In federal court today, 126 Seattle police officers filed a lawsuit that attempts to strike down new rules intended to halt the SPD's unconstitutional pattern of using excessive force against citizens, a problem that was outlined by federal prosecutors in a 2011 report.
Now the officers are attempting to turn those tables: They allege that the new force regulations actually violate their constitutional rights as officers.
The plaintiffs repeatedly argue in their 81-page lawsuit that using restraint as prescribed in the new policy will result in citizens and officers being "killed."
For example, they allege the regulations require cops to "under-react to threats of harm until we have no choice but to overreact. This makes it inevitable—although unnecessary and unreasonable—that officers and citizens will get killed or seriously injured." The suit adds that the new force regulations can "trap" officers in misconduct violations when they could have acted reasonably instead under a different policy.
And, the lawsuit claims cops will be required to use "significantly less force than is being threatened against them by suspects."
The use-of-force policy is widely considered the linchpin of a federal court settlement reached in 2012 to stop the Seattle Police Department's practice of unconstitutional policing. The city and Feds submitted the rules to federal judge James Robart late last year, and they took effect January 1. Filing in US District Court in Western Washington, the plaintiffs seek to repeal the use-of-force rules entirely and make the the US Department of Justice and the City of Seattle pay them for financial damages.
Although the officers claim that they represent only themselves and they are working with a "DC-based former civil rights attorney," the lawsuit reflects the political agenda and rhetoric from the virulently anti-reform police union, the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG), which sued to block the reform plan last year. For the past two months, SPOG, which represents about 1,200 lower-ranking officers, has run cartoons in its newspaper that mock the force policies as onerous and time-consuming.
In that vein, officers argue to the court, "In some places [the use of force policy] is overly complicated and contradictory, in other places overly precise and mechanical, but throughout, requires [officers] to engage in mental gymnastics wholly unreasonable in light of the dangerous and fast evolving circumstances we face every day."
The lawsuit could be a point of bargaining during upcoming negotiations over the next contract between the city and police union. In that contract, progressive reformers (as I detail in this story) want the city to extract numerous concessions, including strictly and swiftly punishing officers for misconduct. As the union pushes back, it may suggest a means for dropping the anti-reform lawsuit as part of its negotiating terms (just as SPOG dropped its lawsuit against the reform plan as part of the negotiations for its most recent contract).
All of the signatories on the lawsuit appear to be SPOG members (they are officers, detectives, and sergeants, not higher ranking officers that have a separate union).
One of them is Officer Steven Pomper, who, as I've reported in the past, has used the SPOG union newspaper to fight the city's Race and Social Justice Initiative, write screeds about "socialism" at city hall, oppose training designed to reduce racial profiling, and call pro-reform politicians at city hall "the enemy."
"It boggles the mind to read what they are saying," says Chris Stearns, an attorney and former chair of the Seattle Human Rights Commission. "Personally, I was like, wait, you mean that a couple of years after Seattle Police Officer Ian Birk shot and killed John T Williams, the Seattle police rank and file is saying that now they are worried that one of their officers might shoot and kill someone? If the rank and file was so sincerely worried about using excessive force against citizens, especially people of color, then we probably wouldn’t be here in the first place."
Signatures on the lawsuit, which appear alongside the date it was signed, seem to show that officers have been planning this legal action since January—the same month new rules for using force took effect.
The suit asks a federal judge to freeze the force regulations with an injunction, citing the "dangers it creates to the safety of SPD patrol officers and the public" and then seeks a ruling that the regulations are unconstitutional and "beyond repair." They also ask for financial compensation for lost wages and "improper disciplinary action" taken against officers who violated the use-of-force policies. Lastly, they seek punitive damages for the city and Fed's alleged "ungrounded maligning of the good work of SPD's patrol officers."
SPD spokesman Andrew Garber says, "The department is not commenting." Meanwhile: SPOG did not respond to a request for comment, nor did the US Department of Justice.
Mayor Ed Murray said in a statement that it's too soon to comment on the lawsuit itself but "the police department will comply" with the federal reform order. "The City of Seattle will not fight the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice," Murray said. "This is not the 1960s."