More than 100 Seattle police officers filed a federal lawsuit today, alleging that new use-of-force policies imposed under a consent decree with the Department of Justice (DOJ) unreasonably restrict their right to protect themselves and others from apparent harm and danger.
The lawsuit claims the the use-of-force policies “unreasonably restrict and burden their right to protect themselves and others in violation of the Second, Fourth, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution”
The civil-rights suit was brought by the officers on their own, without an attorney, or by approval by their union, the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild.
It names U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Seattle city officials and Merrick Bobb, the federal monitor overseeing court-reforms to curtail excessive force and biased policing. The city and Justice Department agreed to the reforms in 2012, and the revised use-of-force policies went into effect earlier this year.
The lawsuit represents the most widespread disagreement to surface among the department’s rank-and-file in contrast to superiors who have repeatedly said the department must accept the changes.
The new use-of-force policy, negotiated between the police department and DOJ with the guidance of Bobb, is key to addressing the findings of a 2011 DOJ investigation that concluded Seattle police resort to force too quickly and routinely use too much when they do. The Justice Department also found disturbing but inconclusive evidence of biased policing.
The policy — accompanied by nearly 70 pages of new procedural manuals — replaced a five-page policy that was in place during the time the DOJ conducted its investigation. For the first time, it defines “force” (“any physical coercion by an officer in the performance of their duties”) and advises when it can be used and how much is appropriate under the circumstances. It requires that officers report all but the most minimal use of force to supervisors.
The policy states specifically that officers shall “use only the force necessary to perform their duties” and “with minimal reliance upon the use of physical force.”
It requires them, if circumstances allow, to attempt to de-escalate tense situations through “advisements, warnings, verbal persuasion, and other tactics” to reduce the need for force.
When using force is unavoidable, the policy cautions officers to use only the force necessary to make the arrest, and says that their conduct before force was used may be considered by the department in determining whether force was appropriate.
The policy also requires all officers be armed with one “less-lethal” tool, such as a Taser, pepper spray or a “beanbag” shotgun, in addition to their sidearm.
Mayor Ed Murray released the following statement on the officers’ lawsuit:
“I have not yet had the chance to review the lawsuit and it would be inappropriate for me to comment at this time.
“But I will say: the Seattle Police Department is under a federally-mandated court order, in part because of a disturbing pattern of unnecessary use of force and other forms of unconstitutional policing.
“The police department will comply with that court order. The City of Seattle will not fight the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. This is not the 1960s.”
Murray also referenced his nomination of former Boston police commissioner Kathleen O’Toole as new Seattle police chief.
“I have nominated a new police chief to start work in a few short weeks, and her top priority will be to meet the requirements of the federal court order and make Seattle’s police force a national model for urban policing,” Murrray said.
Kimberly Mills, a spokeswoman for the City Attorney’s Office, said her office doesn’t comment on pending litigation.
Officers’ Guild President Ron Smith said today, “I knew they were unhappy. I knew they were contemplating this action. I met with them to hear their concerns at their request, back in March. I didn’t hear back from them again.”
Smith said he gave the group “a conduit” to reach the Community Police Commission. He said they shared their concerns with the commission.
“I assumed they were going to get the policy changed in the areas of concern. I would like to say the policy is overly broad, poorly written and somewhat confusing. However I believe the policy could have been changed with collaboration with the Community Police Commission,” Smith said.
Smith said the federal filing “is not supported” by the Guild, and is not being funded by the police Guild.
Smith said the dissenters, who represent 10 percent of his membership, started going precinct to precinct in January looking for signatures and were told to stop by command staff. Smith isn’t sure if they ever did stop.
Smith said he heard from an unhappy Murray this afternoon.
“The mayor wanted to know if we’re behind this,” Smith said, referring to the Guild.
Smith called the filing “unfortunate.” He said he just hopes this doesn’t turn into a bitter fight with the Department of Justice.
There is a regularly scheduled Guild meeting tonight. Smith is certain this will be the topic of discussion during the closed-door meeting.
The suit was assigned to U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman, the chief federal district judge in Western Washington. The consent decree is being overseen by U.S. District Judge James Robart.