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The judge all but condemned the propensity of police officers to gun down African-Americans across the country. Wa.GOV

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Amidst a national outcry over police killings of African-Americans, the stars are finally aligned in Seattle to create one of the strongest systems of police accountability in the United States.

With a federal judge endorsing the Black Lives Matter movement and robust civilian oversight of the Seattle Police Department, and threatening to steamroll over pushback against reforms by the city's biggest police union, Seattle now has a chance to meaningfully live up to premature hype of being a "national model" for troubled departments elsewhere.

After a momentous hearing in federal court on Monday, community advocates who sought federal intervention six years ago to stop excessive force—inflicted disproportionately on people of color, they said—felt relieved and hopeful.

That's a marked departure from the sense of uncertainty and frustration that has loomed over stalled reforms since the election of Mayor Ed Murray (backed by Seattle's police unions) two years ago.

Jay Westwind Wolf Hollingsworth, who has worked on police reform since the 2010 killing of the Native American woodcarver John T. Williams by a Seattle officer Ian Birk, said he felt "extremely uplifted" by how the hearing in federal court played out. (Last year, he felt demoralized.)

"I certainly agree that people's civil and human rights should not be bargained in a union contact," Hollingsworth said.

James Robart, the federal district court judge who has the final say on reforms, declared forcefully that he and the city would "not be held hostage" by the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) as it bargains over a new contract.

He addressed SPOG directly, saying he would call a hearing and override the city's bargaining process with the union if it is "resisting needed change."

"I think the entire city of Seattle would march behind me in that position," he said.

Later, Robart firmly aligned himself—and the reform process as a whole—with the Black Lives Matter movement, noting that African-Americans make up 41 percent of casualties at the hands of police but only 20 percent of the population.

"Black lives matter," he said, shaking his head in disappointment at the statistics.

And unlike in last year's hearing, Robart clearly endorsed the creation of a permanent Community Police Commission," calling it an "essential" part of the civilian oversight system.

"It feels like we're finally going to move this forward," said commission co-chair Lisa Daugaard, "and that's great news."

Daugaard said the proposed civilian oversight law—creating an Office of Professional Accountability with civilian investigators and subpoena power, a civilian Inspector General, and the community oversight commission—reflected the "lived experiences" of people who made complaints about police misconduct in the past and were ignored.

Commissioner Enrique Gonzalez said he's "very encouraged that a federal judge has actually said that black lives matter, because now we know that not only is this movement happening in the streets... even a federal judge has acknowledged that people of color have been on the receiving end of police brutality and this needs to change."

The commissioners spoke directly to the community on Facebook Live outside the courthouse.

The heads of both of Seattle's police unions, guild president Kevin Stuckey and Seattle Police Management Association head Mike Edwards, said in interviews they had no objections to the judge's comments or to a radically strengthened civilian oversight system.

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Now the ball is squarely in Mayor Ed Murray's court. He has an opportunity to seize the moment and act.

City Attorney Pete Holmes promised the mayor's office would submit legislation to the judge for review by September 5.

But the mayor has flouted his own deadlines to advance the reforms before. If he does so again, or differs in his proposal significantly from the recommendations of Judge Robart and the Community Police Commission, it will be clear once and for all on which side of the police reform struggle he stands.

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