The Seattle Consent Decree:
How It Came About, What It Is, and What the Monitor Does
In 1994, in light of the Rodney King incident, Congress granted the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice ("DOJ") the authority to sue state and local governments to enjoin patterns or practices of unconstitutional policing, including unnecessary or excessive force and discriminatory policing. Since that time, DOJ has conducted a number of investigations of law enforcement agencies throughout the country. In most instances, the jurisdictions investigated have entered into settlements with DOJ in order to avoid or resolve a lawsuit.
Following a nine-month investigation of the Seattle Police Department ("SPD"), in December 2011, DOJ's Civil Rights Division and the United States Attorney's Office for the Western District of Washington found a pattern or practice of excessive force that violates the U.S. Constitution and federal law. The investigation also raised serious concerns that some police practices–particularly those related to pedestrian encounters with police–could result in discriminatory or biased policing.
The City of Seattle did not agree with these findings at that time but, in July 2012, concluded that it would be best to enter into a settlement with DOJ. The settlement is embodied in two documents: a Consent Decree and a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). In this context, the Consent Decree is an agreement between DOJ and a municipality to eliminate unconstitutional policing. The agreement is presented to a federal judge for approval. With the judge’s signature, the document became an order of the Court, enforceable by the Parties and the federal court under the Court's inherent contempt powers. The MOU is a related side agreement between the parties not enforceable by contempt but by the DOJ as any private contract would be. In Seattle, the MOU dealt mainly with the creation of a Civilian Police Commission ("CPC") and the Crisis Intervention Committee ("CIC").
The Seattle Consent Decree is 76 pages with 210 separate paragraphs. It calls for the restoration of constitutional policing through substantial and far-reaching reform of the SPD’s use of force policies and practices, training, full and complete implementation of new policy, adoption of policies and training to eliminate discriminatory policing, and the development of improved relations, trust, and support among and from all of Seattle’s many and varied communities. To demonstrate that these reforms have been effectively implemented, SPD must collect and analyze data that shows that it is meeting the requirements of the Consent Decree and achieving "full and effective compliance."
The Consent Decree calls for the federal court to appoint a Monitor. The Monitor is charged with providing the SPD with technical assistance in meeting the requirements of the Consent Decree, to report to the Court, the City and DOJ, and to the Seattle community twice a year on the progress of the Police Department in achieving compliance, and to certify in the future whether SPD has reached "full and effective compliance" with the Consent Decree. Merrick Bobb was appointed as Monitor in late 2012. He has assembled a highly experienced and diverse team of individuals to work with and support him.
“Full and effective compliance” is a term of art. Its contours will become more clearly defined with the passage of time. It has both quantitative and qualitative aspects. The bedrock of the Consent Decree is a substantially improved relationship between the diverse communities of Seattle and SPD. It will become manifest when the SPD exhibits no tolerance for excessive force or biased policing and has systems in place to detect, track, and thoroughly and objectively consider use of force incidents, stops and detentions of civilians, allegations of discrimination, and the like. Likewise, it will become manifest when SPD officers fairly address allegations of unconstitutional misconduct. The DOJ, under its independent enforcement obligations, and the City of Seattle will work with the Monitor in determining how progress and compliance can be rigorously measured and verified.
After the SPD has achieved "full and effective compliance," it must remain in compliance for at least two more years until the Consent Decree is dismissed by the court. The Monitoring Team cannot currently anticipate when that point will be reached. Under the City’s and the SPD’s current leadership, good progress toward that end is being made. It is hoped that such progress will continue. Nevertheless, substantial challenges remain, with the Monitor and his team continually ready to assist SPD in reaching compliance–and to update the community and the Court as to its progress.
This website is the Monitor's official website. Here, the Monitoring Team provides updates on the latest news and progress related to the Consent Decree. The website houses archives of the Monitor's reports, recommendations to the Court, key SPD policies, and the like. It also provides members of the Seattle community with information on becoming involved with the process of implementing the Consent Decree.