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Federal judge cautions council to be ‘mindful’ of consent decree ahead of SPD funding vote

Police block a road during protests near the Seattle Police East Precinct on July 26, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)

With Seattle councilmembers set to vote on a sweeping package of cuts to the police department’s budget on Monday, a federal judge is cautioning the city about the possible legal ramifications.

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Operating under an ongoing federal consent decree since 2012, the city has a legal obligation to ensure that any large scale changes to police policy garner the approval of a federal monitor, as well as U.S. District Judge James Robart, who oversees the decree at the judicial level.

The consent decree has already come into play in recent weeks, after Judge Robart granted a temporary pause on a ban on the use, storage, and purchase of crowd control weapons, originally passed unanimously by Seattle City Council. Robart had cited concerns that the ban was approved without weighing its compliance with the consent decree.

Now, the council is considering cuts to SPD’s mounted unit, mounted patrol officers, school resource officers, community outreach, the public affairs unit, Harbor Patrol, SWAT, and more. With a vote scheduled for Monday, Robart issued a word of warning during a recent extension of his pause on the crowd control control weapon ban.

“Legislation passed by the City Council may impact the City of Seattle’s obligations under the Consent Decree,” the ruling reads. “As such … the court encourages the City of Seattle to remain mindful of its Consent Decree obligations and to work in tandem with the court, the Monitor, the Government, and other appropriate stakeholders to achieve Consent Decree compliance.”

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As SCC Insight’s Kevin Schofield notes, requirements laid out for police reform in the consent decree can be changed, but it would necessitate a negotiating process with the U.S. Department of Justice, and requires final approval from Judge Robart. This point, though, there’s no framework in the council’s current package of cuts which incorporates the consent decree. If approved, that could see the proposal challenged in court in the days ahead.

Seattle’s council budget committee will vote on its package of amendments to SPD’s remaining 2020 funding during Monday’s 10 a.m. session, ahead of a full council vote during a 2 p.m. session later that day.

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