Is Mayor Ed Murray serious about reforming the Seattle Police Department? That question arose shortly after his successful election campaign, which was backed by the city's powerful police unions, when Murray's newly appointed interim chief of police attempted to quietly overturn a series of disciplinary decisions against officers.
Now the question is being asked again, one year after the installation of a new, well-regarded chief from Boston, Kathleen O'Toole. That's because in 18 months, despite promises to move the ball on police reform, Murray hasn't signed, or even introduced, legislation to fix Seattle's broken police accountability system—the system that contributed to the SPD being investigated for excessive use of force and then forced into a reform process by the federal government in 2011.
If reforming the police department were a big class project, then Murray would be so late turning in his homework he'd be failing.
Seven months ago, Murray pledged to introduce a city ordinance codifying into law a series of vital reforms to the accountability system. He set a deadline for introducing the legislation of early 2015. The reforms included making the Community Police Commission (CPC), a respected group that includes longtime accountability advocates, a permanent civilian oversight body.
"Independent oversight makes us stronger," said police chief Kathleen O'Toole, standing alongside Murray and CPC leaders at a November press conference. "There's a great benefit to having a permanent body of individuals to gather and channel community input into the accountability system."
That accountability system had lost the trust of the important elements of the community, according to Department of Justice investigators, and had failed to curb a pattern of using excessive force.
The community police commissioners—all of them volunteers, including Reverend Harriet Walden of Mothers for Police Accountability and Jay Hollingsworth of the John T. Williams Organizing Committee—worked hard to finalize recommendations for Murray by April of 2014. Those recommendations were meant to form the basis of his police reform legislation. Commissioners also expected the city would begin labor contract negotiations with the Seattle Police Officers' Guild, the rank-and-file police union that has opposed reform efforts, by June of that year.
Instead, Murray didn't begin negotiating with the union until January 2015. And when February came and a police reform ordinance was nowhere to be found, a Murray spokesperson said it would be introduced the following month. But March flew by without a peep from the mayor's office. In April, when I inquired again, I was told the bill would be introduced "in the very near future."
Now we're midway through June, and Murray's reform proposals are missing in action.
The extended delay has irked at least one council source, who feels that the mayor's team keeps tinkering with the bill on its own, rather than sticking to deadlines and handing it off to council members to begin debating and modifying it. On the second floor of City Hall, this source says, there's a sense that Murray expects the council to rubber-stamp whatever he sends down.
Another reason for the delay, as the Seattle Times reported, is friction between the CPC and the mayor over what powers the commission should have. For example, Murray wants the unfettered ability to fire an auditor who's currently charged with overseeing part of the SPD's accountability system; the CPC believes the city council should have a say in the matter.
"I just think there are flat-out differences of opinion," says city council member and public safety chair Bruce Harrell. "There are policy differences on substantive issues."
On June 10, the civilian commissioners voted to stop waiting on the mayor and to submit their proposals straight to the council instead. "There's a narrow window to have this introduced, considered, and have the council take action before they enter the budget process," said CPC cochair Lisa Daugaard.
The bill is expected to get a hearing next week. "It's going to be up to me and the council to figure out," Harrell said. "And I accept. This is extremely time-sensitive, and because of that, we'll act accordingly."
Here's the other question raised by Murray's prolonged inaction: Who is going to keep Seattle police officers honest after the federal consent decree process ends? We've seen police officers in Ferguson and New York City initially shielded from local accountability for the deaths of unarmed African American men over the past year, in large part because of the influence of powerful local police unions.
The latest report on SPD's reform process from Merrick Bobb, the department's federal-court-ordered monitor, doesn't bother mentioning the impasse over the reform legislation. Instead, it focuses exclusively on headway the department is making internally—and several areas where it continues to fall short—under the leadership of police chief Kathleen O'Toole and her staff.
Bobb submitted his report to US district judge James Robart on June 15. His consulting firm, the Police Assessment Resource Center, declined to answer questions about it.
In fact, a range of important accountability issues are simply beyond Bobb's purview, according to Anne Levinson, a retired judge who's been regularly auditing the department's accountability system since 2010 as Office of Professional Accountability auditor. When I asked her about the mayoral delays, 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: Lasting, meaningful, community-based accountability for police officers needs to be institutionalized right here in Seattle beyond the framework of the federal consent decree—creating an independent system that will work regardless of Seattle mayors and police chiefs, who come and go, and even presidents. (Under President Bush, the Department of Justice didn't investigate police departments like the SPD.) The Community Police Commission needs to be empowered over the long term; its recommendations need to be taken seriously. The Office of Professional Accountability, which investigates misconduct, and its auditor need to be strengthened. Overlooking these elements risks undermining the progress that has been made or not going far enough.
In May, Murray and O'Toole seemed rattled by a public letter from the CPC raising concerns about how the SPD has handled Black Lives Matter protesters over the past year. O'Toole quickly rejected the CPC's request for a series of Department of Justice–mediated forums about the protests. When I questioned the department about the CPC's concerns, chief operating officer Mike Wagers shot back in an e-mail, "Under Chief O'Toole's leadership, the SPD has advance [sic] reforms faster and further than anyone would have thought in less than a year. And, she's moved to institutionalize those reforms in a collaborative manner. For anyone to say or insinuate otherwise is misleading, undermines the positive momentum, and is frankly insulting."
But since then, in a promising move, O'Toole has switched gears and agreed to the CPC's request to facilitate a discussion about protest policing—only she's choosing to bring in a group of outside experts who aren't affiliated with the Feds.
Whether Murray respects the CPC's decisions is another question. "I expect the CPC to be a loud and independent voice," he said last fall. "The CPC was created as part of the consent decree, but it has become much more than that to the city." Does he still feel that way? On June 15, a mayoral spokesperson refused to directly answer the question of whether Murray still believes in making the CPC a permanent body—referring me instead to statements made last year.