On Wednesday, federal Judge James Robart terminated many portions of the US Department of Justice’s 11-year consent decree with the Seattle Police Department, leaving in place federal oversight on policies of police accountability as well as use-of-force tactics in crowd control. Robart promised to review the final collective bargaining agreement between Seattle cops and the City to ensure that any union contract complies with the consent decree. However, his own comments from the bench showed a judge out of touch with the DOJ, which appears ready to expand the way the cities approach crime and public safety. 

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 and the mentally ill. 

In a written order issued Thursday morning, he laid out what he needed to see from the City and SPD before he dismissed the consent decree entirely. He asked for a draft of crowd management policies that address 2020 breakdowns in use-of-force reporting and review. He also expects a report from the federal monitor on the sustainability of Seattle’s police accountability system.

Lastly, within 30 days of the City reaching a tentative bargaining agreement with the Seattle Police Officers Guild, Robart wants to know whether the proposed union contract has any effect on either police accountability systems or the implementation of the City’s 2017 accountability ordinance. In 2019, a controversial contract with the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) led Robart to rule the City out of compliance with the consent decree. However, he did not have the power to force a fix to the contract, and changes to state law–not municipal policy–mostly brought the City back into compliance.

In an interview after the judge's ruling, Chief Adrian Diaz said he felt SPD was in a good position, and that "this might be the end of the beginning," because he will continue to work on improving SPD's performance in all of these areas. 

Mayor Bruce Harrell and 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 improvement 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.

Given the massive show of force by SPD in 2020, someone might think, “Oh good, the feds can keep the department’s crowd-control methods in check.” However, in the past Robart’s decision to overturn a City ban on so-called “less lethal” weapons opened the door to significant SPD brutality in July 2020. In a statement about the judge's ruling, Council Member Lisa Herbold, who chairs the council’s public safety committee, urged any new crowd control policies to include a ban on blast balls.

Robart’s slightly out-of-touch perspective also revealed itself in some of the wild comments he made from the bench Wednesday, such as his notion that cop TV shows stood out as “the worst enemy of good police work.” For Robart, fixing policing comes down to getting rid of bad Dick Wolf shows, not maybe taking a look at the ineffectiveness of federal intervention. 

He also took shots at the Seattle City Council for its attempt in 2020 to reduce funding to SPD in order to spend more money on upstream public services. The judge made similar comments back at a May hearing, when the City and DOJ first appeared before Robart to argue for terminating the majority of the consent decree. 

At that hearing, Robart asked the courtroom, “Who do you think you’re going to call in an emergency?” The police, he answered. 

But about a month after he made that comment, the DOJ came out with its report on the City of Minneapolis and the Minneapolis Police Department, which said very clearly that some emergency calls, such as those for behavioral health crises, do not require a police response. Moreover, the report showed that a police response in those situations was “often harmful and ineffective,” and it called for expanding the city’s alternative response programs. 

That report reflects national trends, with cities such as Denver, Albuquerque, and Bellingham all launching alternative-response policing models. The report also recognized a need for Minneapolis to respond to crime with violence interrupters and public health prevention strategies, particularly when policing produces racial disparities.

The ACLU of Washington's director of policing policy, Enoka Herat, argued that the problems that led to the consent decree still exist within SPD and pointed to a recent incident in which video of break room in SPD’s East Precinct showed a mock tombstone for Damarius Butts, a 19-year-old black man killed by SPD officers. Data shows SPD still engages in discriminatory policing, Herat said. She urged SPD and the City to listen to community input as they crafted new policy under the court’s order.

In contrast, Robart did not seem at all concerned that after 11 years of attempted reform and more than $200 million spent on reshaping the police department, SPD cops could still be four times more likely to stop Black people and almost six times more likely to stop Indigenous people than white people. Nor did he mention that between 2019 and 2021 officers used the most serious type of force, such as firing a gun, against Black people 21 times and against white people only 14 times. 

Instead, Robart praised SPD for its improvement regarding stop-and-frisk numbers 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. Robart’s Thursday order focused on SPD’s need to improve collection of data on race in stops, detentions, and use-of-force, and to be more transparent with the public about those numbers.

The DOJ appears willing to acknowledge that current police work leads to “unequal and harmful” consequences for people of color and to look at other solutions for reducing crime. Meanwhile, Robart blamed calls to “defund” the police as part of the reason Seattle struggles to recruit new cops, despite police departments across the country struggling to find people to work for them, including in places such as Dallas. Defend the Defund organizer BJ Last called it “extremely disingenuous” for the judge to blame the defund movement as the reason why people don’t want to join a profession that increases a person’s likelihood of suicide by 54%.

Editor's Note: This story was update to clarify the less lethal weapons banned under Herbold's bill.