Reforming Seattle Police Practices

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Since the Department of Justice announced that its investigation of the Seattle Police Department had identified a pattern of excessive use of force, the City has been struggling to find our way forward.  Our task is to continue to protect and promote public safety while eliminating abusive tactics that are contrary to both our community’s values and the best practices for a good police force.  The challenge is to:

  • Recognize, support, and value the vast majority of our police officers, who are effective and conscientious officers.
  • Ensure that those few officers who have a pattern of serious problems are identified, penalized, and, if necessary, removed from the Department.
  • Understand that there are other officers who may be prone to make mistakes or act inappropriately, and make sure that the City provides the training, policy direction, management, and assistance necessary to minimize the possibility that these will take place, ensure that they learn from any mistakes, and help them become the kind of police officers that we are looking for.

And we have to accomplish all of this while identifying and using evidence-based best practices and adaptive management to respond to changing public safety conditions and address continuing issues like youth violence and downtown street disorder.  These are major management and policy challenges.

On Monday the Council approved an ordinance establishing the Community Police Commission required under our consent agreement with the Department of Justice.  We also took a difficult, contentious, and major step forward with a resolution stating our support for a preferred candidate, Merrick Bobb, for the position of police department monitor.  While ultimately the Mayor agreed to the Council choice, there was a tense standoff for a while, and the Mayor remains unhappy with this decision.

The appointment of the monitor will actually be made by the federal judge overseeing the consent agreement.  The deadline for submitting a name is this Friday, October 26.  Four candidates were reviewed by the Mayor, four Councilmembers, the Seattle Police Department, the City Attorney, and the Department of Justice.  The City Attorney, the Department of Justice, and each of the four Councilmembers came independently to the conclusion that Mr. Bobb would be the strongest candidate.  Police Department staff and the Mayor disagreed.  A mediation attempt between the Mayor and Council was unsuccessful.  Ultimately, the four Councilmembers and the City Attorney decided that the selection of Mr. Bobb Is in the best interests of the City.  He Is, in their opinion, the strongest candidate; he is a candidate that can be supported both by City and Department of Justice representatives; and Councilmembers were concerned that rejecting him would be perceived by the public as giving the Police Department veto power over the selection of the monitor, which would threaten the credibility of the City.

This led to an awkward situation.  Normally, the Mayor represents the City as its Chief Executive, and is represented by the City Attorney.  However, the Council has the authority to make laws for the City and the City Attorney also represents the Council.  And the City Attorney is himself an independently elected officer.  Both the Mayor and City Attorney act as individuals and can make decisions on their own.  But the Council can only make decisions as a body in an open public process.  That is why we considered and approved a resolution stating our preference for monitor and asked the City Attorney to advocate for this preference before the judge.  There is no clear authority to resolve difficult and unforeseen situations like this disagreement over who is the voice of the City.

Fortunately, the Mayor agreed to go along with the Council, and the potential crisis was defused.  But we may face other situations like this as we work our way through the police reform process.  No one said that police reform was going to be easy, but if the process of getting started has been this problematic, I am concerned that implementing substantive change will be very difficult.