SEATTLE - After more than a decade, the majority of a federal consent decree placed on the Seattle Police Department (SPD) has been lifted.
SPD has been under the thumb of a consent decree – federal oversight requiring the department to reform policing tactics. In 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice found officers frequently used excessive force, failed to de-escalate interactions and failed to properly assist people in mental health crises, all without facing consequences.
Seattle has spent about $200 million on its efforts, including the cost of new policies, database systems and other expenses.
In March, the U.S. Justice Department and Seattle officials asked U.S. District Court Judge James Robart to end most federal oversight of the city’s police department, saying its sustained, decade-long reform efforts are a model for other cities whose law enforcement agencies face federal civil rights investigations.
Since 2011, officials have said the use of serious force is down 60% and the department has new systems for dealing with people in crisis, responding to complaints of biased policing, supervising officers and identifying any who get physical too often.
Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell released this statement following Wednesday's ruling:
"Judge Robart agreed with the City and the Department of Justice that our Seattle Police Department had achieved sustained compliance with most requirements of the federal consent decree, closing out significant portions of the consent decree and allowing our community and police service to move to the next phase of reform.
"Judge Robart’s ruling is a critical milestone in our efforts to reform policing. It recognizes the significant changes in our approach to crime, behavioral health incidents, and professional standards. I am grateful for the excellent work of our police officers that brought us to this point. I am also thankful for the people of Seattle who have, from the beginning of this journey 12 years ago, wanted a police service that is fair, respectful, and effective in keeping everyone safe in every neighborhood.
"To achieve final resolution of the case, the Court identified three additional areas SPD must address – use of force in crowd management, the effectiveness and sustainability of the accountability system currently in place, and the results of collective bargaining with the Seattle Police Officers Guild.
"Crowd management policies and practices and officer accountability will continue to receive our full attention. Chief Diaz and I will work closely with the Community Police Commission, the Office of Police Accountability, and the Inspector General to ensure our civilian-led oversight system is independent and effective in its work to sustain the reforms and compliance that have been achieved.
"My highest City Charter responsibility is safety – and delivering effective public safety for Seattle’s communities requires an unyielding commitment to the work of reform and improvement. I look forward to our continued work together – accountability advocates, officers, neighbors, all of us – toward an always-improving Seattle Police Department."
Councilmember Lisa Herbold put out a statement saying that while progress has been made, work is not done.
"Court supervision will remain in the areas of police accountability, including review of any collective bargaining agreement with the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG), allowing the City to continue negotiations with SPOG to address the issues flagged by the Court memorialized in Resolution 31855. The Seattle Police Department must also rebuild trust within our community, address serious concerns regarding racially biased policing, and revamp its response to protests.
"The Court is clear that SPD’s use of force during protests must be addressed, and the lack of sufficient safeguards is keeping the department out of full compliance with the Consent Decree. The Court has ordered the City to submit draft crowd management policies within the next 90 days, by December 6th. Those policies must include implementation of Ordinance 126422, passed in 2021.
"Legislation that I sponsored, and the Council passed over 2 years ago, will be given consideration only in the final month I hold office. SPD was prepared to submit sooner. In the proposed agreement, the City informed the Court that SPD would be prepared to submit the policies within 60 days of approval of the March submittal. I urge Seattle’s future elected leaders to ensure meaningful, community-driven change, that I believe the Court supports, is realized."
"I thank officers who have worked to implement the Consent Decree. My hope is this allows Seattle to begin a new chapter in which our community, elected leaders, and police work together to truly reimagine what public safety looks like and implement new, more effective, more accountable approaches that work for everyone."
Gino Betts, the Director of the Seattle Office of Police Accountability, said:
The Office of Police Accountability sees Judge Robart's ruling as a significant win for Seattle. It acknowledges and confirms that the Seattle Police Department has made undeniable advancements since the consent decree's implementation. It also highlights the strength and capacity of Seattle's police oversight system for maintaining and furthering those advancements. While policing and police oversight in Seattle remain imperfect, perfection was never the goal. The minimum standard has always been constitutional policing for all, which the Office of Police Accountability pursues daily.
The federal judge is expected to release a report detailing why they decided to keep some restrictions in place.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.