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October 9, 2014 at 12:09 PM

Judge has pointed questions in SPD officers’ use-of-force lawsuit

A federal judge on Thursday fired a barrage of skeptical questions at an attorney representing dozens of  Seattle police officers who filed suit seeking to block new, federally mandated use-of-force policies.

“Ignored or not agreed with?” U.S. District  Judge Marsha Pechman pointedly asked the attorney, Athan Tramountanas, when he asserted the officers’ concerns about the policies had been ignored before they were approved.

In contrast, Pechman asked few questions of the assistant city attorney, Greg Narver, who defended the policies during arguments on whether the suit should be thrown out.

Pechman said she will issue a written decision within 14 days whether to grant motions by the City of Seattle and all individual defendants to dismiss the suit.

The officers are challenging sweeping policies approved last year by U.S. District Judge James Robart, the final arbiter of a 2012 settlement agreement between the city and the U.S. Justice Department that requires the Police Department to adopt reforms aimed at reducing excessive use of force and biased policing.

More than 100 officers filed suit in May, but some have dropped out. Tramountanas represents more than half of the 100 officers remaining in the suit,  with the others representing themselves.

In court papers, the officers allege that the policies, which went into effect Jan. 1, are overly restrictive, conflict with the “realities of policing the streets of Seattle” and unconstitutionally infringe on their right to defend themselves and the public.

City attorneys, in a reply brief, accused the officers of misstating the policies and “resorting to reckless hyperbole.”

It would not be in the public’s interest to block policies Robart found to be constitutional following “a long, collaborative process to further the goals” of the settlement agreement, the attorneys argued.

“The Court must not issue an injunction scrapping the policy, when the actual problem is that the officers do not understand – or are choosing not to follow – the policy that they have,” the city attorneys wrote.

Among those named in the suit was Merrick Bobb, the federal monitor overseeing the reforms. His attorneys argue that Bobb has absolute immunity from the suit as Robart’s appointed representative and should be dismissed from the case.

The officers reserved some of their harshest criticism toward Bobb, accusing him of carrying out a “zealous agenda” to restrict the ability of officers to use force and make reasonable, split-second decisions.

Bobb, a police-accountability consultant in Los Angeles, was one of a number of individual defendants named in the suit, which also included city and federal officials.

The suit also lambasted Robart for approving the policy changes in a “cursory, one-and-one-half-page order.”

The use-of-force policies grew out of a Justice Department investigation that found Seattle police had routinely used excessive force and displayed disturbing, if inconclusive evidence, of biased policing.

The officers who filed the suit represent a fraction of the 1,200-member department, but their action has proved to be a public-relations thorn for the city as it moves to carry out the reforms.

Their suit, city attorneys wrote in court papers, is filled with “speculation and opinion about the value and effect” of the policies.

Its 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,” even allowing deviations from the policies under certain circumstances, they noted.

Although the officers are “dismissive of these qualifiers,” the attorneys wrote, 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.”

Comments | More in Government, The Blotter | Topics: lawsuit, Seattle Police Department, U.S. District Court

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