Police Reform Expert Comments on Police Accountability

Tuesday, May 14, 2019
Wednesday, May 15th, 2019, is a pivotal moment in police accountability for Seattle. The federal district court will be conducting a hearing to determine whether the labor contract between the City of Seattle and the Seattle Police Officers Guild, that was approved by the City last fall, complies with the consent decree the court has been supervising since 2012. The consent decree was entered after the U.S. Department of Justice investigated allegations that the Seattle Police Department was violating the law as to use of force and biased policing practices. 

The City has made changes in the police department’s use of force, biased policing, and civilian oversight policies, but the court and Seattle Community Police Commission have expressed concern about the labor contract weakening those changes.

Police reform expert Jonathan M. Smith, Executive Director for the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, provides important insights about the events leading up to this moment:
“Policing is in crisis in the United States. In recent years, the rift in trust between police and those most likely to be policed has been exposed and there is an emerging gap between police and low-income communities and communities of color about the meaning of public safety and the strategies to achieve it.

Policy and legal reform is underway in many departments across the country. Some reform efforts are being driven by a consent decree, others by elected official or chiefs responding the demands from their communities. The focus on policy and legal reform is essential, but inherently incomplete. For trust to be rebuilt and communities and police to become partners on public safety, policing needs to be democratized through meaningful community participation in the governance of police departments and in the transparency of police practices. This will require the creation of new entities that more fairly represent the range of people who make up a given community and includes those most likely to be policed, including communities of color, communities living in poverty, LGBT persons, and youth. It will also require making data on police practices widely available, so the public and decision-makers will know in real time whether policing reflects the values of fairness and dignity and promotes public safety. As Justice Louis Brandies famously wrote: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”

I had the honor to work on police reform in the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice from 2010 to 2015. During that time, we handled more than 20 police investigations resulting in reform agreements. Each called for substantially increased community oversight. Among the most robust and successful was the Community Police Commission in Seattle, Washington.

In Seattle, in addition to other transparency and community oversight measures, the City and the Department of Justice agreed to create the Community Police Commission to achieve the following:
• “Effective and constitutional policing requires a partnership between the Police Department, its officers, community members, and public officials. The Parties are committed to developing reform strategies that will work for Seattle and leverage the unique assets of all components of the community.”
• “There is significant community interest in this reform effort. The community is a critical resource. Certain aspects of the reform efforts embodied in the Agreements are best developed by dialogue and wide-spread input. Moreover, ongoing community input into the development of reforms, the establishment of police priorities, and mechanisms to promote community confidence in SPD will strengthen SPD and facilitate police/community relationships necessary to promote public safety.”
• “Police officers also bring an important voice to the reform process. Their views, whether presented through their labor organizations or through other channels, should inform the development of the reform effort and its implementation.” Seattle Consent Decree. United States v. City of Seattle, No. 12-CV-1282 (W.D. Wash. Jul. 27, 2012), http://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/crt/legacy/2012/07/31/spd_consentdecree_7-27-12.pdf.

The Community Police Commission was charged in part with reviewing the monitor’s reports and was given the power to issue its own reports on compliance. Significantly, the Community Police Commission participated in the development of the Seattle Police Department’s new use of force policy. At the time, the Commission was the only civilian body in the Nation to have a role in the formulation of a use of force policy. As Sam Walker, a well-known scholar on police reform noted, “This outcome is the first time in American police history where community representatives had a formal voice in the drafting of police policies.” Samuel Walker, Community Voice in Police Policy in Seattle, (Aug. 25, 2015), http://samuelwalker.net/2015/08/community-voice-in-police-policy-in-seattle/.

The Seattle Commission has been a success. Its involvement was critical to the effective and timely resolution of the consent decree. The voice of those most impacted by policing practices were kept front and center throughout the process in part because of their work. They were an indispensable resource to the parties.

The implementation of the consent decree does not diminish the importance of their role. Changes that reduce transparency in policing, deprive the Commission of information or that reduce the Commission’s role are short sighted and risk undermining the good work that has been done. Reform is an ongoing and dynamic process that changes, but is never complete. The Commission will be an important part of efforts to ensure that all voices in Seattle are heard and that the shared goal of public safety is achieved with equity and for all and not as a benefit for some and a burden for others.”