Police oversight at a crossroads: The next challenges in community-led change

Tuesday, June 15, 2021
By Brandy Grant, Community Police Commission Executive Director

Thousands of people crowded into the streets of Downtown Seattle on May 30, 2020 to protest police violence against Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC). Just five days earlier, the Minneapolis Police Department had killed George Floyd. Despite the rain and an ongoing global pandemic, the community showed up in unprecedented numbers to express their collective outrage at the abuses of power BIPOC communities suffer at the hands of police. While people chanted the names George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, they also remembered the people in our community lost to police violence – like John T. Williams, Charleena Lyles, Damarius Butts, Isaiah Obet, and Shaun Fuhr.

Early on, few likely expected that these protests would launch Seattle into a process of deeply reassessing its entire public safety system. Why would they? Just weeks before, the primary debate in City Council had been about how much bigger we should make the Seattle Police Department. Earlier that month, the City Attorney even filed a motion to substantially end the Consent Decree after eight years of police oversight by the federal court.

Like few times in our city’s history, there was a choice to be made during the first days of the protests – a choice about what our police department was and what it wanted to be. Then the tear gas started. Since then, Seattle has made significant changes, but many questions remain. To answer them, we need a clear understanding of what brought us here and how that history will impact our next steps.

The Consent Decree

We can trace modern police accountability efforts in Seattle to the creation of the Consent Decree. The Consent Decree resulted from the community coming together to address decades of unchecked police abuse in Seattle.

2010 was a breaking point – police repeatedly used deadly force against BIPOC community members in the Seattle area, including the shooting First Nations woodcarver John T. Williams, which shook the community. Outraged, 35 community organizations, including ACLU-WA, joined forces to call on the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate SPD. A year later, the results of that investigation were released and found that SPD systemically used excessive force in ways that violated the constitutional rights of our community members. It also expressed serious concerns that SPD had engaged in a pattern of racially biased policing.

As a result of those findings, the City of Seattle agreed to implement a series of police reforms. A federal judge would oversee those reforms and establish a process to monitor the police department for several years. That agreement is called the Consent Decree.

It was the power of community that made the Consent Decree possible. To honor that, the Consent Decree mandated the creation of the Community Police Commission (CPC) to ensure the community had a seat at the table in police accountability discussions. The CPC is an organization comprised of community members with the explicit goal of centering the voices of those most impacted by policing in our city. For the first time, it has given our community a direct say in how it was being policed.

The Accountability Ordinance

When the CPC began its work in 2013, one of its priorities was to ensure that Seattle had a strong police disciplinary system to hold officers properly accountable when they commit misconduct. Over their first year, the CPC spread across the city hearing from hundreds of community members and spent countless hours working with technical advisors and stakeholders. By April 2014, they made more than 50 recommendations calling for a complete overhaul of Seattle’s accountability system.

Those recommendations would become the framework for the 2017 Accountability Ordinance – a landmark law unanimously passed by the Seattle City Council with overwhelming support from the community. These reforms were designed to address real problems and were based on actual cases of police abuse. Among other things, the Accountability Ordinance promised to empower strong civilian investigations of police misconduct, close many of the loopholes police officers use to avoid discipline, and make sure that when officers did challenge discipline, those appeals were fair and transparent . The 2017 Ordinance and a subsequent order included language to address longstanding problems with police overtime; in the words of a recent Seattle Times editorial, it “set in motion a process for civilian management of officers’ moonlighting” and imposed “a limit of 24 hours of off-duty work a week.” 

The Seattle Times called the passage of this legislation a “historic” moment in police accountability. However, less than two years later, Seattle city leaders agreed to new contracts with the city’s police unions that rolled back many of these reforms. They agreed to these contracts despite repeated warnings from the CPC and dozens of community groups about their negative effects on police accountability.

The police contracts were so detrimental to accountability that the CPC argued they violated the Consent Decree. The court agreed with the CPC, finding in May 2019 that Seattle had partially fallen out of compliance with the Consent Decree in the area of police accountability. The judge set deadlines for the City to work with the CPC and other stakeholders to correct the contracts’ issues. However, those deadlines came and went without any substantial action by the City.

Moving Forward

As has always been the case, community power continues to be the driving force behind the major changes we are seeing in policing. Since last summer, we have been challenged to reassess what public safety looks like, and we have already seen important changes:
  • The first funding cuts to the Seattle Police Department in years, and most councilmembers have promised more reductions to come;
  • Significant steps toward implementing participatory budgeting that centers our BIPOC communities; and
  • The Washington State Legislature has passed a broad package of statewide police accountability bills that will help protect people from excessive force, restrict military weapons and tear gas, and ensure that officers guilty of the most serious misconduct lose their ability to be a police officer anywhere in our state.
However, on many other issues, our community still has important questions to answer:
How can we better protect community members from excessive force, especially at protests, and stop SPD from using harmful and indiscriminate crowd control weapons?

How can we ensure SPD’s contracts allow for a strong police accountability system, like the one envisioned by the Accountability Ordinance, and how can we change state law to make it so that we do not have to bargain for police accountability?

How can we work to strengthen Seattle’s police disciplinary system and better center the voice of the community in the process in order to restore faith in Seattle’s police accountability system?

We have spent years working toward solutions to these issues and have presented SPD with dozens of community-based recommendations. You can learn more about those on our website.  

However, we know there’s so much more work to be done. To help do it, in the last three months, the CPC has elected new co-chairs, added five new commissioners, and, on March 15, I was confirmed as the commission’s permanent Executive Director. We are all people who have deep roots in this community and are passionate about finding solutions that work for the community. We know we can only answer these questions together, and we invite you to join us as we work toward building the future of public safety.
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