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October 20, 2014 at 9:17 AM

Judge dismisses suit by SPD officers on use-of-force reforms

Sweeping away all claims, U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman has dismissed a lawsuit brought by 100 Seattle police officers seeking to block new, federally mandated use-of-force policies.

“It does not shock the conscience to see certain de-escalation procedures imposed on police officers in an effort by their Department to avoid a pattern or practice of excessive use of force,” Pechman wrote in a 15-page order, referring to a  U.S.  Justice Department finding in 2011 that officers too often resorted to unnecessary force.

“It would be at least surprising if allegations of such a pattern or practice did not lead to the adoption of stricter standards for use of force by officers,” Pechman wrote in the order, which was filed Friday and posted Monday on a court website.

Pechman noted that the policies contain “a number of concessions” that allow officers to react to  particular circumstances, make split-second decisions and exercise reasonable discretion.

The officers contended the policies are overly restrictive, violating their constitutional right to self-defense and use of their guns while putting them and the public in danger.

City attorneys argued the officers had resorted to “reckless hyperbole,” misstating policies that allow for flexibility and reasonable judgment.

Pechman, who heard oral arguments Oct. 9 on motions to dismiss the suit, found “the officers’ constitutional arguments are not supported by the text of the Constitution or case law interpreting the Constitution.”

The officers, who filed suit in May, asked Pechman to bar the city from carrying out the policies, which went into effect Jan. 1.

The sweeping polices were adopted as part of a 2012 consent decree between the city and the Justice Department, which required the Police Department to enact reforms to curtail excessive force and biased policing.

Pechman dismissed all claims against the city, Mayor Ed Murray, City Attorney Pete Holmes and Justice Department officials.

She also dismissed all claims against Merrick Bobb, the monitor overseeing the court-ordered reforms, ruling he has absolute immunity as an agent of the court.

The officers argued that Bobb had exceeded his authority in developing the policies, which were approved last year by U.S. District Judge James Robart.

In reaching her decision, Pechman barred the officers from refiling their claims, noting their suit had already been amended once and “further amendment would be futile” on  their part.

While the officers represent a fraction of the 1,200-member force, their suit posed a public-relations headache for the city at a time when it is seeking to comply with the consent decree.

Murray, who had repeatedly insisted the city is committed to the reforms, issued a statement Monday:

“I want to thank the City Attorney’s Office for their successful work in defending the Seattle Police Department’s use-of-force policy against a lawsuit brought by SPD officers. Judge Pechman’s dismissal of the suit today confirms that SPD’s use-of-force policy is both practical and constitutional. Today we move forward with police reform and move past internal divisions over policy. The City and the officers who filed the suit share the same objectives: safety for the public, and safe working conditions for the officers who provide for the public’s safety. We can achieve both.”

Murray pledged that his office, Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole and the City Attorney’s Office “will work to make continued improvements to the policy to ensure that our officers feel supported and safe as they carry out their critical duties to ensure the safety of the general public.”

Holmes also vowed to continue the reform effort.

“We are enormously gratified by Judge Pechman’s ruling,” Holmes said in a statement from Atlanta, where he is attending the inaugural meeting of Prosecutors Against Gun Violence. “Our office will continue to work with Chief [Kathleen} O’Toole and Mayor Murray to help bring Seattle the safe, effective and efficient police department we all want and need.”

O’Toole, in a statement, said: “The Seattle Police Department is entirely committed to Constitutional policing and is moving full speed ahead with implementation of the Consent Decree. As Chief, I will ensure that our officers have the policies, training, equipment and support to do their jobs safely and effectively.”

Athan Tramountanas, a Seattle attorney who represents 91 of the officers, issued a statement Monday, saying, “My clients are disappointed in today’s ruling, but remain resolute in their belief that the new use of force policy unreasonably restricts their ability to defend themselves and perform their jobs in a manner that best keeps themselves and the public safe.”

A decision on an appeal will be made within 30 days, he said.

Comments | More in General news, Government, The Blotter | Topics: Seattle Police Department, U.S. District Court, use of force

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