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Seattle cops say city ‘playing politics’ with their lives

Officers assert that high-level city, police and union officials privately agree that the court-ordered use-of-force changes put them and public in danger


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By Steve Miletich
The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — In an open revolt, more than 100 Seattle police officers suing to block new use-of-force polices assert that high-level city, police and union officials privately agree with their contention that the court-ordered changes put them and the public in danger.

But the officers who filed the suit aren’t naming those high-level officials, saying only that the officials told them they won’t seek to alter the policies because of the “politics” of the situation and the “perceived inability” to fight federally mandated reforms, the officers allege in newly filed court papers.

“This means that the City is now knowingly and willingly playing politics with Plaintiffs’ lives and the lives of the law-abiding citizens of Seattle,” the officers wrote in a 34-page amended complaint filed late Wednesday with U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman.

The complaint, which added new allegations to a May 28 lawsuit to block the policies, ratcheted up the court fight with its fresh allegations of cowering officials bowing to federal demands and vague claims that the policies have led to more assaults on officers.

Sprinkled with more pointed language than the initial suit, the new complaint accuses the federal monitor tracking the reforms, Merrick Bobb, of carrying out a “zealous agenda” to restrict the ability of officers to use force and make reasonable, split-second decisions.

Bobb is one of a number of defendants in the suit, which also names city and federal officials.

The complaint also lambastes U.S. District Judge James Robart, who is overseeing the reforms and found the policies to be constitutional, for approving the changes in a “cursory, one-and-one-half-page order.”

The filing, which came a week after attorneys for the city and Bobb moved to dismiss the lawsuit, poses a new challenge for Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole, a strong supporter of the reforms who, shortly before being sworn into the job June 23, met with four of the officers to convey her concern that their suit had created the appearance that they were resisting reform and hindering efforts to restore community trust.

It also opened an old wound, alleging that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) improperly wrung the policies out of the city based on a discredited and “fundamentally flawed finding” that Seattle officers had engaged in a pattern or practice of using excessive force.

The policies, which went into effect Jan. 1, grew out of a July 2012 consent decree between the city and the Justice Department, which required the police department to adopt sweeping reforms to curtail excessive force and biased policing.

The officers challenging the policies, primarily patrol officers in the 1,236-member department, brought their suit without an attorney or the support of their union, the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild.

In a statement Thursday, guild President Ron Smith said, “As I have stated before, there are severe flaws with the current Use of Force policy, but litigation is not the prudent route to achieve any changes to the policy. The review period for this policy is currently open, and input is being solicited from the rank and file on how to potentially improve the policy.”

O’Toole, in a statement posted Thursday on the department’s website, said, “The Seattle Police Department is moving full speed ahead in implementation of the Consent Decree and will not be distracted in the process.”

Referring to a progress hearing last week in which Robart said to the officers who are suing, “get over it, the train has left the station, it’s not going to turn around,” O’Toole said the “vast majority of SPD officers are entirely committed to modernization and reform.”

Mayor Ed Murray, who is named as a defendant in the suit, said in a statement: “Speaking as chief law-enforcement officer of this city, the policy of this city is compliance with the federal court order. Officers may have their own private opinions about the court order, but noncompliance from employees of this city’s police department is not an option.”

Brad Keller, the attorney for Bobb and members of his monitoring team, noted in an email Thursday that Robart appointed Bobb to serve as the court’s monitor.

“As such, and as we have requested in our Motion to Dismiss, he has quasi-judicial status, providing him with the same immunity from lawsuits as the Judge who appointed him,” Keller added. “Neither he nor other members of the Monitoring Team have any comment regarding the Amended Complaint. As his lawyer, I believe the amended complaint was filed to prevent the Monitor’s pending Motion to Dismiss from being heard and decided in a timely fashion.”

A federal official couldn’t be reached for comment.

In the complaint, the officers allege the use-of-force policies do not reflect the work of department members who were asked to develop them and instead were hijacked by Bobb and the Justice Department.

“Those personnel will testify that the UF policy they wrote was altered almost in its entirety and replaced with specific language provided, and required, by the Monitor,” the complaint says, referring to the overall use-of-force policy.

“This supports,” the officers wrote, the “contention that DOJ, in partnership with Mr. Bobb, intends to use consent decrees in Seattle, as well as other jurisdictions, to rewrite longstanding constitutional law and principles intended to protect officer safety, and eliminate reasonable police practices, with which they -- from the comfort and safety of their desks and with no experience facing dangerous threats -- disagree or find distasteful.”

Bobb has written semiannual reports that are “self-serving, bullying, and dismissive,” the complaint alleges, noting that Bobb, a Los Angeles-based police-accountability consultant, and his staff have been paid $1.3 million so far by the city.

Echoing the original lawsuit, the officers maintain the new policies have limited their discretion, demanding “perfection, not reasonableness” while setting an “impossible standard” that has left officers “scratching their heads and fearing for their lives” and the lives of others, including suspects.

Since filing their original suit, the officers assert, assaults against officers have significantly increased.

“Evidence of police injuries is mounting,” the new complaint says, without providing details.

In seeking dismissal of the lawsuit, city attorneys wrote that it is filled with “speculation and opinion about the value and effect” of the policies.

The suit’s assertion that the policies require “officers to be hurt or killed in the line of duty is an irresponsible misrepresentation,” the attorneys wrote.

The policies recognize law enforcement is “dynamic” and involves “split-second decision-making,” and even that deviations from the policies are acceptable under certain circumstances, they noted.

Although plaintiffs are “dismissive of these qualifiers,” the city, the Justice Department, the monitor and Robart made sure officers have “reasonable latitude to perform their jobs safely, while still having clear guidelines on how to maximize the safety of officers and the public,” the attorneys wrote.

Robart, during last week’s progress hearing, noted that no attorney had been willing to attest to the officers’ allegations.

“To those individuals,” Robart said, “I simply say: ‘Get over it. The train has left the station. It’s not going to turn around. The good old days are not coming back.’ ”

Copyright 2014 The Seattle Times