Judge overseeing Seattle police reforms asks for accountability 'framework'

Key players were asked to submit their ideas for a comprehensive approach to establishing accountability systems

By Steve Miletich
The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — The federal judge overseeing Seattle police reforms asked key players in the process to submit their ideas for a comprehensive approach to establishing accountability systems throughout the department.

The request from U.S. District Judge James Robart stemmed, in part, from his strong criticism during a June hearing of efforts to expand the authority of a citizen police-review board without the court’s approval.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Robart said he wanted to set “basic ground rules” for such changes, to determine how they fit into a broad range of federally mandated reforms already in place to curb excessive force and biased policing.

Robart instructed the city and the U.S. Justice Department, the parties to a 2012 consent decree, to jointly or separately provide a “framework” to him by Sept. 30.

He also directed the citizen board, the Community Police Commission (CPC), established as part of the consent decree, as well as the director and auditor of the Police Department’s Office of Professional Accountability (OPA), which oversees internal investigations, to submit responses to the city and Justice Department by Oct.16.

Robart, who noted there are a “lot of moving parts and they all need to mesh together,” asked that all the submissions be filed in the court record, so they can be publicly scrutinized.

Already, the city has sent a 23-page letter to the Justice Department and to Merrick Bobb, the federal monitor who acts as Robart’s agent, laying out the proposed role of the CPC and other recommendations to bolster police accountability.

The 15-member CPC, which is made up of citizen volunteers, was designed to serve as a temporary liaison between the community and police department, with the authority to issue reports on the reform process. But it sought to become a permanent body and expand its role last year when it drafted a package of police-accountability measures, prompted by then-Interim Police Chief Harry Bailey’s overturning of misconduct findings against seven officers.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray adopted many of the recommendations in November, but proposed legislation stalled over some differences with the CPC. After months of talks, the two sides reached an accord in June with a plan to submit the package to the City Council.

But Robart halted the plan at the June hearing, saying the consent decree can’t be amended without the court’s approval.

In its Aug. 21 letter, the city has retained key planks of the plan, including provisions, once a sticking point, to strengthen the independence of the OPA director and auditor. Both could only be removed by the mayor for cause, with the agreement of the City Council and input from the CPC.

The mayor also could remove the CPC’s executive director only for cause, with the concurrence of the City Council.

The CPC’s oversight would be “enhanced and broadened” beyond the time and scope initially set forth in consent decree, the letter said.

In a statement after Wednesday’s hearing, Murray noted Robart described reform as a “work in progress,” and that the judge referred to criticism by some that it is not going far enough as premature.

Copyright 2015 The Seattle Times

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