The long saga of Seattle's civilian police commissioners and their struggle to exert influence over the federally-mandated police reform process continued this morning with a press conference at City Hall. This time, the commissioners brought backup: Nearly 50 community leaders representing faith and racial justice groups, who called on the feds to hurry up and let the city pass a law that would strengthen civilian oversight and accountability of police.
The delays on the police accountability ordinance have been long in the making. Mayor Ed Murray pledged his support for a new accountability law—and his willingness to include the civilian police commissioners' recommendations in that law—one year ago. But then the mayor twiddled his thumbs for the following seven months until a federal judge, in June, declared that any new law needs his approval before it gets submitted to the city council.
That hasn't happened yet, which means there's still no police accountability ordinance before Seattle's nine council members.
"Further delay in moving forward with the full package does not meet the expectations of our communities for substantive and timely reforms," the community leaders say in an open letter to Merrick Bobb, the court-appointed monitor for the reform process. "We are also concerned that the credibility of community involvement in the reform process is being undercut [by the delays]." (Read the whole thing below.)
The Community Police Commission, a diverse volunteer group including a baptist preacher, a Native American activist, and civil liberties lawyers, makes up the department's civilian oversight system—along with the salaried, civilian-led Office of Professional Accountability, which investigates misconduct. In 2013, the commissioners threatened to resign unless Bobb, the federal monitor, allowed them to have a say in the development of new use-of-force policies. More recently, commissioners warned the Department of Justice that unless their work is taken seriously, they'll go back to protesting the police.
Bobb's firm, the Police Assessment Resource Center, did not respond to a request for comment. But in a memorandum filed with the court last week, the monitor said he would recommend a "process going forward" to deal with the accountability reforms by late January—more than eighteen months after the commissioners first proposed them. Community supporters of the CPC say that sounds too vague and too slow.
In a statement, Murray said the city "must follow the process set forth by the Court and the Monitor. I am encouraged that the Monitor has now set a timetable to respond to our joint recommendations." In other words, he's rejecting this morning's call for speedier action from the community groups, rather than joining it.
I asked Chris Stearns, the former chair of the Seattle Human Rights Commission and a member of the King County Native American Leadership Council, who co-signed the letter, what he really thinks is behind the delays.
"I think that's the nature of institutional and structural racism," Stearns said. "Not that the judge or the mayor or any of those people are racist in person. But this is what happens when the people are asking for a transfer of power away from the court system and the police—and to give that power to the people. It doesn't happen easily... That's what's really going on here."
He said the fact that ongoing negotiations between the city and the "hugely influential" Seattle Police Officers Guild—the union that represents rank and file officers—are kept secret only compounds the difficulty in shifting power from police to civilians.
"The CPC has some power, but it doesn't have a lot," Stearns continued. "The endgame has to be a civilian run, independent police oversight agency that has its own subpoena powers, that can investigate the police on its own. And that's something simple. It's really hard to get to, but I think that's what we'll end up with, eventually."
"It could be twenty years from now," he added with a laugh.
Here's the full text of the letter:
November 30, 2015
Mr. Merrick Bobb, Seattle Police Monitor
Via E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Dear Mr. Bobb,
Since late June 2015, draft legislation to reform the Seattle Police Department’s accountability system has been ready for submission to the City Council. This package has been jointly endorsed by all City stakeholders and came out of a comprehensive set of recommendations originally issued by the Community Police Commission (CPC) in April 2014. The legislation provisions ready for immediate action (others must await the conclusion of collective bargaining) are detailed in an August 21, 2015 letter from the City to you and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).
We wish to be on record with our strong support of the proposed legislation as represented in the City’s letter. We also believe it is urgent that all impediments to City Council action and the Mayor’s signature need to be removed. Twenty months after the CPC identified, on behalf of the community, needed improvements to the accountability system, further delay in moving forward with the full package does not meet the expectations of our communities for substantive and timely reforms.
Among other important elements in the legislation are provisions to strengthen the independence and authority of the professional civilian oversight bodies, the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) and the Office of the OPA Auditor. Critically, the legislation also provides that the CPC become the permanent community-based oversight body for the police department.
In many respects we were Seattle’s first de facto community police commission—many of our organizations were among the thirty-five community groups that signed the 2010 letter asking DOJ to investigate SPD. Before the Settlement was finalized, we strongly urged that the community have a seat at the table during the reforms and stated that, on an ongoing basis, SPD had to be accountable to the community.
Through the CPC, the Settlement Agreement and the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the City and the DOJ provide that the community’s voice is heard during the reform process. Now it is time to make permanent the community’s role in overseeing our police department. We have high confidence in the CPC which has served as the community oversight body to the reform work for nearly 3 years. It has a positive track record of openness and fairness that we respect, and it takes seriously its role in both directly representing a wide range of community perspectives and in engaging community members to obtain their views.
All of the City of Seattle partners have expressed their agreement with the CPC on a consensus package of comprehensive reforms. Almost exactly one year ago, in the face of the impending unrest nationally in the wake of events in Ferguson, Missouri, Mayor Murray predicted that matters in Seattle would go differently in large part because the CPC stepped up to channel community sentiment into the reform process. He committed to forwarding an accountability reform package to the City Council by early in 2015. Councilmembers have also expressed their willingness to move expeditiously on the package. Yet, despite our understanding that the accountability system was largely left to the political leaders of the city and the CPC under the MOU, accomplishing these agreed upon reforms seems to have stalled.
Many CPC members come from our communities and they have put in significant time, both previously and in their current capacity, to championing and working collaboratively to achieve police reforms. Their participation in the work of the CPC requires an extensive investment of effort, some of which is offered at the expense of their other responsibilities. We see that sacrifice as worthwhile if it results in substantive, effective changes to our police department. However, we are concerned that the CPC’s hard-won accountability system recommendations, which are embraced by all City stakeholders, are at risk. We are also concerned that the credibility of community involvement in the reform process is being undercut.
In requesting a DOJ investigation and court supervision, we did not think it would replace the community’s expertise and leadership. In respect to the accountability legislation, this guidance has been provided, as required by the MOU, and we ask that you seek the court’s permission for the City to move forward with the jointly agreed to accountability reform package immediately.
The Reverend Aaron Williams, Senior Pastor Mount Zion Baptist Church
Diane Narasaki, Executive Director Asian Counseling and Referral Service
Estela Ortega, Executive Director El Centro de La Raza
S. Arsalan Bukhari, Executive Director
Council on American-Islamic Relations of Washington State
Pamela Stearns, President King County Native American Leadership Council
The Reverend Steve Baber, President Washington Christian Leaders Coalition
The Reverend Lawrence Willis, President United Black Clergy
Sheley Secrest, Vice President NAACP Seattle King County
Rich Stolz, Executive Director OneAmerica
Diakonda Gurning and Sheri Day, Coalition Designated Representatives John T. Williams Organizing Coalition
Jorge Barón, Executive Director Northwest Immigrant Rights Project
Dorothy Wong, Executive Director Chinese Information and Service Center
Andrea Caupain, CEO Centerstone
Alison Eisinger, Executive Director Seattle-King County Coalition on Homelessness
Timothy Harris, Executive Director Real Change
Daniel Malone, Executive Director Downtown Emergency Services Center
The Reverend Paul Benz, Co-Director Faith Action Network
Michael Ramos, Executive Director Church Council of Greater Seattle
Rebecca Saldana, Executive Director Puget Sound Sage
Pamela Banks, President and CEO
Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle
Christopher T. Stearns Native American attorney and past Seattle Human Rights Commission Chair
Jeff Johnson, President WA State Labor Council, AFL-CIO
Beto Yarce, Executive Director Ventures Non-Profit
Hilary Stern, Executive Director Casa Latina
Jacqueline Wu, President OCA – Greater Seattle
Jafar "Jeff" Siddiqui American Muslims of Puget Sound
Kevin Cummings, Founder and President Council for First Inhabitants Rights and Equality (Council FIRE)
Maiko Winkler-Chin, Executive Director Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority
Marcos Martinez, Executive Director Entre Hermanos
Maria Batayola, President Filipino American Political Action Group of Washington
Mozart Guerrier, Executive Director 21 Progress
Nina Martinez, Chair Latino Civic Alliance
Paul Tashima, President Japanese American Citizens League - Seattle
Peter Bloch Garcia, Executive Director Latino Community Fund
Rogelio Riojas, President and CEO SeaMar Community Health Centers
Sharonne Navas, Co-Founder and Executive Director Equity in Education Coalition
Teresa Mosqueda, Political and Strategic Campaign Director WA State Labor Council, AFL-CIO
Tony Lee, Co-Chair Asian Pacific Islander Coalition of King County
Beth Takekawa, Executive Director Wing Luke Museum
Tony To, Executive Director HomeSight
The Honorable State Representative Phyllis Gutierrez Kenney
Frances Carr, Community Leader
Kitty Wu, Community Leader
Michael Woo, Community Leader
Samantha B. Morales, Community Leader
Sharon Maeda, Community Leader
Tammy Morales, Community Leader
Hon. Loretta Lynch, Attorney General, United States of America
Vanita Gupta, Civil Rights Division, US Department of Justice
Tim Mygatt, Civil Rights Division, US Department of Justice
Puneet Cheema, Civil Rights Division, US Department of Justice
Hon. James L. Robart, US District Court, Western District of Washington
Annette L. Hayes, US Attorney, Western District of Washington
Hon. Edward Murray, Mayor, City of Seattle
Tim Burgess, President, Seattle City Council
Jean Godden, Member, Seattle City Council
Kshama Sawant, Member, Seattle City Council
Bruce A. Harrell, Member, Seattle City Council
Sally Bagshaw, Member, Seattle City Council
Tom Rasmussen, Member, Seattle City Council
Nick Licata, Member, Seattle City Council
Mike O’Brien, Member, Seattle City Council
Lorena Gonzalez, Member, Seattle City Council
Debora Juarez, Member-elect, Seattle City Council
Robert Johnson, Member-elect, Seattle City Council
Lisa Herbold, Member-elect, Seattle City Council
Peter S. Holmes, City Attorney, City of Seattle
The Reverend Harriett Walden, Co-Chair, Seattle Community Police Commission
Lisa Daugaard, Co-Chair, Seattle Community Police Commission
Fe Lopez, Executive Director, Seattle Community Police Commission