On March 28, the city of Seattle and the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a joint motion in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington to effectively end the consent decree related to the Seattle Police Department’s (SPD) unconstitutional policing. The decree has been in place since 2012.
“Today’s joint filing recognizes the excellent progress our officers have made and our ongoing commitment to keep moving forward,” said Mayor Bruce Harrell, in a press release. The release notes that the federal monitor found, in its 2022 assessment of SPD’s progress, that the department had complied with the consent decree’s core requirements, including use of force, crisis response, stops, detentions and supervision.
In a memo, the agency wrote, “The City of Seattle demonstrated in Phase I, Phase II, and during the 2021 Monitoring Plan that they both achieved full and effective compliance with the core areas of the Consent Decree and sustained that compliance for more than four years.”
The memo goes on to ask that the court allow the “Compliance Agreement to supersede the Consent Decree.”
Data included in that memo show a consistent reduction in the amount of incidences of use of force during contacts with people in crisis. Officers used force in 2 percent of contacts in Phase I (June 1, 2015, to Aug. 31, 2016) versus 1.5 percent during the 2022 Monitoring Plan (Jan. 1, 2019, to Dec. 31, 2020). Data also shows that the rate of stops supported by “reasonable, articulable suspicion” — i.e., not just because the cops didn’t like the look of you — was more than 90 percent throughout the monitoring process.
The mayor’s press release also noted that less than 1 percent of total police encounters with the public involve use of force. Of those that the city says require force, 99 percent are consistent with SPD policy and therefore meet the department’s constitutional obligations.
“Our consent decree has provided the strong medicine needed to help cure problems and improve the way policing is carried out across the City of Seattle. Today we recognize the progress that has been made, the significant reforms instituted and the central role that the community has played and will continue to play in ensuring fair, non-discriminatory and effective policing moving forward,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, with the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, in a separate DOJ press release announcing the filing.
While the DOJ is clearly satisfied with the SPD’s progress, the city is not out of the woods yet.
The compliance plan that would replace the consent decree requires the city to demonstrate progress in two areas: accountability, meaning the process by which police officers face consequences for violating citizens’ civil rights or committing crimes themselves, and use of force in the context of crowd management, specifically relating to SPD’s actions during the 2020 protests over the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police.
SPD would be required to comply in those areas — as well as, notably, the core requirements of the original consent decree — for one year under the terms of the new agreement. If that year passes without incident, the court will hold another hearing to potentially release the city from the agreement, officially ending all federal involvement in Seattle’s ongoing police drama.
Compliance assessment would transition under the new agreement from the federal monitor to the Community Police Commission (CPC), the Office of Police Accountability and the Office of Inspector General for Public Safety (OIG), an independent police oversight body created as part of the City Council’s 2017 police accountability legislation.
“Under the Compliance Agreement, the OIG will take on new, substantial obligations as an important step toward assuming the role of the Monitor. It will conduct a Use-of-Force Assessment to examine force used in crisis incidents, the use of less lethal devices, and force used in the crowd management context. The Monitor and the OIG also will collaborate to develop a workplan detailing OIG’s approach for ensuring continued robust, independent monitoring of SPD, so it will be well-positioned once federal oversight ends,” the joint motion reads.
The CPC, at times one of SPD’s fiercest critics, issued a statement on Twitter welcoming the move and heralding the joint motion as a win for community oversight.
“We knew [in 2012] that there were problems with policing in Seattle that were beyond the jurisdiction of a federal judge. While there has been notable progress, after nearly 11 years of federal judicial oversight it is time to return the primary responsibility of police oversight to the community,” the organization wrote.
Not everyone was as thrilled about the move.
Paul Chapman, a chair of the 43rd District Democrats, replied to the CPC’s tweet, “The CPC merely whitewashes SPD’s crimes. Ending the consent decree and returning oversight to the CPC will do little to nothing to fix SPD’s ongoing brutality.”
Another user, Chase Cross, replied with the observation, “Just three years ago there were 19,000 brutality complaints against the SPD. Only ~140 were even investigated.”
Per Jamie Housen, the mayor’s director of communications, the court has not set a date to hear the motion.
Tobias Coughlin-Bogue is the associate editor at Real Change.
Read more of the Apr. 5-11, 2023 issue.