It’s been a hugely busy month on the local political scene. But lost in the blizzard of headlines was the truly remarkable — in every bad sense of the word — lawsuit filed on May 28 by more than 100 rank-and-file Seattle Police Department (SPD) officers.
The federal lawsuit seeks to overturn a federal court’s mandated reforms to SPD’s use of force policies, which, according to the plaintiffs, “unreasonably restrict and burden their right to protect themselves and others” and represent “bold, new disregard for police authority in the streets of Seattle.”
The thing is, the public doesn’t “disregard” the authority of SPD officers. It’s not that we ignore police authority — it’s quite the opposite. Many Seattleites are alarmed and terrified by “police authority in the streets of Seattle,” because, for decades, officers have been able to do whatever they’d like, without fear of accountability — not from fellow officers, not from SPD or union leadership, not from county or federal prosecutors, not from mayors or City Council members. That’s slowly shifting.
This lawsuit — from more than a tenth of SPD’s rank and file officers — is the tantrum in response.
Most local media spun this lawsuit as yet another episode in SPD’s interminable foot-dragging and resistence to public accountability, a constant ever since the Department of Justice began investigating SPD following the fatal shooting of John T. Williams in 2010.
SPD’s use of force policies and training were focal points of public criticism after that shooting, and the numerous shootings by local officers over the years — especially those involving communities of color — have been central to the widespread local lack of trust in SPD.
The DOJ’s investigation found that SPD officers routinely used force too quickly and used too much force when they did. It also found strong evidence of racial discrimination in how force was applied — a finding not made definitive only because SPD itself didn’t even keep adequate records for the DOJ to statistically analyze incidents by race.
The feds were unambiguous: SPD was out of control and broken.
Three years after that report, more than a tenth of SPD’s officers are still willing to publicly object to court-imposed policies that simply bring SPD into line with standard law-enforcement practice. That says a lot about the cultural rot still infesting SPD.
But what separates this lawsuit from the previous four years of squabbling isn’t even what these officers object to so much as who they sued. Among those named in their lawsuit are Attorney General Eric Holder; Merrick Bobb, the court-appointed federal monitor overseeing the reform process; former and current mayors Mike McGinn and Ed Murray; City Attorney Pete Holmes; the past two interim SPD chiefs; and possible new chief Kathleen O’Toole.
Did you get that? SPD’s incoming chief, chosen specifically for her experience in reforming troubled law-enforcement agencies, was sued in federal court by more than a tenth of her own officers before even being sworn into office.
O’Toole had nothing to do with SPD at all at the time of the lawsuit, other than having been nominated (but not yet confirmed) as the new chief by our mayor.
That’s not squabbling: It’s a declaration of war against an incoming chief. It’s a explicit vow by a significant minority of SPD officers — plus however many others feel the same way but aren’t as willing to be public about it — to resist the new chief and her policies.
There could not possibly be a clearer expression of the sense of entitlement felt by some SPD officers — toward not just the communities they’ve victimized for decades, not just the public at large and not just the politicians, judges and federal law-enforcement people trying to hold them accountable, but even their own chief. In a hierarchical organization, that’s simply intolerable. It’s insubordination — at best.
O’Toole can’t do it for any number of legal, political, and practical reasons. But it must be sorely tempting for her to fire each and every one of the officers involved in that lawsuit — if not the entire existing force — as police fundamentally unqualified to serve the public. If they don’t like the idea of being answerable to the people who pay their salaries, then they should find another job.
SPD’s biggest current challenge is restoring public trust in the department. More than a tenth of that department’s officers have now stated publicly that they don’t want to be trusted and that they will resist even their own boss’ efforts to help them be more trusted. Anything O’Toole can do to rein in such an ingrained, contemptible, internal culture at SPD will have widespread public support.
GEOV PARRISH is cofounder of Eat the State! He also reviews news of the week on “Mind Over Matters” on KEXP 90.3 FM. To comment on this column, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.