Seattle files a motion to end police oversight

Police Bike - Curt Smith - CC BY 2.0

On May 7, the City of Seattle and the Department of Justice filed a motion to terminate Seattle PD’s commitment to the “Consent Decree Sustainment Plan,” imposed after the Department of Justice reported, in 2011, frequent use of force that violated the Fourth Amendment. Such episodes represented 20% of all uses of force. The request was submitted to Judge James Robart.

The Consent Decree, enacted in 2012, is a commitment to ensure that police services observe constitutional practices and comprises two phases. Phase I consisted of a three-year assessment, which showed that the City fully complied with Phase I requirements. Mayor Durkan is now asking for the SPD to be released from the plan and monitoring, after successfully complying with Phase II. The City of Seattle, the Monitor (a person selected by the City and DOJ to overlook the procedures), and the United States confirmed such documented evidence. Adjustments cost $100 million and included the review of use-of-force and de-escalation policies, de-escalation training, crisis intervention training, weapon use revisioning, professional misconduct accountability policing bias-free policing training.

As a result of these corrections, serious use of force has decreased by 60%, while 99% of all recorded use of force episodes adhered to the Constitution. Meticulous accountability reporting ensures that officers and accusers receive impartial resolutions of the cases promptly. SPD is now a national leader in policy oversight, de-escalation, and crisis intervention. “The Consent Decree reforms transformed SPD’s policies and training, and they instilled a culture of continuous improvement in its officers,” wrote Seattle City Attorney Peter S. Holmes in the memo. Mayor Durkan praised the improvement, stating: “Our growing City has put more demand on police, and they have met the challenge, even during our COVID-19 crisis. In our City, our officers have responded to a record number of crisis calls, yet force has rarely been used. They have met every metric set forth by the Court’s sustainment plan.”

Some would argue that such action still leaves space for civil oppression. Because, apparently, when it comes to the Stay-At-Home order, “constitutionality” is no longer a matter of fact, but an opinion. In other words, compliance with the constitution is being misinterpreted as tyranny. Port of Seattle Officer Greg Anderson has caught national attention with a controversial video that he posted on Instagram. Anderson, who was on duty at the time he took the video, expressed his concern about “officers nationwide enforcing tyrannical orders against the people […].” According to him, officers do not have the authority to arrest, inspect, and ticket people who are infringing the social distancing order, as these actions go against his oath and people’s constitutional rights. He supported his claims by quoting a section from the Declaration of Independence and encouraged officers to refuse to follow these orders, no matter what authority they come from. “No amount of money, or no order or law or anything, should be able to make you go against doing the right thing […].”

But the order is perfectly constitutional, according to Clifford Cawthon, journalist and political science professor at Bellevue College. “The constitutionality of the Stay-At-Home order goes back to Jacobson v. Massachusetts, where the Supreme Court established that sometimes, our rights could be restrained in non-excessive ways in order to watch out for public safety.”

“In the last several years, we have seen a rash of police officers and law enforcement taking the interpretation of the law into their own hands.” Cawthon then takes, for example, the sheriffs in Eastern Washington who “played politics” and refused to enforce the new gun laws. “Part of this is very political, and this goes not just into partisan enforcement of the law, which is actually rather dangerous in a democracy and for the stability of society, but also much of this non compliance is being driven by politics of more extreme organizations and political forces of society.” He believes Anderson’s case could be part of a trend of misinformation and law enforcement politicization. He goes on explaining that it would have been perfectly fine if Anderson had exercised his freedom of speech, with limited knowledge of the Constitution, while not on duty. The Port of Seattle PD’s Chief Rod Covey  stated clearly, “He is not allowed to do so while on duty, wearing our uniform, wearing our badge, and while driving our patrol car. […] I personally told this to Greg and told him that I would support his right to talk about these issues as long as he did so while not claiming any affiliation to our police department.” Had he complied, he wouldn’t be on paid leave for violation of social media policies.

According to Cawthon, general disobedience is sacrificing the lives of citizens and people in the front lines. Among civilians, people of color are suffering the most, with higher infection rates. “The disproportionate impact here is the byproduct of centuries of discrimination and disinvestment for communities of color. This cynical white-washed narrative around the Stay-At-Home being an unconstitutional violation of people’s rights is really dangerous for that reason,” he says, noting that the protesters are predominantly white.

While Anderson worries about the risk of anti-police revolts, Cawthon believes he is overestimating that probability. “This kind of victimization narrative when it comes to the police is a common one that we’ve seen recently, as we have started to confront the realities of police misconduct and to pay attention to the concerns of those who have historically been victimized by the police.” The success of Anderson’s video prompts the question of how like-minded officers and civilians will act. Certainly, if it has the potential to inspire disobedience within law enforcement, maintaining order could represent a significant challenge, even for highly trained officers.