective compliance with court-ordered reforms imposed more than five years ago.

The city of Seattle entered into a Consent Decree with the federal Justice Department in 2012 after findings that SPD had engaged in a pattern of using excessive force and possible biased policing.

The city now enters a two-year monitoring period in which SPD must prove that reforms will be maintained.

In his ruling, Robart said achieving compliance (phase one of fulfilling the consent decree) is “an enormous milestone and one in which the city and SPD should take pride.” But he cautioned that there’s still significant work to be done.

“In many ways, phase two is the most difficult portion of the Consent Decree to fulfill. The ability to sustain the good work that has begun is not a foregone conclusion. It will require dedication, hard work, creativity, flexibility, vigilance, endurance, and continued development and refinement of policies and procedures in accordance with constitutional principles.”

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan echoed Robart’s message.

“We know that work needs to continue,” she said.

Durkan said Robart’s decision was good for the city, the police department and the community.

But she stressed that the next two years will be critical “so that we can show that the Seattle Police Department can continue to stay in compliance with the consent decree, will continue to improve itself and reform itself, and address those issues that the monitor and the court have called out for the police department.”

The court has identified several issues that the department needs to address over the next two years. Robart specifically called out the fact that the city still needs to appoint an Inspector General to review internal investigations and ensure delivery of constitutional policing. He also noted that ongoing labor negotiations with the union for SPD’s rank-and-file officers, the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG), need to be concluded.

“The court has previously indicated that it will not grant final approval to the city’s new police accountability ordinance until after collective bargaining is complete. If collective bargaining results in changes to the accountability ordinance that the court deems to be inconsistent with the Consent Decree, then the city’s progress in phase two will be imperiled,” Robart wrote.

Kevin Stuckey, president of SPOG, said he’s meeting city officials Thursday.

“I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, we do not wish to impede the progress at all,” Stuckey said. “The last thing I want to do is at the end game somehow hold anything up.”

SPOG has filed two unfair labor practice complaints against the city during the reform process.

Despite all that’s left to do, Mayor Durkan said the police department has come a long way since court-ordered reforms were imposed. And achieving full and effective compliance is a huge step.

Durkan was the U.S. Attorney in Seattle when community concern over use of force by SPD officers, often against minority communities, caused the U.S. Justice Department to investigate.

“What we actually found was indeed there was a pattern and practice of the unconstitutional use of force,” Durkan said.

Since the Consent Decree has been in place, Durkan said the new policies and procedures at SPD have resulted in a significant drop in the use of force.

Still, Durkan said incidents like the fatal shooting of African-American woman Charleena Lyles in 2017 show that the city and the department can do better.

Enrique Gonzalez, co-chair of the Community Police Commission (a civilian body created as part of the reform process), said there’s still a lot to do to truly cement reforms.

“Full and effective compliance does not mean we have fixed policing in Seattle. Full and effective compliance does not mean that communities across Seattle feel safer or trust the system. It does not mean we can pat ourselves on the back and say job well done," he said.

The next leader of SPD will also need to be committed to continuing the reform effort.

Chief Kathleen O’Toole helped usher in many reforms during her tenure. She stepped down at the end of 2017.

Durkan said the next chief must be able to cement and continue the progress made at SPD.

"I promise that the next police chief of the city of Seattle will be someone who will make sure that we continue in this very important process of police reforms."

Durkan said the city, police department and Justice Department will create a roadmap for the next two years, and it will be critical to hire someone who can an effective leader and carry out that plan.