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Mixed feelings in Seattle as DOJ backs away from police monitoring

A march protesting the Seattle police shooting of Che Taylor on Feb. 21, 2016 moves through downtown Seattle on Feb. 25, 2016.
KUOW Photo/Liz Jones
A march protesting the Seattle police shooting of Che Taylor on Feb. 21 moves through downtown Seattle on Feb. 25, 2016.

Under the Trump administration, the Justice Department will reduce its emphasis on investigating and suing police departments. Justice officials under President Barack Obama called the Seattle Police Department a success story for this process. 

People involved in Seattle's 2012 consent decree have mixed feelings about the new direction. 

In 2015, then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch touted SPD's  new policies for dealing with people in crisis and reducing use of force. 

But the new Attorney General Jeff Sessions says the DOJ will “pull back”from investigating police practices around the country.  Sessions suggested that federal scrutiny had undermined respect for police and diminished their effectiveness. 

Jenny Durkan is the former U.S. attorney for Western Washington and helped negotiate the consent decree with the Seattle Police Department. She predicts that not only will the DOJ not open new investigations, but existing agreements will be dissolved.  

“Police departments in cities will be able to approach the Department of Justice and ask that a monitoring agreement be terminated and some other less formal agreement be implemented," Durkan said. "And I think that will happen in a lot of jurisdictions.”

Durkan said withdrawing from pending consent decrees would hurt policing, send the wrong message to communities, and could result in more public protests over police shootings. But she said departments like SPD have developed better practices as a result of their consent decrees. And the DOJ can still share those practices with other cities, on a voluntary basis.

“So if they now have  better way to use that best-available policies, procedures and training and get them out to departments and not have to do a monitoring agreement, that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” she said.

As far as undermining respect for police, Durkan said these reforms in use of force were initiated to help police as well as the public.  

“The use of force, particularly deadly force, is a very traumatic thing for a police officer too,” she said. “And we want to reduce the number of those situations to the minimal amount possible. And the way you do that is with best training, best policy, best tools, best resources.”

Durkan said it’s likely that the Seattle Police Department will be relatively unaffected by the new direction at the DOJ. It’s up to U.S. District Judge James Robart, who is overseeing the process. 

Brian Maxey is the chief operating officer for the Seattle Police Department. He said after five years, Seattle is in the home stretch on meeting the goals of its consent decree, so he doesn’t see the need for any big changes.

Maxey said initially the DOJ’s findings on excessive use of force at SPD “came as a shock.” But he said the department is stronger for having gone through the process.  

“I think in fixing the actually rather limited problems within the scope of the consent decree, it drew attention to a lot of other issues including management and structural issues, all of which ultimately have benefited the police department,” he said.

Maxey said the question of whether these consent decrees undermined respect for police is complex.  “I do not think this process has been easy for the police officers. I think there has been a lot of criticism, some of which was warranted, some of which was not. It certainly has had an impact on morale. But overall I think we’re seeing a pretty large recovery in that morale and I think we’re pretty optimistic about the direction of the police department.”

Maxey said he’d like to think the department could have resolved the concerns collaboratively, without a consent decree. But at this point there’s a sense of accomplishment. 

“It’s real. It’s measurably real,” he said. “We actually have had tangible change in our department. I think we’re one of the few departments that can actually point to that change, show it statistically, and I think at the city level we’re finally beginning to celebrate some of those successes.”

Maxey said the latest SPD statistics show encouraging results on the use of force generally and toward people in crisis. "We just issued our first internal assessment of our force data, about uses of force, and what we're finding is in a huge number of contacts, they might exceed a million, only .3 percent of those contacts ended up with any kind of use of force. Those are remarkably low statistics," he said.  

And he said while the DOJ investigations highlighted the need to address these issues, those concerns have now been embraced by police chiefs around the country.

Year started with KUOW: 2005