In this week's The Stranger, I wrote about how local police reform advocates are raising questions over federal oversight of the Seattle Police Department—in particular, about the degree of civilian oversight. "The consent decree created all kinds of ways of measuring improvement," said Seattle-King County NAACP President Gerald Hankerson. "But those are not reflected in a changed reality on the ground. This is a technocratic process to get the people to think there's reform."
At the end of the day, federal judge James Robart has the final word on whether, under the terms of a 2011 Department of Justice consent decree, the department has truly and effectively reformed itself. Today, in a hearing to purportedly make clear how that byzantine, technocratic process should play out, and to decide on a "more unified approach," the judge said, "We've got another inflammatory article which is in The Stranger. My reaction to these articles is always the same, which is, this is a work in progress. I want to stress, this is a work in progress."
That's not exactly the same line that some others have been putting out. "The Seattle Police Department is back in business!" police chief Kathleen O'Toole said to the Seattle Times earlier this summer. "We have the best PD in the country! Hands down!" said Seattle police union president Ron Smith last week.
But after criticizing The Stranger, Judge Robart admitted he learned something from the report: In 2013, all fifteen members of the Community Police Commission threatened to resign unless they were allowed a greater role in determining SPD's new use-of-force policies. "I'm dismayed that the CPC threatened to resign," he said. "I don't find that constructive."
Robart also seemed troubled by the way decisions have been made about SPD's Early Intervention System (EIS)—another point of contention that I described in my article. Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) director Pierce Murphy said SPD removed him from the committee overseeing the new system, which is supposed to track problematic officer behavior, against his wishes—and the DOJ and federal judge both approved.
Robart appeared to blame Murphy for not telling him this directly, saying, "If there's no comment that comes in, I don't consider myself accountable for not having been aware of it."
But he seemed to have second thoughts about the decision. "There are a lot of moving parts that need to mesh together and I don't feel like we're doing it very well at the present time," he said. He asked the DOJ and SPD to explain how all the new systems would work together in "harmony," but both parties didn't address his question head-on—instead, they gave prepared presentations.
The judge's comments also aligned with those of retired municipal judge Anne Levinson, who acts as the OPA auditor. "The reason we've had this headbutting on EIS is there's different philosophies," she said after the hearing. She called for making the OPA—the only form of direct, independent oversight of SPD that incorporates civilians—"integrated and comprehensive" throughout the department.
Both Levinson and CPC Executive Director Fé Lopez were present at the hearing and had been expected to speak to the judge. But he didn't call on either of them. "I'm as confused as you are" about that, Lopez told me as she walked out.
Here is the great, ridiculously complex pyramid of police accountability that the Seattle Police Department says represents reform. SPD attorney Brian Maxey rotated the graphic around as he walked the judge through it:
DOJ attorney Mike Diaz offered a different perspective. He presented a flowchart that listed all the various SPD accountability mechanisms—OPA, EIS, FIT (Force Investigation Team), FRB (Force Review Board), and supervisors—in no particular order, and described them as overlapping in order to create "redundancies." Even if one part fails, the rest of the system catches whatever is falling through the cracks.
The DOJ's approach to accountability does not prioritize civilian oversight. Nor does it prioritize transparency. The EIS, FIT, FRB, and police supervisors all operate largely behind closed doors. "That's the DOJ's approach to reform, both here and in other places," Diaz said.
In terms of the pathway forward, the judge said he wants the DOJ and City of Seattle to file documents explaining their approach to accountability by September 30. He invited the CPC and OPA to submit their comments on the issue to him by October 16.
After the hearing's conclusion, I asked CPC member Jay Hollingsworth, who sat in the courtroom gallery, what he made of all this. The fifth anniversary of the death of John T. Williams—an unarmed Native American woodcarver shot to death by former Seattle police officer Ian Birk—is this weekend. The killing is seen as a catalyst for the DOJ consent decree, and Hollingsworth is a member of the John T. Williams Organizing Committee.
"Well, the fifth anniversary of John's death is on Sunday, and we'll be gathering at the totem pole," Hollingsworth said. "People are still going to ask, 'What really has changed in five years?' Right now, I'm having a little bit of difficulty with explaining what's happened. I mean, there have been positive changes in policies. And we're looking to review them and looking for ways to confirm that these policies are working and are effective... It's curious to me that this Stranger article played a role, however, I'm happy that we're talking about working together and the judge has set forth a path for that to happen."
Why is it so difficult to explain what sort of progress has been made? "It's that the process of the settlement agreement itself is so cumbersome. The general public can't see that and aren't aware of its effects."
If you've got some time on your hands, however, you can watch these hearings for yourself online. Today's hearing should be posted by tomorrow mid-morning.