The city hall press corps stuffed ourselves into the mayor's seventh floor conference room for roughly the 30th time since Mike McGinn took office. But last Thursday, March 29, the stakes were higher than the typical press conference. At issue were the much-awaited negotiations with federal prosecutors to reform the Seattle Police Department, and McGinn had called in the media to show that the city was ready to embrace change.
The day after the press conference, McGinn was scheduled to sit down with US Attorney Jenny Durkan. It would be the mayor's first glimpse at a draft court agreement with the Feds, the inevitable follow-up to the US Department of Justice's December report finding our cops regularly committed civil rights violations. To put it bluntly, the Feds are about to sue the city. And this meeting to negotiate the terms of a settlement agreement—and preparation for that meeting—was arguably the most critical moment for the City of Seattle in more than a decade.
McGinn stepped up to the lectern with his police chief, John Diaz, to introduce a packet containing his 20-point plan for reforming the police department.
Although police brass flanked the mayor, along with El Centro de la Raza executive director Estela Ortega, City Attorney Pete Holmes was suspiciously absent. The city's primary lawyer, Holmes is also a long-standing police-accountability watchdog who served on the city's Office of Professional Accountability Review Board. But Holmes wasn't invited to this press conference.
McGinn also didn't invite any members of the Seattle City Council to join him at the 11 a.m. press conference. "The document was given to me just five minutes before 11," Council Member Tim Burgess told me afterward.
Even for me—who thinks the constant bickering between the mayor and the council is as trivial as Days of Our Lives—it was a significant absence.
While several of the mayor's proposals were sound, including a plan to provide all patrol officers with 40 hours of crisis-intervention training, he failed to respond specifically to the DOJ's primary concern about excessive use of force. (Investigators found Seattle cops used excessive force in 20 percent of all cases in which force was used, a reflection of many recent news stories about officers punching, kicking, and shooting suspects.) Perhaps more concerning, politically, was that talks between McGinn and other elected leaders in city hall had stalled three weeks before. That is to say, our mayor and other elected leaders weren't displaying the unity that would show prosecutors that the city is prepared—or even competent—to carry out policing reforms on our own.
The goal that city officials have shared since they convened in December was to: (1) prepare their response to the DOJ's recommendations, (2) thereby hopefully avoid a court settlement that wastes resources on expensive oversight mechanisms. Such mechanisms might include a massive monitoring office that costs the city millions of dollars per year—dollars that could instead fund the police reforms themselves (such as the crisis-intervention training, data tracking, complaint management, new positions, etc.). The way to avoid those expenses, several sources say, was for the city to get its proposals out early. If the city showed that its leaders could harmonize their strategy to satisfy the DOJ's recommendations, then perhaps the Feds would take a more hands-off approach. But that would require sending granular reforms to US Attorney Durkan at least a week before. That could allow the DOJ to incorporate the city's ideas into its draft court settlement.
That didn't happen.
This press conference was, instead, the mayor's attempt to reframe public perception of the city's clash with the Feds. McGinn arguably wanted to take credit for a passel of reforms that would go, as he put it, "far beyond" the DOJ's recommendation by laying out a broad new approach to fair, effective policing.
"Don't let a good crisis go to waste," he said of the initiative's yawning scope.
But the primary criticism raised by federal investigators was a pattern of excessive use of force. On this front, McGinn's tome of reforms merely leans on a promise to "revise" definitions. In other words, with the Feds breathing down our neck about a very specific issue, McGinn unleashed a torrent of superfluous aspirations.
Council Member Burgess doesn't begrudge the mayor for failing to invite him to the meeting. "His style or how he packages things is not our concern—it's the substance," Burgess says.
But the politics matter, too.
For his part, McGinn insisted that he's culled from the council's, the city attorney's, and community leaders' best ideas. But synthesizing the ideas came too late. McGinn delivered his ideas—without key partners by his side, without advance warning to the US Department of Justice, and without specific responses to the leading issues facing the department—through the conduit of the media. If it's an attempt to convince federal prosecutors that Seattle is equipped to make reform work on our own, this was a terrible way to do it.
Holmes and the city council have failed, too. When talks dissolved in an impasse, the council walked off. So did Holmes. The council formalized a few broad ideas in a letter that also lamented the city's internal breakdown. But it's the council's job, too, to pull the city's shit together.
Sources speaking on the condition of confidentiality say the DOJ intends to file its lawsuit against the city by early June, along with the terms of a settlement that defines the city's obligations (and what happens if the city fails to comply). The city and the DOJ are now in what McGinn characterizes as "good-faith negotiations," and copies of a draft court settlement are locked inside a safe at City Hall.
I asked city council president Sally Clark about her approach from here on out, and she pledged to "work collaboratively." But she has a caveat: "I have a responsibility to maintain the best communication possible while recognizing when the council's interest is to go in a different direction and be a good and honest advocate for that."
While it's encouraging that none of the elected leaders—Clark, McGinn, Burgess, or Holmes—oppose reforms, I can't imagine that US Attorney Durkan looks at this fractured mess of politics and thinks that these people can fix this problem without expensive monitoring and onerous scrutiny. Which is exactly what the city was trying to avoid, but is, apparently, exactly what the police department will need.