Chief OToole says she is all about building community trust in the police department.
Chief O'Toole says she is all about building community trust in the police department. But she's not embracing a call for a federally-mediated dialogue between the police and #BlackLivesMatter protesters. SPD

Police chief Kathleen O'Toole is rejecting a call from city's Community Police Commissioners for the Department of Justice to mediate a series of forums on how the department has treated Black Lives Matter protesters.

The Community Police Commission (CPC), an official body created in the wake of the Department of Justice consent decree to help guide the Seattle Police Department's reform process, finally weighed in this week on how the SPD has handled Black Lives Matter protests over the past year. In a letter to O'Toole, it asked SPD to join the commission in requesting the DOJ's Community Relations Service, a program created by the Civil Rights Act, convene a "structured dialogue" in order to "identify alternative approaches that would diminish tension between the police and demonstrators and their supporters."

If you need a refresher, here are some of the reported incidents that took place at those events: Pepper-spraying Garfield High School teacher Jesse Hagopian in the face. Accusing Martin Luther King Day marchers of assaulting a police officer; later, dropping the charges. Arresting Black Lives Matter protest leaders. Preventing protesters from going downtown and pushing them on to Capitol Hill. Taking photographs of peaceful protesters.

O'Toole responded to the CPC's letter yesterday with a brief, perfunctory note on the department website that did not address the commission's requests for a public dialogue on these issues or for the DOJ to get involved. Spokesperson Sean Whitcomb deferred all further questions. (See the update to this post below.)

At this point, you're probably wondering: Isn't the DOJ already involved in the Seattle police reform process? Well, yes, but specifically, it's the DOJ's US Attorney of the Western District of Washington division, whose 2011 investigation raised concerns about racial bias and found that SPD engaged in a pattern of excessive force.

The DOJ's Community Relations Service (CRS) is a separate entity. CRS, according to its website, "is the Department's 'Peacemaker' for community conflicts and tensions arising from differences of race, color, national origin, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion and disability." The service is currently moderating a series of forums in Pasco, Washington, following a police shooting of an unarmed man in February. CRS did not respond to a request for comment.

Mike Diaz, the Assistant U.S. Attorney with the DOJ Western Washington division, said the CRS would have to "make up their own mind" about whether to engage in Seattle. But, he said, "Our position is we’ll talk to anybody anywhere. We would welcome a conversation."

"Crowd management or demonstration management is a tough one for police departments nationwide," Diaz added. "It’s something we noted back in 2011 when there were a lot of Occupy demonstrations going on."

The DOJ and the department's federal monitor, Merrick Bobb, have "committed to working with the city and CPC on a crowd management policy with all due speed, because it's related to use of force," he said, including a more thorough policy governing the use of flashbangs and blast balls.

"We’ve laid a lot of the foundation [for reform]," Diaz said, "and we’re moving towards assessing whether the department is doing what it’s committed to do." He said how SPD has handled the Black Lives Matter protests may become part of future evaluations of the department.

Seven of thirteen of the CPC's commissioners voted to approve the letter to O'Toole, which describes concerns about police use of force, limiting protesters' movements, targeting activist leaders for arrest, and inaccurate statements by department leadership. Five were absent and one abstained. You can read it in full right here.

The lone commissioner who abstained from voting on the letter is Kevin Stuckey—the officer who represents the Seattle Police Officers Guild. SPOG is fulminating against the CPC's letter today on its Facebook page. It's tempting to dismiss his abstention as yet another example of the guild opposing efforts at accountability and reform.

But despite his abstention on the letter itself, Stuckey told me he supports the CPC's request for the DOJ Community Relations Service to get involved.

Reached by phone, Stuckey said he abstained because the CPC letter doesn't include the views of police officers, like himself, who have a different take on how the protests unfolded and how police responded. Still, he said, "It's important for people to have a place where somebody will actually stand for them and say, 'Listen, we don't like what happened.' We're here to hear from the community. This is what they saw, this is their perception."

A compilation of protester testimonies, which are anonymized, is here. "They wasted so much money on unnecessary force, arrests, and overtime for citizens that were peaceful," said one protester. "The level of force was scary and unnecessary."

The CPC also attempted to solicit the views of Seattle police officers on the protests, and the commission's letter recognizes that concerns from protesters, alone, represent one side of what went down. But the commission has been stalled in its attempts to gather testimony from officers by back and forth with the department over the wording of one question about what options were available to police to de-escalate tensions with protesters. That issue appears to have been resolved today, however, according to Lopez.

UPDATE 2:48 p.m.: The SPD is rejecting the CPC's request for a DOJ-mediated dialogue on policing of protests. Spokesperson Sean Whitcomb just relayed this message from Chief O'Toole by phone: "She has great respect for CRS and she worked with them while she was in Boston and as a court monitor in East Haven, Connecticut. We're operating under a federal consent decree with the DOJ as a party. Right now we are working very collaboratively with the federal monitor, the US Attorney, and the DOJ civil rights division. So it would be totally inappropriate for SPD to circumvent these parties in any process, even with a separate DOJ process. To say we might bring in a different process that might undermine a process that we’ve already signed on to wouldn’t make any sense, and we’re not going to do it at this time. We're totally committed to a critical review of our practices and willing to learn from recent experiences in demonstrations. You can't presume to do that in the midst of a force investigation and review. You can't presume to mediate something that’s under investigation. Even if it is under a parallel track. [But] if that’s the desire of all of the parties in the consent decree, I’m sure it’s something that would be in the realm of possibility. "

This post has been updated to reflect that five CPC commissioners were absent from the vote on the letter. Seven, not twelve, voted for it and one abstained.