The Justice Department moved Tuesday to end a consent decree with the Seattle Police Department, bringing to a close more than a decade of federal supervision of the police department.
The Seattle consent decree was established under the Obama administration in 2012 after a Justice Department investigation found that the police department there had a pattern of using excessive force.
Specifically, the Justice Department found at the time that the police department used weapons either excessively or unnecessarily more than half the time during arrests, and that officers engaged in a pattern of discriminatory policing during pedestrian encounters.
The Seattle Police Department has made “far-reaching reforms” since the institution of the consent decree and is now a “transformed organization,” the city of Seattle and the Justice Department said in a court filing Tuesday.
The Seattle Police Department “achieved remarkable progress,” they said, highlighting that the department has complied with stringent use of force policies and implemented a crisis intervention program, the filing said. “Any pattern or practice of unconstitutional force that existed has been eliminated.”
The request will go to the federal judge in Washington state who oversaw the police department’s progress and compliance in implementing police reform since the consent decree was signed in 2012.
If approved, the end of the consent decree will mark a significant milestone in the function of federally supervised implementation of police reforms. There are several similar and ongoing consent decrees with police departments across the country, as well as pattern-and-practice investigations like the one conducted in Seattle.
Critics of consent decrees point to the years-long agreements as proof that federal oversight and investigations can last several years. Early in the Biden administration, the Justice Department implemented new reforms to try and curtail the length of the federal oversight.
‘A model’ for change
Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of DOJ’s Civil Rights Division said during a news conference Tuesday that the Seattle Police Department “reached and sustained compliance with our consent decree by consistently implementing reforms necessary to change policing in this city.”
“Seattle stands as a model for the kind of change and reform that can be achieved when communities, police departments, and cities come together to repair and address systemic misconduct,” Clarke said.
She continued: “The overall message today is that policing in Seattle looks dramatically different today than it did 10 years ago. The consent degree in Seattle has provided the strong medicine necessary to cure the problems and improve the way policing is carried out across the city of Seattle.”
The city established a community policing commission and fostered better trust between residents and the police department, Clarke said. The use of force has become rare, appearing in “fewer than one quarter of one percent” of instances, she said. In addition, the department has adopted a “bias-free policing policy,” and more than 90% of police stops are now supported by “reasonable, articulable suspicion.”
The police department, Clarke said, has pledged to continue monitoring their reforms.
The Justice Department and the city of Seattle asked for continued, narrow federal oversight in two instances where they say the police department still struggles, “ensuring a sustainable system of accountability” and “improving the use, reporting, and review of force in crowd settings.” Clarke said Seattle is still reviewing the use of police force during the racial justice protests in 2020, and “that work must be completed before it’s appropriate to fully end court oversight on that issue.”
“While the Justice Department is opening new pattern or practice investigations into police departments across the country,” Clarke said, “we are also achieving significant progress in cities that have worked for years to institute reforms that are called for by our consent decrees.”
The Justice Department has initiated several probes, including into the police departments in Minneapolis, Phoenix, and Mount Vernon, New York.
This story has been updated with additional details.