US Attorney Jenny Durkan casts shade on the pro-reform Community Police Commission but sees no problems with the anti-reform Seattle Police Officers Guild.
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  • US Attorney Jenny Durkan casts bitter shade on the pro-reform Community Police Commission but won't fault the anti-reform Seattle Police Officers Guild.

US Attorney Jenny Durkan held a press conference yesterday that began sanely enough. Durkan was responding to 126 Seattle police officers who filed a lawsuit Wednesday that claims a complicated new use-of-force policy requires too much restraint, thereby putting cops and the public at risk. Without commenting directly on the litigation, which names the US Department of Justice and the City of Seattle, Durkan emphasized that the new regulations won't compromise safety. She stressed that "constitutional policing and effective policing go hand in hand."

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But Durkan took a right-hand turn when reporters began asking questions. Asked about the influential police union—which represents all of the officers who are plaintiffs in the lawsuit, promotes an anti-reform culture, and has sued to block the entire reform plan itself—Durkan minimized the union's impact as essentially irrelevant. In a few sentences, she downplayed the fact that 10 percent of the police force is brazenly going to court to undermine reforms designed to eliminate a pattern of excessive force, calling them a small minority of "dissenters." (Never mind the fact that they undoubtedly represent many more police who didn't sign onto that lawsuit and their attitudes are promoted by the most influential union of city employees.) In contrast, and unbelievably, Durkan spent several minutes ridiculing the pro-reform Community Police Commission for requesting data on low-level crimes. Then, because up was apparently down at this point, Durkan praised interim chief Harry Bailey—who promoted union cronies to command staff, while pro-reform cops said Bailey sent reform two years backward—as evidence that reform was finally going forward.

It was an insane press conference.

Jenny Durkan has often impressed me. Not yesterday. Durkan's comments made her appear, generously, like she was defending political allies and that reform was tightly in her grip—reality be damned.

More cynically, Durkan seemed detached from what's influencing Seattle cops or unaware of a thriving, empowered police culture that is marching away from reform.

The lawsuit in question, which I reported on Wednesday, seeks to overturn new use-of-force regulations, which were the product of a 2012 court settlement to fix the SPD's pattern of using excessive force. Responding to the lawsuit, Durkan said, "The last thing I want to do as a US Attorney is make a police officer's job more difficult," adding that there is "no evidence I have seen that police officers are afraid to do their job." For the most part, she pointed out, the SPD is a stand-up brigade of law-fighting professionals. All fair and good.

But this lawsuit didn't happen in a vacuum—influential officers have been cultivating a culture of resisting change, establishing a pattern of anti-reform litigation, and spewing rhetoric designed to undermine reform.

That's all reflected explicitly in this lawsuit.

That anti-reform culture gets its fuel the larger of the two police unions, the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG). In the January issue of SPOG's newspaper, the Guardian, editor Officer Chet Decker criticizes the use-of-force policy for exactly the reasons stated in the suit: "No longer can we respond reasonably when facing off with violent criminals on the streets. Not without first calling a time out and consulting with a new behemoth 74-page Use of Force policy now governing our actions," Officer Baker writes. "I still cannot find the promised list of department-approved Dance-Off Moves that are known to lighten the mood with combative suspects. Remember, we can de-escalate anything, because the academic types say so."

In addition to refusing to accept the Feds' allegation that some SPD officers routinely used excessive force, the Guardian has run cartoons the last two months mocking the force guidelines as too onerous and too impractical (in one cartoon, an officer's hair grows out while filling out a lengthy use-of-force form, and, in another, an officer is required to report use-of-force because a driver getting a ticket says "ouch"). There are more examples than I could fit in a blog post.

So what concerns does Durkan have about the roots of this anti-reform culture?

"I don't want to go on anecdotes and cartoons," Durkan said. "The vast majority of police officers in Seattle go to work and are honorable public servants. There is, in every organization, people who will be dissenters... The Seattle Police Department is no exception to that rule. I believe and continue to believe that [this faction of officers] is an exception and a growing exception."

This is a similar argument that the union makes itself.

Ron Smith, the president of SPOG, said in a phone interview yesterday that "the guild had no involvement in that lawsuit." Smith says officers approached him in March, but he discouraged them from litigating—he recommended they take their concerns to the Community Police Commission, which helped draft the use-of-force rules.

Still, I pointed out to Smith, his organization fostered the very arguments that now appear in the lawsuit, so how can he disavow them now?

Smith says the cartoons are "political satire," and that while the union used to routinely articulate hostility to reform, the unions newspaper has toned it down since he took the presidency earlier this year. These days, Smith contends, "We have made sustainable progress in aligning ourselves with the reform process working where we can with the city."

Smith is a good politician.

But nothing can erase the significance of 126 officers taking this issue—putting their names out in the open—to federal court. Regardless of the merits of their legal arguments, the fact that 10 percent of the sworn police force feels this way is an incontrovertible obstacle to reform.

"That is fucking crazy," says a city hall insider who asked to remain anonymous for this post. "I would love to know what they are going to do about that. Those are angry cops right now."

Nonetheless, the angriest comments from Durkan were aimed at the police commission, a civilian advisory board designed to assist reform as part of the federal reform settlement in 2012.

At issue was a May 14 report—which the commission worked with department officials to request and develop—on policing trends from 2005 to 2013. Some downtown business types clutched their pearls and claimed the report showed evidence that SPD was de-policing low-level crimes, which ostensibly lead to street disorder, while others pointed out officers were reducing problematic stops (including jaywalking tickets) that were long-associated with the SPD's pattern of racially biased, violently escalating practices that got the city into this mess. But Durkan was furious with the report because, she argued for about five minutes, it was requested by a bunch know-nothings and based on incongruous data from the police, the municipal courts, and county jail.

"I was surprised that anyone would hand it out," Durkan spat, making a direct dig at the commissioners. "To my knowledge, it serves no purpose... Data for data's sake is meaningless... I will say that that report it is not something that anyone who know anything about law enforcement would rely on."

Shade. Shade. Shade.

Setting aside the usefulness of the data—one of many reports being produced this year on police practices—the fact that Durkan was spitting nails at the Community Police Commission while refusing to acknowledge or condemn the union culture behind this lawsuit (and previous unions lawsuits) to block reform should worry everyone in Seattle.

But Durkan explained why she wasn't worried: the leadership at city hall. Durkan told the press yesterday, "We have a clear message form the mayor to the chief of police to every police officer, reform is underway."

Durkan backed up Ed Murray when he ran for mayor and cooed over Harry bailey when he was appointed as interim police chief (making several statements about his qualifications). But as I wrote in a long feature recently, Durkan's political buddies set the clock back on reform, according to officers inside the department.

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So the notion that Chief Bailey is evidence that all is right at the SPD just isn't true. Durkan is an another planet. Lots of good cops are hiding from the anti-reform cops. The interim chief has retroactively exonerated cops found guilty of misconduct, while moving and the anti-reform police unions' top cronies into the command staff and pushing reformers into retirement. The mayor has been complicit (though he's turning around). There is progress, don't get me wrong. But the mayor, chief, and every cop in Seattle is not evidence that "reform is underway"—it's not underway for the union that is harping on the use-of force policies and reform is not underway for 126 cops suing to overturn reform.

In fact, I'd argue there is a problem—a protracted crisis—of anti-reform culture at the SPD. And right now, the US Attorney involved in the court settlement to fix that problem is praising a problem chief that she had backed before, trivializing the virulent toxicity of the union, belittling the community arm of reform, and sticking her head in the sand while the cameras are rolling.

It's defensive, deluded, or naive.