In federal court last week, 126 Seattle police officers filed a lawsuit that reveals a bitter divide within the department. While federal prosecutors three years ago outlined a pattern of Seattle police unconstitutionally using excessive force, these 126 officers are now attempting to turn the tables, alleging that new force regulations actually violate their constitutional rights as cops.
In the 81-page lawsuit, the officers repeatedly argue that using restraint as prescribed in the complicated new regulations will threaten the lives of both officers and citizens. For example, they claim the policies require cops to "under-react to threats of harm until we have no choice but to overreact. This makes it inevitable—although unnecessary and unreasonable—that officers and citizens will get killed or seriously injured."
The use-of-force regulations, which took effect January 1, are widely considered the linchpin of a 2012 federal court settlement intended to fix the SPD's problems.
The suit asks a federal judge to quickly suspend the new policy, citing the "dangers it creates to the safety of SPD patrol officers and the public," and then seeks a ruling that nixes the regulations entirely as "beyond repair." The officers' complaint then goes into legally dubious territory, seeking punitive damages from the city and Feds for what they call the "ungrounded maligning of the good work of SPD's patrol officers."
"It boggles the mind to read what they are saying," said Chris Stearns, an attorney and former chair of the Seattle Human Rights Commission, after reading the lawsuit. "If the rank and file was so sincerely worried about using excessive force against citizens, especially people of color, then we probably wouldn't be here in the first place."
Indeed, this lawsuit is more than a legal challenge to policies created by the settlement. It's a sign of entrenched cultural resistance to reform within the department—a resistance so strong that, two years later, more than 100 officers are emboldened enough to go to court, apparently without fear of repercussions. A judge's ruling can't quash that sort of brazen cultural opposition within the SPD. "Those are angry cops right now," says a city hall insider who asked to remain anonymous for this article. "I would love to know what [city leaders] are going to do about that."
The question is whether officials at the US Department of Justice and the City of Seattle, both named in the lawsuit, are willing to acknowledge and tackle that anti-reform culture head-on.
The SPD issued a generic statement that said the lawsuit "does not represent the views of the Seattle Police Department." And for his part, Mayor Ed Murray issued his own statement saying it's too soon to comment on the lawsuit itself, but vowing to comply with the federal reform order. "The City of Seattle will not fight the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice," Murray said. "This is not the 1960s."
Then there's US Attorney Jenny Durkan.
She held a press conference two days after the suit was filed, on May 30, that began sanely enough, with Durkan emphasizing that the new use-of-force regulations don't compromise officer safety. "The last thing I want to do as a US attorney is make a police officer's job more difficult," said Durkan, adding that there is "no evidence I have seen that police officers are afraid to do their job." For the most part, she pointed out, the SPD is a stand-up brigade of crime-fighting professionals.
Which is certainly true: Most Seattle cops are fighting crime and support constitutional policing.
But Durkan took a right-hand turn when reporters began asking questions about where this anti-reform sentiment came from. After all, this lawsuit didn't happen in a vacuum. Influential officers have been cultivating a culture of undermining reform for years and establishing a pattern of anti-reform legal action.
The cops who signed on to the lawsuit all appear to be members of the Seattle Police Officers' Guild (SPOG), the union that represents about 1,200 lower-ranking officers. It's been at the forefront of fighting reforms, and last year sued to block the entire reform plan.
One of the plaintiffs is Officer Steven Pomper, who has used the SPOG newspaper, called the Guardian, to write articles fighting the city's Race and Social Justice Initiative, opposing training designed to reduce racial profiling, and calling pro-reform politicians at city hall "the enemy."
In the January issue of the Guardian, editor Officer Chet Decker criticizes the use-of-force policy for many of the same reasons stated in the suit: "No longer can we respond reasonably when facing off with violent criminals on the streets," Decker writes. "Not without first calling a time-out and consulting with a new behemoth 74-page Use of Force policy now governing our actions... I still cannot find the promised list of department-approved Dance-Off Moves that are known to lighten the mood with combative suspects. Remember, we can de-escalate anything, because the academic types say so."
The Guardian has run cartoons the last two months mocking the force guidelines as too onerous and too impractical.
Which is to say, this lawsuit is not just the tantrum of a few rogue cops. It's a glimpse into the mind-set of Seattle's most powerful union of city employees, and it undoubtedly represents the attitudes of many more cops who didn't sign on to that lawsuit.
Asked about SPOG's role in this anti- reform culture, Durkan minimized its impact as essentially irrelevant. In a few sentences, she downplayed the fact that 10 percent of the police force is going to court, calling them a small minority of "dissenters." In contrast, and unbelievably, Durkan spent several minutes ridiculing the pro-reform Community Police Commission, a mostly civilian panel that advises the city and Feds on reforms. Then Durkan praised interim chief Harry Bailey—who promoted union cronies to command staff, while pro-reform cops said Bailey sent reform two years backward—as evidence that reform was finally going forward.
Durkan's comments made her appear detached from reality.
At best, she seemed unaware of a thriving, empowered police culture that is marching away from reform. To take a more cynical view, she was attacking the pro-reform civilians while letting police leadership—leadership that has been part of the problem—off the hook.
So what concerns does Durkan have about the roots of this anti-reform culture?
"I don't want to go on anecdotes and cartoons," Durkan told reporters. "The vast majority of police officers in Seattle go to work and are honorable public servants. There is, in every organization, people who will be dissenters... I believe and continue to believe that [this faction of officers] is an exception and a growing exception."
The union makes a similar argument.
Ron Smith, the president of SPOG, said in a phone interview, "The guild had no involvement in that lawsuit." Smith said officers approached him in March, but he discouraged them from litigating—he recommended they take their concerns to the police commission, which helped draft the use-of-force rules.
Still, I pointed out to Smith, his organization fostered the very arguments that now appear in the lawsuit, so how can he disavow them now?
Smith said the cartoons are "political satire," and that while the union has articulated hostility to reform in the past, the members have toned it down since he took the presidency earlier this year. These days, Smith contends, "We have made substantial progress in aligning ourselves with the reform process, working where we can with the city."
But no one can deny the significance of so many officers taking this issue to federal court. Regardless of the merits of their legal arguments, the fact that 10 percent of the sworn police force feels this way, openly, is an undeniable obstacle to reform.
But rather than pointing her fire at the union, the angriest comments from Durkan were aimed at the police commission.
At issue was a May 14 presentation on policing trends from 2005 to 2013—a presentation the commission worked with department officials to request and develop. Some downtown business types clutched their pearls and claimed the presentation showed evidence the SPD was de-policing low-level crimes, which ostensibly lead to street disorder. Others pointed out that the presentation shows officers were reducing problematic stops (including jaywalking tickets) that got the city into this mess. But Durkan was furious with the presentation because, she argued for several minutes, it was requested by a bunch of know-nothings and based on incongruous data from the police, the municipal courts, and the county jail.
"I was surprised that anyone would hand it out," Durkan spat, taking an apparent dig at the commissioners. (The police commission issued a clarification that the presentation was, in fact, "not handed out or distributed precisely because it was not a report or a finished product." Apparently, it was leaked.) "To my knowledge, it serves no purpose... Data for data's sake is meaningless... I will say that that report is not something that anyone who knows anything about law enforcement would rely on."
This has been par for the course for Durkan, who has repeatedly tried to minimize the police commission's work in comments to the press. Durkan also fought the commission in court last fall when they requested more time to finesse the use-of-force policies.
The fact that Durkan was spitting nails at the commissioners while refusing to acknowledge or condemn the union culture behind this lawsuit should worry everyone in Seattle.
But Durkan explained why she wasn't worried: the leadership at city hall. Durkan told reporters, "We have a clear message from the mayor to the chief of police... reform is under way."
This is also par for the course: Durkan backed up Ed Murray when he ran for mayor and cooed over Harry Bailey when he was appointed as interim police chief (making several statements about his qualifications). But, as I wrote in a feature story recently ("Reform in Reverse," April 16), police officers inside the department said Durkan's political buddies set the clock back on reform.
So the notion that Chief Bailey is evidence that all is right at the SPD just isn't true.
There is progress among many officers at the SPD, don't get me wrong. But Chief Bailey is not evidence that "reform is under way." It's not under way for the union that's harping on the use-of force policies, and reform is not under way for the 126 cops suing to overturn them.
In fact, I'd argue there is a problem—a protracted crisis—of anti-reform culture at the SPD. And right now, the US attorney involved in the court settlement to fix that problem is defending political allies, ignoring a real cultural obstacle within the SPD, attacking people she should be helping, and sticking her head in the sand while the cameras are rolling. Durkan is not quashing the SPD's internal revolt; she's tolerating it.