Seattle Police Have Made ‘Significant Progress,’ Could Reach Reform Goals by Next Fall, Federal Monitor Says

While significant work and key assessments lie ahead, the Seattle Police Department is on the right track, federal monitor Merrick Bobb wrote in his seventh semiannual report, which was filed Monday.

By Steve Miletich, Seattle Times (Sep. 26, 2016)

Seattle police have made “significant progress” over the past year in complying with many aspects of a consent decree to address excessive force and biased policing, according to the court-appointed monitor overseeing federally mandated reforms.

In a progress report filed Monday, the monitor, Merrick Bobb, for the first time provided a potential time frame for the city to reach full compliance: fall 2017.

“It has been a prodigious effort to come this far, and the distance traveled now exceeds the distance that remains,” Bobb wrote of the city’s efforts to meet the terms of a 2012 agreement with the U.S. Justice Department.

While significant work and key assessments lie ahead, the Seattle Police Department is on the right track, Bobb wrote in his seventh semiannual report.

“Mayor Ed Murray promised nearly three years ago that reform of the SPD was the top priority of his first term,” Bobb wrote. “He has been good to his word and significant credit is due to the Mayor.”

Bobb, a Los Angeles police-accountability consultant, also singled out Murray’s police chief, Kathleen O’Toole, for bringing a “sharp focus” to the reform effort and “building necessary bridges” internally and with outside officials, the monitor’s team and the community. In addition, Bobb praised the Justice Department, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Western Washington and Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes.

He also lauded the department’s rank-and-file for embracing new policies and training, saying it’s become evident that officers understand the consent decree contains best practices and contributes to their effectiveness and safety.

It also appears that “necessary cultural change” has begun to at least some meaningful extent, the report said.

“With diligence and hard work, and in the absence of unforeseen impediments, and if there comes about greater community cooperation and trust, the SPD could well reach full and effective compliance in as little as a year from now … in many, if not all, areas,” Bobb wrote.

If that occurs, it would coincide with Murray’s re-election effort.

While not mentioned in the report, one of the impediments could be the city’s contract negotiations with the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG). The union’s membership overwhelmingly rejected a tentative contractthis summer that included, along with wage increases, reforms dealing with the police chief’s authority and disciplinary appeals.

At a court hearing last month, U.S. District Judge James Robart, who is presiding over the consent decree, said he would not let SPOG hold the city “hostage” by linking wages to constitutional policing.

Robart has set an Oct. 7 deadline for the city to submit proposed legislation listing police-accountability measures. Already, Robart has called for major changes that would affect the union’s membership: streamlined appeals of officer discipline and internal investigations conducted by civilians rather than sworn officers.

Guild President Kevin Stuckey said after the hearing that the union had received its “marching orders,” but in the September edition of SPOG’s newspaper, The Guardian, the vice president, Sgt. Rich O’Neill, struck a different chord in a front-page article.

Referring to a 2013 Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with the city on bargaining “mandatory subjects” resulting from the consent decree, O’Neill wrote, “Listening to some involved in this process, they appear to want the city to ignore this MOA and the state law. They want to simply have the changes legislated or ordered.”

O’Neill wrote that “may work in ‘right to work’ states where the employer merely needs to ‘meet and confer’ with the union and then can implement changes. That is not the law in this state!”

O’Neill, who according to sources led opposition to the tentative contract, was a polarizing figure when he served as president of the union from 2006 to 2014. He returned as vice president of the guild over the summer amid a shake-up in SPOG’s leadership.

He has informed the city that he will be the lead negotiator in contract talks and wants the discussion to start from scratch, according to a City Hall source familiar with the matter.

O’Neill and Stuckey couldn’t be reached for comment Monday.

In citing progress in the Police Department, Bobb highlighted its notable restraint in using force with people in crisis due to mental illness or drugs.

He also pointed to a reduction in the use of moderate to higher-level use of force, saying this “may signal that officers on the whole are de-escalating more incidents and reserving force for only those instances where it is necessary, proportional, and reasonable” under the circumstances.

At the same time, Bobb wrote, there are areas that need to be evaluated, including the Police Department’s ability to achieve “better and sustained trust” among all the “various and diverse communities” it serves.

“Likewise, there remains some distance to travel to ensure that the requirements of the Consent Decree and the associated cultural change are not fleeting or temporary but are, instead, ‘baked in’ to the fabric of the Department,” the report added.

When full compliance is reached, the city and department then must maintain it during a two-year period in order to dissolve the consent decree, Bobb wrote, while expressing confidence the department is positioned to be a national leader in police reform.