A federal judge overseeing court-mandated reforms at the Seattle Police Department (SPD) is demanding answers from the city after SPD rehired a police officer that was previously fired for punching a handcuffed person in the face. Officer Adley Shepherd was fired in 2016 for using excessive force, but his termination was overturned two weeks ago after the city's Discipline Review Board (DRB) determined that he should be reinstated to his position and paid nearly two years' worth of backpay.
The City Council terminated the controversial DRB, which has been seen as a way for police officers to get a favorable appeal to discipline decisions, when they rewrote the city's police accountability laws last year. But termination of the DRB was contingent on the city's largest police union agreeing, and Mayor Jenny Durkan negotiated a union agreement that appears to maintain the DRB as a favorable avenue of appeal for police officers.
U.S. District Court Judge James Robart said the combination of Shepherd being rehired and the new union contract reinstating the DRB's “raises the specter” that the city's new police union contract "will undermine the progress that the City has made to date and stymie its efforts" to complete court-mandated police reforms.
The city has been under court-mandated reforms since the Obama administration sued SPD and the city for a pattern of using excessive force. Instead of fighting the lawsuit, the city entered into a legal agreement called a "consent decree" in 2012 where a federal judge oversaw reforms in the department. In January of this year, Robart determined the city was in "full and effective compliance" with the court-mandated reforms. The city is now in a wind-down period of the consent decree but Robart's Monday court filing brings the city's status into question.
"The DRB’s decision to reinstate an officer who had violated three provisions of the SPD’s use-of-force policies when he punched a handcuffed subject in the face while she was sitting in a patrol car, and the new [police union contract's] rejection of reforms in the Accountability Ordinance... lead the court to question whether the City and the SPD can remain in full and effective compliance with the Consent Decree," Robart wrote in his filing Monday.
Robart is forcing the city to respond to a list of questions regarding the incident and the new police union contract, including describing in detail how the SPD's new police union contract with the Seattle Police Officer's Guild (SPOG) affects the city's police accountability laws. The City Council approved SPOG's contract last month over protest from the Community Police Commission, a citizen watchdog group created by the city that called the SPOG contract a step back for police reform in the city. The CPC specifically pointed to the discipline review process as a way the SPOG contract rolled back reforms. Robart asked for the CPC to submit a briefing in response to his Monday court order.
“We’re encouraged that Judge Robart is taking a close look at the contract and its real-world implications, like the case of Adley Shepherd. The commission will meet Wednesday to discuss our next steps and will work diligently over the next two weeks to prepare our briefing," the CPC said in an e-mailed statement.
Mayor Jenny Durkan said that SPD Police Chief Carmen Best was already looking for a way to reverse Shepherd's reinstating.
“Chief Best and I believe the arbiter was wrong to reinstate Officer Shepherd, and directed the City Attorney to appeal that decision to the Superior Court the day it was rendered. The City Attorney is preparing that appeal," Durkan said in an e-mailed statement.
She said she is looking forward to responding to Robart's questions and showing that the new SPOG contract "furthers both public safety and reform under the Consent Decree."
The city has 14 days to respond to Robart's questions. He said in his filing he would set a court hearing when he receives those filings.