Federal judge says Seattle Police partially out of compliance of consent decree, but praises department for progress

SEATTLE -- A federal judge on Wednesday questioned a new contract between the city of Seattle and the police union. The concerns expressed in court led to questions of how it could impact a 2012 consent decree.

Federal Judge James Robart said that Seattle Police are now partially out of compliance with the consent decree because issues he has regarding some new accountability measures.

In 2011, the Department of Justice investigation concluded that officers had a practice of using excessive  force. That finding led to the city entering a consent decree promising to change and to improve training.

Over the years Judge Robart has been scrutinizing the progress.

In November 2018, city leaders announced a new collective bargaining agreement, a hard fought deal 4 years in the making between the city of Seattle and the police union.

The new deal increased wages for officers which many hope will raise morale within the force.

But Robart has an issue with a portion of the contract that deals with accountability.

“He was saying by and large officers are doing a great job, but when something goes wrong the accountability system needs to be strong enough to be effective for the public,” Ret. Judge Anne Levinson said.

Levinson has been working with the Community Police Commission (CPC), a citizen oversight panel created in the process of the consent decree.

CPC says the city’s new bargaining agreement rolls back a 2017 ordinance that keeps officers more accountable. For one, they have a problem with a private process using arbitrators to decide how to deal with officers facing disciplinary issues.

They say the public should be able to know what is going on. Another issue is the 180 day window to investigate a complaint. The new contract stipulates that the Office of Professional Accountability should complete an investigation within that time frame, if not they would not be able to bring disciplinary measures against an officer.

In court, Judge Robart highlighted the case against officer Adley Shepherd as an example of a lack of accountability.

Surveillance video shows a woman arguing with officers, repeatedly asking why she was being arrested. Eventually the situation escalates after officers handcuff the woman.

The woman kicks officer Shepherd and you see the officer punch the woman.

The woman was handcuffed at the time and many say it was a clear violation that should have only ended in a termination.

Former Police Chief Kathleen O’ Toole fired Shepherd from the force but with the help of the union, the officer is fighting to be reinstated.

On Wednesday Mayor Jenny Durkan said she and Police Chief Carmen Best both believe that Shepherd should not be on the force. The city is taking the issue to court to keep the officer from being reinstated.

“We are fighting it in court and if the court rules which it hopes it does, we think it will go a long way to show Judge Robart that the process is working,” Durkan said.

Outside of accountability measures, Robart applauded Seattle Police for the progress they have made in policing since entering the consent decree.

He called the improvements a ‘remarkable accomplishment’ especially when it comes to use of force and crisis intervention where officers are better trained to de-escalate situations.

Robart said despite calls for services going up, use of force is ‘rare.’

He says SPD's philosophy went from a warrior mode to a guardian model.

The judge also pointed out a survey that showed that community confidence of officers are up, citing a 74% approval rating which he called extraordinary.

“Force is used in a tiny fraction of cases as the judge noted,” Durkan said.

“He recognized the Seattle Police Department as a well deserved national model in the area of use of force and de-escalation,” Chief Best said.

A community activist who showed up to court, however, says he sees things differently.

Andre Taylor created the organization Not This Time after his brother was killed in a police shootout.

A jury inquest into the death of Che Taylor determined that Che posed a threat to two police officers justifying the shooting.

Andre acknowledged that there has been some progress but says it is still not enough.

“Communities of color have a different perspective,” Taylor said.

Q13 News reached out to the union about the new developments. The Seattle Police Officer’s Guild said they would have to review the details of the findings before making any comments.

“The Seattle Police Officer’s Guild would like to remind everyone that we have a valid contract (through 2020) that was negotiated in good faith, ratified by our membership and signed into law by Mayor Durkan.  SPOG has a long history of negotiating labor agreements with the City of Seattle and many of those agreements involved changes to the accountability/discipline system,” SPOG President Kevin Stuckey said.

The union represents over 1,300 officers.

Q13 News asked Mayor Durkan on Wednesday what the city would do if union leadership wouldn’t budge on some of the accountability measures in question.

“I think you guys are posing a conflict that doesn’t exist yet,” Durkan said.

Robart did say that he is not against the collective bargaining agreement as a whole.  The consent decree is set to expire in 2020. It is unclear if the judge's concerns over the contract would affect the timeline.