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Citing 'significant progress,' Justice Department moves to end consent decree with Seattle police

caption: The DOJ's Kristen Clarke announced a joint motion to end the  consent decree on March 28, 2023, accompanied by Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell, City Attorney Ann Davison and SPD Chief Adrian Diaz.
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The DOJ's Kristen Clarke announced a joint motion to end the consent decree on March 28, 2023, accompanied by Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell, City Attorney Ann Davison and SPD Chief Adrian Diaz.
KUOW/Amy Radil

Federal oversight of the Seattle Police Department may be winding down. Justice Department officials and city leaders have asked a federal judge to find the city largely in compliance with the consent decree. The decree has been in place more than a decade, after federal officials found a pattern of unconstitutional excessive force by officers.

Flanked by Seattle leaders at the federal courthouse Tuesday, Justice Department officials said Seattle police have complied with the core objectives of the consent decree. Kristen Clarke is the DOJ’s assistant attorney general for civil rights.

“Our effort today is to bring to an end the longstanding consent decree that’s been in place in Seattle given the significant progress that’s been achieved through the work of the community, the police department and the city for over eleven years,” Clarke said.

She said through that process in Seattle, the DOJ administered some “strong medicine” and Seattle has made major progress in being cured. Clarke said Seattle’s achievements support the consent decree model, as DOJ probes other police departments around the country for civil rights violations.

Clarke noted that SPD has reduced its use of serious force by 60% under the decree. She also cited improved policy and training for investigative stops, bias-free policing, and for contacting people in mental health or substance use crises.

But Clarke quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to say that change only comes from continuous struggle, and terminating the consent decree is not the end point for police reform.

“The next chapter will require continuous struggle to ensure that change does roll in, to ensure that the constitutional rights of everyone in Seattle are protected particularly among those most vulnerable,” she said.

DOJ officials flagged two areas where they will tell the court that Seattle has more work to do. One is in crowd management policies.

“The city continues to complete its review and implement reforms related to the use of force during the protests in the summer of 2020, and that work must be completed before it’s appropriate to fully end court oversight on that issue,” Clarke said.

A 2022 federal monitor’s assessment of SPD described a breakdown in leadership from command staff during the protests, “which left front-line officers to pick up the pieces” and created “deep wounds” in the community.

And SPD’s accountability system will remain under scrutiny. That’s the process for disciplining officers who commit misconduct.

Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz said terminating the consent decree will remove the layers of review that SPD must currently to go through to make policy updates. Currently he said it can take up to a year to get any changes approved.

“I think now this will allow us to be a little bit more responsible, a little bit more nimble,” Diaz said.

Seattle’s Community Police Commission, which along with the Office of Inspector General was formed out of the consent decree process, said in a statement that “it is time to return the primary responsibility of police oversight to the community.”

“There’s been some ebb and flow," said the Rev. Harriett Walden, one of the commission co-chairs. So, today is a good day for the city and for the Department of Justice, to ask the judge to come from under the consent decree.”

The Rev. Patricia Hunter, the interim pastor at Mt. Zion Baptist Church and another CPC co-chair, said there’s work to do. She said she’s concerned about the continued racial disparities in the agency’s use of force, and the inadequate staffing as SPD struggles to hire more officers.

“I’m also concerned about officer accountability and how you get to that, when there’s collective bargaining and some of the discipline of officers can be bargained away,” Hunter said.

That was the basis for a federal judge to find Seattle partially out of compliance with the consent decree in 2019.

Seattle passed an accountability ordinance in 2017 but the subsequent contract with the Seattle Police Officers Guild didn’t fully implement it. Meanwhile, an officer who was terminated for using excessive force was reinstated to SPD. U.S. District Judge James Robart said given those issues, SPD’s accountability framework fell short of the consent decree’s goals.

Seattle is currently negotiating a new contract with the guild. For their part, guild officials said in a statement that their officers have made Seattle the model of public safety reform and, “it’s time for Mayor Harrell and the City Council to do their part and deliver a fair and competitive contract to our officers.”

A major catalyst for the consent decree was an incident in 2010 in which a Seattle police officer shot and killed a First Nations woodcarver named John T. Williams. SPD found the shooting unjustified, but the officer was not disciplined; he ultimately resigned.

That case drew protests and nonprofits called for Justice Department oversight. Williams’ death also led to a 2018 ballot measure where voters changed the standard to charge police with misuse of deadly force.

A hearing in federal court hasn’t yet been scheduled for Judge Robart to consider the joint motion from DOJ and Seattle to approve the compliance agreement. If he approves the motion, the consent decree would end and be replaced with a “narrow transition agreement” to resolve the two remaining issues of concern, Clarke said.

In a court filing Tuesday, SPD Chief Operating Officer Brian Maxey said the department has created a full-day mandatory training on crowd management for sworn personnel. According to the court document, “The new training places a heightened emphasis on de-escalation principles in the crowd management context... Examples include meeting with event organizers ahead of a protest, maintaining a low-profile (less visible police presence) when feasible, and using social media to communicate information to protestors in real time.”

It continues, “Officers are trained in using new tactics to address individuals who are taking unlawful actions in otherwise lawful crowds, in order to minimize the collateral effects (e.g, of OC spray or blast balls) on non-violent demonstrators. SPD has not used blast balls—or any less lethal force—at a protest since September 2020; SPD has not used tear gas since July 2020.”

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