Filed Date: July 27, 2012
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On March 31, 2011, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) opened an investigation of the Seattle Police Department (SPD) pursuant to the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (then codified at 42 U.S.C. § 14141; then recodified to 34 U.S.C. § 12601), the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Following a comprehensive investigation, on December 16, 2011, the DOJ announced its findings that SPD engaged in a pattern or practice of excessive force that violated the Constitution and federal law.
On July 27, 2012, the DOJ filed this lawsuit against the City of Seattle in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington under 42 U.S.C. § 14141. DOJ sought an order requiring the Seattle Police Department to adopt certain training and supervision accountability to prevent further excessive use of force. The complaint was filed concurrently with a settlement and proposed order of resolution on behalf of both parties that provided guidance on procedures the Seattle Police Department must implement.
U.S. District Judge James L. Robart provisionally entered the settlement August 30th of that year, pending later modifications to increase monitor and court oversight. These changes were made, and Judge Robart approved Merrick Bobb as the police monitor for the City of Seattle on October 30, 2012. On November 28, 2012, the first status conference for implementation of the consent decree was held before Judge Robart. On March 12, 2013, Judge Robart approved the monitoring plan for the first year.
The Seattle Community Police Commission (CPC) moved to intervene on October 24, 2013. On November 26, 2013, Judge Robart denied the motion, finding that the motion was not timely submitted and that CPC was already adequately represented in the action. However, Judge Robart granted CPC amicus curiae status in order to allow CPC to express its views on issues raised by the parties in this action. CPC submitted its amicus brief on December 3, 2013.
On November 27, 2013, the monitor submitted a consensus use of force policy to guard against discriminatory policing and unlawful stops and searches. This policy was reviewed and approved by Judge Robart on January 17, 2014.
On March 3, 2014, the monitor submitted a consensus performance mentoring policy to establish a proactive risk management strategy for identifying and correcting possible problematic behavior. Judge Robart reviewed and approved this policy on March 20, 2014.
Two months later, on May 24, 2014, Judge Robart approved the monitoring plan for the second year. In accordance with the plan, the monitor submitted Force Investigation Team training curriculum and materials, which set forth the training the independent FIT would receive to investigate high level uses of force. In addition, the monitor also submitted crisis intervention and comprehensive use of force training materials to the court. These materials were approved by Judge Robart on June 13, 2014.
On July 10, 2014, Judge Robart also approved the monitor's submitted operations and training manual for the SPD Office of Professional Accountability. An additional consensus use of force curriculum was approved by Judge Robart on August 14, 2014. On September 22, 2014, Judge Robart approved the monitor's search and seizure and bias-free policing training materials as well as the monitor's consensus advanced crisis intervention training curriculum and strategy.
In 2015, Judge Robart approved a number of submissions by the monitor pertaining to training, crisis intervention, early intervention, and bias-free policing. Judge Robart similarly approved a set of submissions in 2016 including a newly revised Office of Professional Accountability manual and the Procedural Manual for SPD’s Force Investigation Unit.
The monitor filed a progress report on September 26, 2016, indicating that SPD might be fully compliant by fall 2017 based on the progress made to date. The report indicated that "many officers have come to understand that the Consent Decree encapsulates best practice" and "that the necessary cultural change has begun to at least some meaningful extent" though work remained to be done to ensure this change was not temporary. The report noted a decrease in incidents involving moderate or higher levels of force. The report indicated that areas of improvement necessary for compliance include "better and sustained trust of the SPD in all the various and diverse communities it serves."
Judge Robart approved the submissions in 2017 regarding SPD’s training plan, crowd management policy, and a draft of its body-worn video policy.
On January 10, 2018, the court declared the City of Seattle to be in full and effective compliance with the consent decree. The court ordered the commencement of the Phase II sustainment period plan that same day. "During Phase II, the Monitor will . . . assist the City and SPD in evaluating the changes they have implemented, considering whether those new policies need any tweaks or modifications to be most effective."
The City of Seattle submitted its Sustainment Period Plan for Phase II on March 2, 2018. It was approved on March 13. The City agreed to provide seven quarterly reports addressing the City’s sustained compliance with the consent decree. The Sustainment Plan required that each quarterly report include recent data on use-of-force and crisis intervention practices, an update on the activities of the Seattle Police Department’s Force Review Board and Unit, and a discussion of relevant activities of the accountability organizations. The City filed its first quarterly report on July 31, 2018. According to the report, data on use of force and crisis intervention practices demonstrated that the City had continued to comply with the consent decree.
On December 3, 2018, the court requested the parties to show cause whether the court should find that the City of Seattle has failed to maintain full and effective compliance with the consent decree. Specifically, two considerations formed the basis of the court's order to show cause: (1) the City’s completion of its collective bargaining with the Seattle Police Officer's Guild and the impact of that bargaining on the Accountability Ordinance; and (2) the Disciplinary Review Board decision to overturn the former police chief's decision to terminate a SPD Officer who punched a hand-cuffed subject who was sitting in a patrol car. On May 15, 2019, the court held a hearing on its order to show cause in which the parties and the CPC participated.
The court found on May 21, 2019, that the City had fallen partially out of full and effective compliance with the consent decree. The court did not find any compliance issues with respect to the areas listed in the Phase II Sustainment Plan, but noted that a number of key assessments needed to be completed within the remainder of the sustainment period. With respect to accountability, the court found that the City was out of compliance due to changes in the Accountability Ordinance that occurred following implementation of the collective bargaining agreement with the Seattle Police Officer's Guild and the City’s reversion to an arbitration system that was materially unchanged from the old, inadequate accountability regime. The court noted that once the City achieved full and effective compliance with its accountability responsibilities, the City would need to maintain that compliance for two years. The DOJ responded to this order by suggesting that the accountability concerns expressed by the court fell outside the scope of the consent decree. This may have been related to a November 2018 memo from Attorney General Jeff Sessions limiting use of consent decrees.
In August of 2019 the defendants submitted a motion to approve new accountability methodologies, which the court accepted in October of that year.
On May 7, 2020, the parties submitted a joint motion stipulating that large portions of the consent decree be terminated, as the City had been in full compliance with those provisions for two years. However, by the next month the defendants had to withdraw that motion. In response to the large-scale protests that broke out following the killing of George Floyd, the SPD used crowd control tactics and force that potentially violated the consent decree. Therefore, the City withdrew the joint motion in order to hear more about the propriety and legality of those tactics before moving forward.
Facing public backlash to the crackdown, Seattle City Council passed a new ordinance that prohibited use of "crowd control weapons" on protesters. The ordinance was to take effect on July 26, 2020. The City filed a notice of the ordinance with the court on July 17. The City noted a concern that the ordinance may conflict with the consent decree and asked the court to enjoin the effective date of the ordinance. Construing the notice as a motion for a TRO, the court denied the motion without prejudice because the City's notice failed to establish a likelihood of success on the merits and failed to address any of the other required elements for a TRO. 2020 WL 4207379. Nonetheless, the court recognized that it would eventually need to analyze the effect of the ordinance on the consent decree and requested the City to submit a copy of analysis on the ordinance being prepared by the Seattle Office of Police Accountability and the Seattle Office of Inspector General. In addition, the court requested each party to submit memoranda on the interaction of the ordinance and the consent decree and any SDP policies governed by the Consent Decree.
Prior to the completion of the report or memorandum, the SPD issued a directive to SPD officers to ensure compliance with the ordinance. The DOJ moved for a TRO against enforcing this directive, claiming that it was a change to policies of the SPD that must be reviewed by the U.S. and the monitor. The court granted that motion on July 25, 2020 and enjoined implementation of the directive and the implementation date of the ordinance. 474 F. Supp. 3d 1181. The parties later stipulated and the court approved that the TRO be converted into a preliminary injunction in order to facilitate the policy review process set forth in the consent decree. The parties also agreed that the preliminary injunction would terminate only by court order or by joint motion of the parties and approval of the court.
Other police reform proposals also came into conflict with the consent decree. In June 2021, the Seattle City Council rejected a proposal to cut $2.83 million from the SPD's budget due in part to concerns that the budget cuts would not comply with the terms of the consent decree.
Meanwhile, the City of Seattle's position seemed to reflect some acknowledgement of the public pressure on police reform. In February, the city submitted its proposed revisions to the SPD's Use of Force and Crowd Management policy, which was last updated in 2017. The proposed policy stated that "SPD [was] committed to exploring strategies to further minimize the use of blast balls and pepper balls."
Starting on April 6, 2021, SPD began implementing a mandatory crowd management, intervention and control training for all sworn personnel ranked captain or below. On July 13, 2021, a revised version of the less lethal weapons bill was voted out of the City Council Public Safety and Human Services Committee to be sent to the full council for consideration.
On May 13, 2022, the monitor issued a comprehensive assessment, which found that the SPD had sustained full and effective compliance in almost all areas except for use of force, an area where SPD fell out of compliance during the George Floyd protests, and accountability. The assessment listed a set of areas that, while not strictly covered by the consent decree, remained areas for improvement. These included restoring local trust, improving internal accountability systems, and addressing the disparate impact policing had on different communities. One point of emphasis was that SPD was understaffed, which created a "negative flywheel effect" that exacerbated problems with policing.
On March 28, 2023, the parties jointly submitted an amended compliance agreement that narrowed the terms of the original consent decree. Noting full compliance with areas besides use of force in crowd management––which related to the George Floyd protests––and accountability mechanisms, the parties agreed to narrow the consent decree to hone in on those two areas.
As of August 8, 2023, the parties' jointly submitted amended compliance agreement is pending. The court is currently accepting amicus briefs from interested parties.
Andrew Steiger (11/18/2013)
John He (2/15/2016)
Virginia Weeks (3/11/2018)
Anna Brito (11/14/2018)
Jack Hibbard (8/6/2020)
Justin Hill (9/12/2021)
Jerry Lan (3/28/2023)
For PACER's information on parties and their attorneys, see: https://www.courtlistener.com/docket/4411090/parties/united-states-v-city-of-seattle/
Boler, Jean M. (Washington)
Boatright, Rebecca (Washington)
Barge, Matthew (California)
Bobb, Merrick J. (California)
Brann, Joseph (California)
Robart, James L. (Washington)
See docket on RECAP: https://www.courtlistener.com/docket/4411090/united-states-v-city-of-seattle/
Last updated Sept. 10, 2023, 7:18 p.m.
State / Territory: Washington
Filing Date: July 27, 2012
Case Ongoing: Yes
U.S. Department of Justice
Public Interest Lawyer: Yes
Filed Pro Se: No
Class Action Sought: No
Class Action Outcome: Not sought
Causes of Action:
Prevailing Party: Plaintiff
Nature of Relief:
Source of Relief:
Form of Settlement:
Order Duration: 2012 - None
Content of Injunction: