SEATTLE (AP) -- Seattle's police department no longer regularly violates the constitutional rights of the city's residents and should be found in initial compliance with its 2012 agreement to change its ways, the U.S. Justice Department said Friday.
If U.S. District Judge James Robart agrees — which isn't certain, given opposition from a court-appointed monitor — it would mark a significant milestone recognizing the city's efforts to overhaul nearly all aspects of its police department, including how officers are trained, how and when they use force, and how such episodes are documented and reviewed.
"We have not come to this conclusion lightly," Seattle U.S. Attorney Annette Hayes said in a news release. "Career civil rights attorneys and police-practices experts have spent more than five years investigating SPD, overseeing the creation of new policies and training, and independently reviewing the relevant data .... We know that real reforms can't just happen on paper. They must be carried out in practice."
The Justice Department began investigating Seattle police following a series of questionable uses of force, including the unjustified shooting of a Native American woodcarver after he crossed the street in front of a cruiser in 2010. In 2011, DOJ attorneys said they had found that officers were too quick to resort to force, especially in low-level situations.
Police brass and city officials initially disputed the DOJ's assertions but after difficult negotiations, they entered into a consent decree in 2012, aimed at reducing unnecessary uses of force, curbing biased policing and improving residents' trust.
A series of assessments have documented the changes the reforms have brought on the streets, including what the court-appointed monitor overseeing the reforms, Merrick Bobb, described as a stunning drop in how often officers use serious force — with no increase in crime or officer injuries.
"The net result is that SPD's use of force, stops, and related data show that it has complied with all of the terms of the Decree, and has eliminated the pattern or practice of unconstitutional policing that led to DOJ's investigation and findings," the Justice Department said in a court filing Friday.
While Seattle and the DOJ have asked Robart to find the city in initial compliance with the consent decree, the monitor is opposing that. While the city has made great strides, he said, some questions about the department's progress remain — including over the fatal shooting in June of a black, pregnant mother named Charleena Lyles.
If Robart does find the city in compliance, it would trigger a two-year period of continued oversight by the court, during which the department must demonstrate that it's continuing to abide by the agreement.
In a letter to the judge Friday, the Community Police Commission — a citizens group that provides input on reforms — agreed that the city should be found in initial compliance, saying "the City and SPD have made significant steps toward a goal that likely never will be perfectly or permanently achieved: deploying police to keep people safe while earning and maintaining the trust of every community."