Consent Decree Judge Contemplates Police Reform under a New City Attorney

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Police gathered in large numbers to ensure houseless were swept and cleared in rapid fashion with no interruption from encampment residents or their allies. (Photo by Enrico Doan)
Police gathered in large numbers to ensure houseless were swept and cleared in rapid fashion with no interruption from encampment residents or their allies. (Photo by Enrico Doan)

On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge James Robart summoned City Attorney Pete Holmes and Court Monitor Anthony Oftelie to his courtroom to get an update on where Seattle stands in the consent decree. It turned out to be more of a retirement party for Holmes, who has been in office for 12 years — predating the consent decree — but saw his reelection plans thwarted by strong Primary performances by abolitionist Nicole Thomas-Kennedy, who finished first, and Republican hardliner Ann Davison.

Judge Robart said he was very sad to see Holmes go, and he shared some sharp rebukes for many progressive leaders who he argued had jeopardized progress on the consent decree by the Seattle Police Department’s (SPD’s) bloated budget an issue. Seven Seattle City Councilmembers made a defund pledge last summer, some specifically at the 50% level advocates with the Decriminalize Seattle and King County Equity Now coalitions demanded as a means to redirect funds to superior public safety investments.

The Council did pass a 18% budget cut to SPD, but several councilmembers have walked back their 50% defund pledges. Still, most say they aim to shrink the size and role of the police department rather than increase it. Likewise, as an abolitionist, Thomas-Kennedy has backed the defund movement. The defund energy has clearly bothered Judge Robart and stuck in his craw, which came out again in his remarks, which are reported by Mike Carter in The Seattle Times — the court declined requests to livestream the proceeding so only those able to hoof it downtown and sit in to the courthouse were able to watch.

“I have seen too much of knee-jerk reaction and not enough forethought,” the judge said. “We have to be religious in continuing to reduce bias and disparity, at the same time we need to recognize … there is an essential requirement for public safety.”

Judge Robart insisted he was not being political, but said the consent decree agreements were law and had to be followed and that Defund and abolitionist policies were incompatible with the decree.

“As I told you earlier, my job is not to tell you what to do. It is to ensure you did what you said you were going to do,” the judge said. “So here are some suggestions on how we do so: The city, the mayor and other elected officials from the City Council need to be constructive, not destructive, to progress.”

If Thomas-Kennedy prevails, the judge’s relationship with the City Attorney will likely be far less cordial than it had been under Holmes. Of course, nine years of cordiality hasn’t exactly delivered results. The judge has interpreted the consent decree as a limit of how far police restructuring can go rather than a baseline that can be exceeded. Thomas-Kennedy sees it differently and would argue reallocating chunks of police funding to other public safety programs is constructive progress. The consent decree’s aim is to restore constitutional policing by ridding the department of its pattern of using excessive force and racial bias against Black, Indigenous, and people of color. While the department reports use of force incidents are on a downward trend, the pattern of racial bias and disproportionate impact stubbornly persists.

Few have had more influence on the consent decree process than Pete Holmes, who worked behind the scenes to select the original Court Monitor Merrick Bobb, overruling then-Mayor Mike McGinn’s on the pick. Holmes’ interventions often led to regrettable results in McGinn’s retelling, ensuring that the role of the Community Police Commission (CPC) remained limited and its authority largely symbolic. This left the fundamental power imbalance police held over the communities they serve in place and largely unchecked. That age-old design defect was on display Tuesday, as Judge Robart essentially told the CPC to leave him alone.

“It’s not my intention to come down hard on the CPC, but I think that given some of the turmoil that has gone on in that organization they periodically reinvent themselves and start trying to see what it is that is within their grasp,” the judge said. While the CPC was established by the consent decree, it was adopted as a formal commission by the City Council, and that’s where the judge says its influence should be directed.

Mike Carter, The Seattle Times

The Settlement Agreement expected the decree to last five years, but it’s already in year nine and the end isn’t really in sight. City Attorney Holmes motioned in May 2020 to end most of the consent decree, arguing the City was in compliance and had accomplished key police reform goals. Likely, Holmes and Mayor Jenny Durkan hoped to add “ended the consent decree” to their list of accomplishments for their reelection campaigns the following year. But those plans hit a snag when the city erupted in protests after George Floyd’s murder and instead of showing off their vaunted de-escalation training and nonviolent crowd control, Seattle police officers went to work roughing up protesters, pepper spraying children, and shooting journalists, legal observers, and medics with blast balls. The City withdrew its motion to terminate the decree, realizing SPD’s failure was on full display.

Bizarrely, SPD’s excesses during protests, abandoning East Precinct without orders from their police chief or mayor, and continued pattern of killing people experiencing mental health crises has barely been mentioned by the judge or Court Monitor on Tuesday or over recent months. Six SPD officers participated in the Trump-led insurrection in Washington, D.C. on January 6th, with encouragement from Seattle Police Guild President (SPOG) Mike Solan, but this is a footnote, apparently. Judge Robart famously was the first judge to utter “Black lives matter” from the bench in 2016 when he was upset that SPOG was trying to block accountability measures and force though raises during contract negotiations. In 2018, the accountability-stripping big-pay-hike contract went through anyway, with only another scolding from the judge before business as usual. SPOG’s role in delaying reforms didn’t make into Tuesday remarks.

Instead, the exodus of police officers from the department, lengthening response times, and incremental gains on use of force metrics were the star of the show.

“The new monitor, Dr. Antonio Oftelie of Harvard, told the court that the department has lost more than 300 officers since 2019, and has been able to replace fewer than 100 of them,” Carter reported breathlessly in The Seattle Times. “The manpower shortage has, for now, essentially ended community policing in the city and sent response times ‘skyrocketing.'”

The Harvard-educated metrics aficionado monitor also dropped a new symbolic first for Seattle to boast of: SPD will be the first department in the country to “incorporate ideals and data around social justice, equity and accountability into their management meetings, along with the traditional crime statistics,” he said. An equity minute during management meetings ought to solve what nine years of reform didn’t, right?

Court Monitor Oftelie framed progressive politics as an obstacle to achieving compliance with the consent decree. Judge Robart seized on that, while seemingly broaching the subject that the consent decree had been flawed and misguided from its started.

“At the risk of misinterpreting the results of our recent municipal primary elections, where there seems to be some support for people who have a more problematic view of the department … does the monitoring team say, ‘You didn’t do this right, and it needs to change?'”

Oftelie said his people are still sorting that out and said his year-end report will get into it, Carter reported. However, both the monitor and judge seem too committed to their current approach to overhaul the plan or renegotiate the consent decree. Why else chastise the city councilmembers and community members pushing for a bolder approach and play into crime-fear tactics centrists are trying to ride into office?

The actions of both men suggest neither is really asking the foundational question about whether their reform plan can truly work — especially when SPOG isn’t a willing partner. Instead, they’re slogging along with the same formula that hasn’t worked for nine years hoping for different results as the police guild gets even more entrenched and hardline against reform and criticism of any kind. For Dr. Oftelie and court monitors like him across the country, it’s a nice paycheck while they wait for the same experiment to produce a different result.

Correction: An earlier version said only select media were allowed to attend Tuesday’s consent decree hearing, but technically anyone could attend if they were able and comfortable being inside the courthouse. No streaming services were provided. Also clarified that Holmes’ did not take place in the consent decree negotiations, but did play a big role in implementing them.

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Doug Trumm is The Urbanist's Executive Director. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.

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Bryan

SPD’s response time boogeyman is embarrassingly bad to anyone who knows anything about competent, evidence-based policing. It’s a big tell the play is to justify sworn officer positions rather than provide efficient, effective public safety services.

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Last edited 2 months ago by Bryan
Kyle Kutz

would you mind unpacking that a bit? How is the graph supporting your response time boogeyman comment?

I am legitimately curious

Bryan K

Sure. SPD uses response time targets for various ways they categorize 911 calls as the big justification for staffing and budget.

“We can’t hit these targets” is the big threat/warning, as if that means worse outcomes for crime and public safety.

In point of fact, if we set aside the targets and classifications SPD has made up, a rapid response by an armed officer is only necessary or even useful in very small number of calls for service.

Many calls for service are not crimes. And research shows the probability of a rapid response to a crime reported 5 minutes after the fact is the same as a response that takes an hour.

So really there are a few thousand calls a year for which rapid response by an armed officer is important and useful.

The way to run a department well is the opposite of how SPD operates:

  • Maximize how many calls for service can be handled equally well for less by roles other than armed officers
  • Maximize how many can be handled by something other than a rapid response – like making an appointment or requesting a call back
  • Be really good at the small number that do require a rapid response by an (expensive) armed officer.
Mike McGinn

One correction. Pete Holmes did not negotiate the consent decree. The mediator excluded him and Jenny Durkan from the negotiations. Once the agreement was reached and signed, Pete has worked to influence its implementation, and here we are today with a failed agreement. Like the judge, he has worked to sideline community involvement.

Douglas Trumm

Thanks Mike. Clarified that point.