Though many reformers, abolitionists, and carceralists hoped federal Judge James Robart would end the US Department of Justice's 11-year consent decree with the Seattle Police Department, in a hearing Wednesday morning Robart decided to lift federal oversight for most policies but to keep it for crowd control tactics and police accountability.
The judge will release his fully detailed report tomorrow morning, which will lay out how much longer SPD will need to maintain compliance on those two issues, but, in the meantime, as the City negotiates a new contract with the rank-and-file Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG), Seattle can consider making policy in other areas where they've previously needed the judge's sign-off.
In a statement from the Mayor’s office, Bruce Harrell said the court also wanted to see the results of collective bargaining with SPOG. In 2019 the City got into trouble with Judge Robart when the SPOG contract didn’t follow the consent decree's mandates on officer accountability.
From the bench, Robart expressed pride in how far he thought the department had come since 2010, when the ACLU of Washington and other organizations asked the federal government to investigate SPD for a pattern of excessive force, especially against people of color.
He went on to praise SPD for its "accomplishments" regarding stop-and-frisk numbers, increasing transparency, reducing use-of-force instances that involve major and minor physical injuries and ones that cause pain, and bias-free policing, though he acknowledged that the consent decree's standards for bias-free policing may differ from the general public's standards. In a March statement from the ACLU, attorneys pointed out that during routine policing SPD cops are four times more likely to stop Black people and almost six times more likely to stop Indigenous people than white people.
Though the court will continue monitoring SPD's crowd control tactics and its accountability practices, Robart stressed that other departments across the country struggle to get those policies right, too, and so SPD was no outlier there.
Mayor Bruce Harrell and Chief Adrian Diaz both wanted the judge to officially weaken the agreement from a "consent decree" to a "compliance agreement," a mostly semantic change that would have allowed those leaders to use stronger language about in their press releases, but Robart denied them the satisfaction and reasserted his role as The Person Who Decides When to Officially Reclassify Municipal Oversight Procedures.
In an interview after the judge's ruling, Chief Diaz said he felt as if the department was in a good position and that "this might be the end of the beginning," because he's still going to keep working on improving SPD's performance in all of these areas.
This is a developing story.