A federal judge has found the Seattle Police Department to be in "full and effective compliance" with a consent decree with the Department of Justice, the most major milestone yet in the department's court-ordered effort to reduce biased policing and unnecessary use-of-force.
U.S. District Judge James Robart issued an opinion this afternoon agreeing with assessments from city officials and the Community Police Commission, an advisory group of lawyers, police, and community activists, that the SPD had fulfilled its responsibilities ordered in 2012. Now the SPD and the city will embark on the second phase of the federal consent-decree, which requires sustaining those reforms for a period of two years.
In terms of SPD's accomplishments to date, Judge Robart was effusive in his praise. He cited reports from court-appointed monitor Merrick Bobb showing that in the 760,000 incidents police officers were dispatched to over Bobb's two-year study period, officers only used force 0.5 percent of the time. Over that same period, use of force decreased by 11 percent, and the most serious applications of force decreased 60 percent compared to the years between 2009 and 2011. Crime rates were not affected.
"The credit for these dramatic improvements goes in large part to the diligent and on-going work of the SPD—both its rank and file officers and its command staff," Judge Robart wrote in his opinion.
And he commended departing Police Chief Kathleen O'Toole: "The court also wishes to highlight the exceptional work of Chief Kathleen O’Toole during her tenure with SPD in sustaining the significant progress noted above," Robart wrote. "In particular, the court commends Chief O’Toole on her leadership in developing a more community-based policing approach for SPD. These efforts are receiving national attention and are making a difference in the level of trust the community places in SPD."
Still, Robart made note of concerns expressed by federal monitor Merrick Bobb, who wrote in his report that while he thought the SPD had made a great deal of progress, the reforms didn't meet full compliance. In his reports, Bobb said he still awaited SPD's analysis of why black and Latino residents are “stopped disproportionately and frisked disproportionately.” Bobb also noted concerns about lack of trust in police from "isolated communities," misuse of force being identified by the chain of command, the thoroughness of the Office of Police Accountability's investigations, and whether high-profile fatal shootings like the death of Charleena Lyles were indicative of systemic problems.
"The court is cognizant of these concerns and understands that the City must address them going forward," Robart wrote. Now that Phase I of the consent decree is complete, he added, the SPD must maintain their progress over the next two years as part of Phase II. Robart cautioned city officials that "this does not mean their work is done."
"In many ways, Phase II is the most difficult portion of the Consent Decree to fulfill," Robart wrote. "The ability to sustain the good work that has begun is not a foregone conclusion. It will require dedication, hard work, creativity, flexibility, vigilance, endurance, and continued development and refinement of policies and procedures in accordance with constitutional principles."
If SPD backslides on any of its reforms, the judge added that he wouldn't hesitate to start Phase II from the beginning.
And that said, the judge offered a final bit of advice regarding the city's ongoing negotiations with police labor unions. In July, Robart had refused to approve the city's police accountability legislation passed in May until it had gone through the negotiations meat grinder.
Robart underlined this point in his opinion. "If collective bargaining results in changes to the accountability ordinance that the court deems to be inconsistent with the Consent Decree, then the City’s progress in Phase II will be imperiled," he wrote.
Read the full opinion here.