Federal judge rebukes Seattle council for running afoul of SPD consent decree in 2020

Feb 5, 2021, 5:36 AM
Seattle protest, indirect lobbying, Seattle police...
Protesters gathered outside City Hall. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

The City of Seattle, the Department of Justice, and federal monitors filed their plan Thursday for adhering to the city’s ongoing police consent decree in 2021. In the midst of that filing, U.S. District Judge James Robart urged city leaders to move in a “common direction” regarding the future of policing at the local level.

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Operating under a 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 Judge Robart, who oversees the decree at the judicial level.

On Thursday, Robart admonished Seattle City Councilmembers regarding a series of moves made over the last year in the interest of reimagining the Seattle Police Department, detailing how those decisions ran afoul of the consent decree’s oversight requirements.

“I have some rather harsh words for city council over the last six months or so,” he said. “I think they have lost sight of the fact that the 100 paragraphs in the consent decree are not commitments — they are obligations, orders from this court of things that will be done.”

“When they decide to take matters into their own hands in contravention of the consent decree, then they drag me into a situation that I don’t want to be in, which is telling them, ‘no, you can’t do that,'” he continued.

That came to a head in July 2020, when Judge Robart blocked legislation passed by city councilmembers that would have enacted stringent limits on the SPD’s use of crowd control weapons. The following month, he warned the city to be “mindful” of the consent decree as it debated significant cuts to the SPD’s budget.

That was all part of a larger process that Robart described Thursday as absent of communication among city leaders, law enforcement, and federal monitors, that eventually culminated in the resignation of SPD Chief Carmen Best.

“That has to end,” he said. “When the city council decides to trim the budget and announce a reduction in a number of officers on the force and salary cuts without ever talking to the police, and is in fact ignorant of the circumstances, there are consequences to that, including Chief Best’s retirement.”

“You can’t simply charge off in a direction without knowing what the consequences are,” he added.

As the city continues to mull over changes to policing, Robart advised stakeholders to treat it “as a collaborative effort.”

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“Let’s simply make sure that we’re all moving in one common direction, and not fracturing into a whole series of everyone running off in their own way, catering to whatever the issue of the hour is,” he cautioned.

As that effort plays out, Robart outlined how the city will likely see greater challenges in 2021 than it ever has in the realm of policing, brought on by a perfect storm of instability in key leadership positions.

That includes the fact that the city will be electing a new mayor in November, its pending labor negotiations with the police union, an ongoing pandemic, and an interim police chief “at a time where we desperately don’t need an interim chief.”

“That creates a situation which is rife with difficulty,” Robart said. “We’re going into a stormy period — we need some steady hands, and I believe I speak for the citizens when I say they want to see actions not words. You all have your work cut out for you.”

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Federal judge rebukes Seattle council for running afoul of SPD consent decree in 2020