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July 12, 2013 at 6:25 AM

Bruce Harrell’s triple flip on the DOJ and Seattle Police

Seattle City Councilmember Bruce HarrellBy my count, Seattle mayoral candidate Bruce Harrell has taken three different positions on the the Department of Justice’s intervention in the Seattle Police Department. Even the Russian judges score that triple-flip a zero.

At issue is whether the City of Seattle should have contested the DOJ’s findings that SPD officers used unconstitutional excessive force one out of every five times force was used. Harrell, a Seattle City Councilmember, was among the critics of Mayor Mike McGinn for not quickly settling and signing a consent decree, which McGinn eventually did.

Immediately after DOJ released its findings, Harrell endorsed a “collaborative” approach with DOJ. In a statement on December 16, 2011, he said:

While we can spend an inordinate amount of resources refuting the criticisms and conclusions reached in the report, I do not believe that is a recommended approach. I am more concerned with how we as a City, implement policy changes and personnel changes that will improve accountability and transparency.

In an endorsement interview with the Seattle Times editorial board last month, Harrell switched positions. If he were mayor, Harrell said he would have fought in court DOJ. “I don’t believe the 20 percent” figure regarding use of force, he said. Litigation, he said, would have forced DOJ to turn over it’s data. Officers disbelieve the figure, and that disbelief, he said, is an anchor on officers’ morale and the ability for SPD to reform from within.

“You have a department that doesn’t believe in the core case,” said Harrell. “”We still don’t know (the extent of) unreasonable use of force. There’s no buy-in without the data… (without buy-in) we’d have three to five years of argument, and no compliance.”

I clearly heard him defending officers, and wrote in my notes, “angling for SPOG endorsement?” (Seattle Police Officer Guild is the police union). The interview wasn’t recorded, but I doubled checked with three colleagues at the meeting, and they heard it the same way: Harrell was suggesting the 1-in-5 figure was too high. An odd reversal, particularly for a social-justice champion like Harrell.

He’s since gotten a ton of grief for the flip-flop. In a “clarification” emailed to the Seattle Times editorial board, he doubled-down on his position – he’d still litigate with DOJ to get the data – but presented a different rationale.

The 1-in-5 number, he suggested, was too low. Litigation would have “exposed the soft underbelly of the department” and would “have revealed the true cause of unreasonable force and how it has gone undetected for all these years.”

 My approach isn’t to engage in protracted litigation.  Rather, the parties could have used a discovery process to expose the injustices that have plagued our city for years.  The rank and file could also see what most of them do not see, since the majority of them use force correctly.  They would be our biggest change agents.  The vast majority of the police department believes the settlement was unwarranted… A strong settlement agreement is one that would have exposed the truth of our police department and then would have created specific actions intended to rectify the problem and measure it against that truth.  This was not done.  We could have used the litigation process correctly to expose the truth.

It’s possible Harrell did a double-flip – that he meant to say to the editorial board what he said in his email – and not a triple, and that four of us misheard him.

But either way, Harrell’s current argument is incoherent. If he’d been mayor, Harrell says he would have spent political capital on an unpopular litigation strategy in order to force his officers to face their colleagues worst behavior. That’d be a very odd way to get “buy-in” from his officers.

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