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Seattle City Attorney to withdraw consent decree motion

Law enforcement officers move toward demonstrators during a gathering to protest the recent death of George Floyd on May 31, 2020 in Bellevue, Washington. Protests due to the recent death of George Floyd took place in Bellevue in addition to Seattle, with looting in Bellevue and at least one burned automobile there. (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)

Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes announced Wednesday that he intends to withdraw the city from the pending motion that is currently before U.S District Judge James Robart to end the federal consent decree. The motion will be withdrawn until the city and its accountability partners can conduct an assessment of Seattle Police Department’s response to the recent demonstrations.

Holmes issued the following statement regarding George Floyd, recent demonstrations in Seattle, and the federal consent decree with the SPD:

We’ve witnessed historic events this past week. We saw protests erupt in cities across our nation in reaction to an heinous act by a Minneapolis police officer, rooted in a larger history of racially disproportionate policing. George Floyd’s murder was gruesome and the Minneapolis officers’ apparent nonchalance chilled me to the bone. I am struggling with feelings of sadness, grief, and anxiety, and know I am not alone.

We’re deep into an economic crisis in which people of color are disproportionately losing their jobs. We face a pandemic in which people of color are more likely to die. We operate in a criminal justice system in which people of color are much more likely to find themselves entangled, echoing the Jim Crow chain gangs—which in turn perpetuated the evils of slavery beginning in Virginia four centuries ago, despite the Civil War and the 13th Amendment. No thinking person can deny that our society is fundamentally unjust. These are issues rooted in trauma and continue to traumatize our nation today.

Here in Seattle, I’ve been closely monitoring the response to demonstrations, and 14,000 complaints to our Office of Police Accountability (OPA) in recent days signal that we are about to witness the most vigorous testing ever of our City’s accountability systems. As OPA undertakes its independent investigation of misconduct allegations, it’s become clear to me that we need to pause before asking U.S. District Judge James Robart to terminate the sustainment plan elements of the federal consent decree so that the City and its accountability partners can conduct a thorough assessment of SPD’s response to the demonstrations.

“Therefore, I intend to withdraw the City from the pending motion before the Court, until we thoroughly review and assess SPD’s response to recent demonstrations. I hope and expect that the City will continue to refine its proposal to address the Court’s concerns relating to accountability. The City will then be in a better and more informed position to submit further briefing to the Court in collaboration with the parties to the Consent Decree.

Seattle has been operating under the consent decree since 2012.

“The Seattle Police Department has transformed itself,” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said in a news release earlier this year. “The original investigation of SPD showed force was being used unconstitutionally far too often, and frequently involved people in crisis or under the influence. Nearly a decade later, as we submit the final report under the sustainment plan, Seattle police officers have become a national leader in policing and de-escalation with a commitment to true and lasting reform.”

Mayor Durkan issued the following statement on the consent decree Wednesday, which she discussed earlier with City Attorney Holmes:

As U.S. Attorney, I witnessed the use of force being used against young men of color, including John T. Williams, who was killed just blocks from the federal courthouse. Community groups demanded action. Based on the voice and unified actions of civil rights groups, I was able to lead the investigation of the Seattle Police Department and helped negotiate and sign the Consent Decree. Not only was the Consent Decree drafted with community, it created the first version of the Community Police Commission. I deeply believe the Consent Decree has brought significant, important, and systemic changes in the Seattle Police Department and has aided in the creation of training, transparency, and new oversight measures when force is used.

The City has not filed to end the Consent Decree, and I oppose being released from the Consent Decree at this time. The City made clear to the Court that the City knows it still needed to address concerns on discipline and accountability, and even as we have met the required filings of the sustainment plan, I believe that we should pause as our community is rightfully calling for more police reforms.

I also want to be clear that when I say the Seattle Police Department has made great progress on reforms, it’s true. But saying that doesn’t mean we’re done. Just because we have made real gains does not mean we are finished. No one is more certain of that than Chief Carmen Best. She believes in and demands a culture of continuous improvement. When she sees officers, policies, or procedures that she believes are contrary to the community good, she is the first person to demand change.

There has never been a larger test of our resolve and commitment to justice. It will also test our accountability system to ensure complaints are investigated by the Office of Police Accountability, policies and practices are reviewed by Office of the Inspector General, and the Community Police Commission is providing meaningful community accountability. And I think both the Court and the public should know about the use of force in demonstrations as well as how the accountability system is working – this is ultimately what can build or break public confidence.

We need to have community-led a conversation on where they believe the Court should have oversight and where oversight is appropriately moved to the Office of the Inspector General, the Community Police Commission, and the Office of Police Accountability. Change and reform must be continuous. And we must be unflinching in our willingness to build even deeper changes and create deeper trust.

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