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caption: Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta hears from the Seattle Community Police Commission.
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Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta hears from the Seattle Community Police Commission.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Amy Radil

Seattle Police Reformers Say They're Being Shut Out

Community police reformers are seizing upon the visit from U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch to voice their frustrations with the Department of Justice's police reform process.

The Community Police Commission said so far it’s been "denied a seat at the table."

Seattle’s CPC was created as part of the federal consent decree to change the practices at the Seattle Police Department. But the group’s volunteers – police and civilians – say so far they have been putting in long hours for little return.

Members said they are trying to raise the issues important to the public and rank-and-file police officers, but the federal court and the independent monitor have not taken their input.

Commission member Aaron Williams is the senior pastor at Mt. Zion Baptist Church. He told DOJ officials in a meeting Wednesday that the CPC needs a more formal role, not an advisory one, especially since the DOJ is using Seattle as a model for other cities, like Cleveland.

“It was the community’s voice that brought the DOJ here,” Williams said. “And for them to say that the CPC doesn’t have a place at the table is really saying that the community doesn’t have a place at the table. So I think it’s important that if we‘re going to be a model for other cities, that this kind of mentality has to be dealt with.”

The commission has tried to expand its role, but so far its requests haven’t been granted.

In 2013 the commission sought to become a formal party to the federal consent decree, which would have given it more of a voice in the federal court process. DOJ attorneys opposed the commission’s request and it was ultimately denied by U.S. District Judge James Robart, who oversees the consent decree.

More recently Robart said the CPC was “seeking to grab power” through a city ordinance that would make the group permanent.

Commission member Enrique Gonzalez of El Centro de la Raza said it’s significant that commission members are trying to reach consensus on tough issues and engage in the court process at all.

“Historically this stuff has not been done in a courtroom. It’s been done on the streets, it’s been done protesting,” he said. “And we’ve chosen a process where we’re sitting at a table, trying to make sure we’re putting our best foot forward.”

Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta of DOJ's Civil Rights Division came straight from the airport to meet with the CPC at City Hall on Wednesday. She is also taking part in a community forum during Lynch's visit.

Gupta assured the commission she is listening. “There are a lot of communities looking at what you are doing, acknowledging the important role you play in this work,” she said.

A big issue for the commission right now is body cameras for police officers. The DOJ just awarded Seattle $600,000 to buy them, but commission members oppose use of the cameras until state law is changed.

The CPC said under the state’s public disclosure law, police agencies would be forced to disclose almost all recorded videos as officers investigate child abuse, inform people of the deaths of loved ones, and work with police informants, among other issues.

Gupta said she’s aware of the privacy concerns around police-worn body cameras. She said the federal funding doesn’t compel SPD to use cameras before these concerns are vetted.

“When the DOJ gives these grants, it isn’t at all to dictate what the parameters are, how this money should be used, what the policies are that should be implemented,” she said.

The CPC also released a statement asking that community members be “invited” into the police reform process rather than having to “fight their way into conversations.”