If you like big declarations from on high, then I have good news for you: James Robart, a 68-year-old judge who oversees the Seattle Police Department's compliance with a Department of Justice reform agreement, said this morning that he is pleased with the department's progress.
"I am so pleased that my city is not New York, not Charlotte, not Baltimore," said Robart, a lifelong Seattleite, sitting at the head of a downtown courtroom during a hearing on the status of reforms. That SPD's de-escalation training was recently profiled in the New York Times as a national model is both surprising and encouraging, he noted.
But Robart said he was "very frustrated and upset" by what he's been reading in local news outlets about an agreement reached last night between Mayor Ed Murray and the Community Police Commission (CPC) to jointly give the commission permanent civilian oversight status through council ordinance. (The CPC, tired of waiting on the mayor, had planned until yesterday on moving forward on its own with proposed legislation.)
"The parties seem to have run off the railroad," Robart said forcefully. "I don't really care what accord was reached last night. None of it will be put into effect until you bring it back here."
Under the current settlement agreement between the city and the Department of Justice, the CPC will cease to exist once Robart is satisfied that the SPD has hit its reform targets. If the CPC wants a permanent role beyond the consent decree, the judge said, that requires amending the agreement itself.
"It strikes me reading these news reports that we have various groups seeking to grab power," Robart continued. "And that's not going to happen because the court is the one who controls the settlement agreement."
So who's to blame, and who's seeking to grab power? The judge insisted that no one is to blame. "Don't blame the DOJ, don't blame the mayor, don't blame the chief, don't blame the city council, and don't blame the CPC," Robart added at the end of his monologue. "This is the court enforcing its order."
And why wasn't the judge made aware of the CPC's efforts to make itself permanent earlier—not from news reports, but from the court-appointed federal monitor, Merrick Bobb, whose job is to keep the judge thoroughly informed about the SPD reform process?
That question loomed in the lobby as officials filed out of the courtroom. "We were surprised that the judge didn't know," said CPC co-chair Lisa Daugaard, stung by the judge's remarks, sitting with the other commissioners. Bobb, being pushed in a wheelchair, approached them. "We gave you a copy [of the proposed ordinance]," Daugaard told him, "and asked for your thoughts or assistance... This is such a..." She trailed off.
"You gave us no assistance, no guidance, and you apparently didn't share it with Merrick," said Jennifer Shaw, one of the CPC commissioners, looking at Matthew Barge, Bobb's deputy. Barge said something I couldn't hear, and Shaw responded, "That is absolutely not true." Shaw is the ACLU lawyer whose letter requested federal intervention to stop SPD's abuses in the first place.
"We have no comment," Bobb said, before being wheeled away. "The judge has spoken."
Shaw, of the ACLU, then followed him into the crowded elevator, with Chief O'Toole and several others, and silently shook her head at him, frowning.
Barge, Bobb's deputy, declined to comment.
In a cryptic statement following the hearing, U.S. Attorney Annette L. Hayes said the DOJ looks forward to "reviewing the results" of local efforts to push forward reform "as soon as they are presented to us, and, along with the City and the Monitor, presenting those to the Court for review and approval before they go into effect."
What's it all mean?
Well, your interpretation of today's courtroom drama probably depends on which camp you're in. When you talk about to officials in Seattle about police reform, they tend to fall into two camps: Either they treat the pronouncements of the feds as the final, unquestionable word on reform from on high, or they see the process as just as prone to the pitfalls of any other political process. Either the Community Police Commission and the mayor haven't been properly communicative and deferential to the federal parties, or the feds have been asleep at the wheel while the real work of reform gets hammered out at the local level and then woke up today feeling grumpy. Seattle's homegrown police accountability advocates—the people who've been doing this work for years—tend to fall into the latter camp. What Anne Levinson, the police accountability auditor, told me earlier this month now seems prescient:
She said some systemic accountability improvements still haven't been acted upon, despite her repeated recommendations. "A number of them have been implemented due to the intervention of the federal court and monitoring team," Levinson said, "but their attention has not been on improving parts of the system related to discipline, and their mandate does not extend to a range of other policing issues of concern to the community.
"What reformers are advocating for," Levinson continued, "is a more comprehensive, independent, and sustained approach to civilian oversight with the necessary authority for that oversight to be as effective as possible." She said they want it to be "permanent, sustained, and independent, not subject to political winds and not having to rely on the federal court."
In other words, while the CPC may be very concerned with becoming a permanent oversight body, the feds aren't terribly concerned about whether that happens because it's not part of the feds' reform plan.
This post has been updated.