How We Got Here: Six Years of Wrangling Over Police Reform In Seattle

It’s been a long road to an imperfect solution.

The Seattle City Council unanimously passed comprehensive police reform legislation yesterday, institutionalizing a trifecta of police oversight agencies. Because the legislation passed unanimously, the mayor’s pending signature is a formality. More substantial is the pending review of the legislation by federal Judge James Robart, who is supervising Seattle’s consent decree with the DoJ. Still, the legislation’s passage is a huge milestone for police reform in Seattle.

“I truly believe that this will be an accountability system that will have legitimacy among our police officers and reform advocates,” said Councilmember Lorena González prior to the vote. She added that the legislation will advance the goal of “always turning a mirror on ourselves to continuously improve, instead of waiting for a crisis.”

From a City Council press release: “The crux of the legislation rests in the creation of three co-equal organizations that will collaborate but remain independent from undue influence from each other and external forces: the Community Police Commission (CPC), the Office of Inspector General (OIG) and the Office of Police Accountability (OPA).” The goal of this trifecta, it says, is to “establish an accountability system that inspires confidence and legitimacy amongst complainants and law enforcement.”

The saga began in 2010, when a Seattle police officer shot and killed a homeless Native American woodcarver without any obvious justification. Public outcry over that slaying, among others, led the state ACLU and 34 other organizations to request an investigation into Seattle police practices by the Department of Justice. The DoJ complied, and the following year found that Seattle police were routinely brutal and possibly racist.

Although then-mayor Mike McGinn initially resisted federal oversight, in 2012, Seattle settled with the DoJ on a plan that put into place the institutions that have guided the Seattle police reform process for the past five years—specifically, the Community Police Commission and the independent federal monitor. The settlement got off to a rocky start. In 2013, the federal monitor blasted police command staff for resisting reforms. During that year’s mayoral race, then-state senator Ed Murray criticized McGinn for dragging his feet on police reform.

Once assuming office in January 2014, Murray had his own rocky start in the arena of police reform. As then-Seattle Weekly staff writer Matt Driscoll reported after Murray’s first 100 days in office, “Having promised during his campaign to work effectively—unlike McGinn—on Department of Justice-mandated reforms, Murray’s police dealings have nevertheless seemed just as embarrassingly clumsy, coming off like a business-as-usual comedy of errors.

“In January, Murray replaced since-retired interim chief Jim Pugel—whom reformers have continually applauded for his efforts to shake up the SPD status quo—with Harry Bailey, a Seattle police officer for 35 years. Bailey emerged from retirement only to stumble badly through the reversal of misconduct findings against six officers, including one who had threatened to harass Stranger news editor Dominic Holden.”

The replacement of Pugel with Bailey was arguably a win for the city’s two police unions, who have at times opposed reform. But it was shortlived. Murray launched a nationwide search for a new police chief, ultimately hiring former Boston Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole. Murray later referred to his support for one of Bailey’s more controversial moves as “my own version of the Bay of Pigs.”

At the end of 2014, SPD launched its first body camera pilot project in the East Precinct. By mid-2015, the reform process was “well underway,” according to federal monitor Merrick Bobb. Part of that process involved politicking between the CPC and the mayor’s office over the permanence, insulation and authority of the CPC. During the same period, Seattle Police Officer Guild (SPOG) president Ron Smith made waves when he told The Stranger that local cops need to either be thoughtful about what they post on social media or consider working elsewhere. That comment became somewhat ironic the next year, when a tone-deaf post on SPOG’s Facebook page, written by Smith, became public. In the wake of the killing of five Dallas police officers, Smith posted that “the hatred of law enforcement by a minority movement is disgusting. … #weshallovercome”. Smith was soon ousted as president. He was replaced by Officer Kevin Stuckey, an erstwhile member of the CPC, who has publicly spoken of embracing court-mandate police reform.

In September 2015, Chief O’Toole fired Officer Cynthia Whitlatch after The Stranger published video of her arresting elderly William Wingate, who is black and was using a golf club as a cane. As is often the case with incidents of police abuse, Whitlatch is white and Wingate is black. Whitlatch asserted, sans evidence, that Wingate somehow threatened her with the cane/golf club as she was driving past. SPD and O’Toole disagreed. After Whitlatch doubled-down instead of acknowledging she’d screwed up, O’Toole fired her. The next month, O’Toole took the opposite tack when she downgraded the discipline dealt to an officer who had panicked and pepper sprayed innocent bystanders at a protest, in part because the officer acknowledged that she’d made a mistake. The message to SPD’s rank and file was clear: you don’t have to be perfect, but you do have to get in line.

Legal and political wrangling continued in 2016, when Judge Robart ordered the city to halt police accountability legislation until he’d had more time to review it. The next week, he threatened to override SPOG’s collective bargaining rights if the union used them to obstruct constitutional reforms, and stated from the bench that “black lives matter.” Earlier this year, he declined to intervene in an unfair labor practice claim filed by the SPMA, the union that represents management-level officers in SPD, though he could change his mind in the future.

Last month, federal monitor Bobb found SPD to be in “initial compliance” with court-ordered reforms. “SPD is reporting, tracking, investigating, and reviewing its use of force as never before,” Bobb wrote. “[O]verall use of force by the SPD is down – both across time under the Consent Decree and compared to the time period studied by the original DOJ investigation…even as officer injuries have not gone up and crime, by most measures, has not increased.”

Yesterday’s passage of the city’s comprehensive police accountability legislation was a major milestone toward full compliance with the consent decree. Again, Robart still needs to approve the legislation, though he’s already approved the original version that council amended before passing. González, a civil rights attorney, says the council has been very careful not to futz with anything that could cause Robart to rescind his approval.

The legislation isn’t perfect. As we reported, O’Toole and the city attorney criticized it for having too many police review bodies. Just before the Council’s final vote, three of the candidates racing to replace councilmember Tim Burgess asked city leaders to make public the portions of police union contract negotiations dealing with officer discipline open to the public.

But those critiques don’t change the fact that the legislation is a big deal.

“Today’s vote crystallizes my vision for Seattle’s police accountability framework and our ongoing efforts to reform the Seattle Police Department,” said González in a written statement after the vote. “Based on my experience in courtrooms, community and City Hall chambers I know that this legislation goes beyond systems-reform to get at the heart of police accountability: restoring trust between the police and communities most impacted by policing.”