Judge Rules Seattle Is in Compliance with Consent Decree

The news ushers in a two-year monitoring period in which the city can’t slip up.

On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge James Robart ruled that the Seattle Police Department has fully complied with the first phase of a 2012 consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) that required SPD to reduce its excessive use of force and improve its relationship with the community. The ruling initiates the second phase, which requires SPD to sustain compliance during a two year monitoring period before the consent decree can be completely terminated.

In his 16-page ruling, Robart commended SPD for the reforms of its department, but warned that Phase II would require “dedication, hard work, creativity, flexibility, vigilance, endurance, and continued development and refinement of policies and procedures in accordance with constitutional principles.”

In addition to maintaining the training and policy changes adopted over the past several years, the ruling requires that the city reach a new collective bargaining agreement with Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG), Seattle’s largest police union, that’s in accordance with police accountability legislation passed in May. “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 II will be imperiled,” Robart wrote.

At a City Hall press conference late Wednesday afternoon, Mayor Jenny Durkan echoed the sentiment that the ruling was cause for celebration and renewed commitment to improving the city’s police force. Durkan stood at the same podium where she had announced the consent decree in 2012 as U.S. Attorney.

“I think it’s important for everyone in Seattle to understand that Seattle now stands as a model, because we have moved from a force that was command and control to one where de-escalation and minimization of force was in the policy, in the training, and now we know it was actually what’s happening in practice,” Durkan said as a troupe of police officers, policy makers and members of the Community Police Commission stood beside her.

Wednesday’s ruling followed years federal oversight and prodding from police reform advocates. The city entered into a consent decree with the DOJ following the 2010 killing of First Nations woodcarver John T. Williams by a Seattle police officer. In police dashboard footage from the time, Williams is seen traversing a crosswalk with his gaze fixed to a slab of wood before reaching the sidewalk and disappearing from view.

Officer Ian Birk is shown approaching the crosswalk with a drawn gun before he also falls out of the footage’s range. In audio from the dashboard camera, Birk is heard shouting at Williams to put the knife down before firing several shots. Williams’ family members later revealed that he was deaf in one ear and might not have heard the officer. King County prosecutors decided not to press charges against Birk, citing a 1986 state law that shields officers from prosecution if they’ve killed someone on the line of duty “without malice and with a good faith belief that such act is justifiable.”

Williams’ death sparked protests in the city and launched a federal investigation into SPD that found a pattern of excessive force and racially biased policing. To avoid prolonged litigation, the city settled with the DOJ by signing a consent decree that ordered Seattle to reform its use of force policies, retrain its officers and improve relations with citizens. The court also appointed monitor Merrick Bobb, who was charged with overseeing Seattle’s police reform.

After a slow start, the police made progress over the years through its bias-free and deescalation trainings, according to Bobb’s reports. An April 2017 report that looked at data from 2014-2016 showed that moderate to high levels of use of force decreased by 60 percent since 2011. In her speech Wednesday, Durkan referenced one statistic from the report showing that only 39 out of 2,385 incidents involved the most serious use of force.

“I want to make very clear than any incident that uses serious use of force is, by its nature, serious. And we know that particularly in some of the tragic incidents we have had in the city show that we can do better,” Durkan said. “Particularly the shooting death recently of Charleena Lyles. We know that we want to improve ourselves as a police department.” The ruling followed the November finding by the Police Department’s Force Review Board that the fatal shooting of Charleena Lyles, a pregnant African American mother of four, by two white police officers was within policy.

Throughout the conference, speakers reiterated that the police department’s work was not over with the conclusion of the order’s initial phase. “Today, Judge Robart has given the city it’s greatest achievement and it’s greatest challenge,” said Councilmember M. Lorena González from behind the podium. “Will we be able to drive through long-term, sustainable police reforms without the training wheels? We’re up for the challenge because the ultimate price of not doing so will be paid by the next Charleena Lyles and of the officers who are in those unfortunate situations,” she added. González stressed that finding an Inspector General to act as the permanent police monitor, as per Robart’s order, would be essential in ensuring that the city remains in full compliance of the consent decree.

Co-Chair of Seattle Community Police Commission, Enrique Gonzalez, spoke next and began his remarks by acknowledging the Duwamish land that Seattle was built upon. As he spoke, Seattle’s seal bearing the portrait of Duwamish leader Chief Seattle could be seen hanging on the wall behind him. He urged Seattle to consider the definition of full and effective compliance. “Full and effective compliance does not mean that communities across Seattle feel safer or trust the system. It does not mean that we can pat ourselves on the back and say job well done,” Gonzalez said. “The work that the community has done has brought us to this point and now the real work begins. The community started this work, the community held us and will hold us accountable and the community must remain centered as we move forward,” he added.

Senait Brown, a member of local community organization Ending the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC) agrees that compliance needs to be redefined. “Our kids are being criminalized by the police and we’re being brutalized,” Brown said during a phone interview with Seattle Weekly after the press conference Wednesday, referencing the fatal shootings of Charleena Lyles and Che Taylor as evidence that SPD hasn’t sufficiently reduced its excessive use of force. She also disagreed with the federal court’s ruling that the police department has improved its relations with the community, as required in the consent decree. “Even if there’s any sort of transformative relationship where we’re actually deescalating the current police state and moving to a more community based … control over wellness and care in our community, we can’t even start that conversation unless there’s acknowledgement of the systemic injustice and inherent racist nature of the police,” Brown explained, adding that she’s found the department is “resistant to any sort of teaching, or training or understanding like that.”

The meeting ended with Durkan fielding questions from reporters, in which she discussed that King County will be reforming the process of police shooting inquests that are designed to create a record of what transpired during the incidents. “While you can’t have a tragedy-free police department, it has got to be our goal,” Durkan said.

In response to one reporter’s question about the unfinished collective bargaining agreement with police union SPOG, Durkan confirmed that the city wants a contract that will not compromise reform, as per Robart’s ruling.

Attendee Kevin Stuckey, SPOG President, said after the conference that the union would be meeting with Durkan on Thursday, during which time he hopes that they will discuss the contract. “My hope is that we get all these really intelligent people together and we can sit down and come up with something that everyone can live with,” Stuckey said.