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DOJ Intervention Didn’t Stop Seattle’s Police Violence. It Gave Cops More Money.

Seattle learned the hard way that federal oversight via “consent decrees” mainly served to increase police budgets.

Police surround a car driven by a member of a car brigade at a racial justice protest on November 3, 2020 in Seattle, Washington.

After more than a decade, Seattle’s experiment with addressing police violence through federal intervention is winding down. In 2010, 35 community organizations wrote a letter to the Department of Justice (DOJ), asking the agency to “promptly investigate whether the Seattle Police Department has engaged in a pattern or practice of violations of civil rights by unnecessary and excessive force against residents of Seattle in violation of federal law.” The feds complied, and after a nine-month investigation, found that the Seattle Police Department (SPD) engaged in excessive force and that discriminatory policing was a serious concern. As a result, in 2012, the DOJ and the City of Seattle entered a settlement agreement, and a decade-plus experiment in confronting local police violence through monitoring by a federal court began. As the harm endemic to policing tempts communities across the country to request DOJ intervention, Seattle’s consent decree experience (along with those of Oakland, New Orleans, Albuquerque and Baltimore) should serve as a lesson to other jurisdictions: No one is coming to save us from our local cops.

To begin, let’s consider the federal agency that cities recruit to address police violence. In the years since community groups in Seattle made the request for federal intervention, it’s become more clear than ever that federal police agencies (including the DOJ’s own police agencies, the FBI and the DEA) engage in the same kind of violent practices as our own local cops. As abolitionist organizers Andrea J. Ritchie and Wesley C. Ware remind us, “the federal government is as invested in policing as a tool of racialized surveillance, criminalization, containment and control — including racial profiling, police violence and criminalization of Black, Indigenous, migrant, disabled, low-income, and queer and trans people — as state and local governments.” In retrospect, it seems naïve to expect a different result from an agency made up of the federal version of cops and prosecutors.

So, what result did Seattle get? Our experience in Seattle clarifies that consent decrees do not stop police from killing and harming our community members. We saw this half a decade into the consent decree, when SPD officers shot and killed Charleena Lyles, a pregnant Black mother of four, in front of her children in 2017. She had called 911 herself, believing she was experiencing a burglary in her home. We saw it again in 2020, when a broad swath of Seattleites experienced SPD’s collective brutalization of protesters during the uprising following the police-perpetrated murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. We saw this again in 2022, when SPD officers shot and killed a man experiencing a mental health crisis after attacking him with a police dog.

In fact, SPD killed more people, not fewer, during the consent decree years. Between 2013 and 2019 (the years publicly available data is available) 1 out of 10 homicides in Seattle were carried out by SPD. Police killings of non-white people increased during these years as well.

Fatal police violence is what catalyzed community members to request the consent decree in the first place, after the 2010 murder of seventh-generation First Nations woodcarver John T. Williams by SPD officer Ian Birk. And yet a 2020 study, using data provided by SPD, found that the department is still nine times more likely to stop a Native American person, per capita, than a white person. Meanwhile, Black people, who make up only 7 percent of the city’s population, are targeted in a third of all police stops. Black youth fare the worst when it comes to use of force: Fifty-nine percent of all police violence against 15- to 21-year-olds is against Black youth.

In fact, by encouraging certain staffing ratios (i.e. more people at the sergeant level to supervise officers), Seattle’s consent decree led to promotions for the very cops engaged in the most blatant acts of brutality as middle-management. A sergeant who was successfully sued for police brutality was promoted to a role reviewing use of force reports. Before being assigned to the “wellness unit,” a desk job unit tasked with improving cop retention, another sergeant was successfully sued twice for beating people with a flashlight while investigating noise complaints. Because of the roles that sergeants play in triggering police misconduct investigations, the consent decree has created a situation where the foxes are guarding the hen house.

The consent decree also increased police power by drastically increasing the police department’s budget. Every dollar from the city budget spent on consent decree reforms was a dollar not spent on meeting people’s basic needs. SPD’s budget ballooned by 48 percent since the beginning of the consent decree, eating up one quarter of the city’s general fund. The mayor’s office has estimated that consent decree-related reforms cost the city $200 million. Monitoring costs alone were $1 million a year.

Seattle’s experience shows consent decrees to be a trap … which leaves untouched the violence at the heart of policing.

This investment in policing has had dire consequences for the survival of the very communities most vulnerable to police violence. A city in an affordable housing crisis — with a declared state of emergency over homelessness and a record number of deaths among people living outside in 2022 — defunded affordable housing to give money to SPD for positions the department had no plan nor ability to fill in 2023 and 2024. When the city faced a budget shortfall this year, Seattle City Council chose to raid “Jumpstart”— funds from a hard-won payroll tax that had originally been statutorily designated for desperately needed affordable housing and Green New Deal investments. This resulted in $40 million going from these urgent needs to the SPD’s bloated coffers.

Outside of the police contract, the consent decree has been one of the biggest obstacles to community advocacy efforts and attempts by the Seattle City Council to decrease the SPD’s budget. In the midst of the 2020 uprising, when community organizing pushed the city council to make promises about cutting the police budget by 50 percent, the consent decree acted as a barrier to these demands. The council’s follow-through eroded when the judge assigned to oversee the consent decree scolded the city council for failing to increase SPD’s budget. Simultaneously, at the request of the DOJ, the judge blocked less lethal weapon legislation passed by the city council to try to stop the relentless tear gassing of protesters at the height of the uprising. The consent decree required the city to spend money on technology that advocates opposed, including the Early Intervention System (EIS), an expensive tool meant to flag bad behavior among cops that was known to have no predictive power.

The failure of a hard-fought bill to decrease police funding in 2021 exemplifies this dynamic of SPD gain and community loss. In August 2020, following intense community pressure, Seattle City Council unanimously passed Resolution 31962, which stated that the city would not backfill SPD’s coffers if SPD overspent its overtime budget (as it does every year). Instead, in December 2021, SPD came to the city council asking for the extra money it had spent on overtime. The council, urged by community members who meant to hold them to their promises, proposed a bill taking the $5.4 million overtime overspend out of the SPD’s 2021 budget, and putting those funds towards participatory budgeting. The consent decree monitor chimed in with his displeasure, claiming this 1 percent reduction to the SPD’s 2021 budget could put the city out of compliance with the consent decree. This assertion effectively killed the bill, along with any attempt to hold the SPD accountable for its overspending.

Ultimately, Seattle’s experience shows consent decrees to be a trap — one that results in more expensive police departments, but which leaves untouched the violence at the heart of policing. Consent decrees first offer communities validation for the harm police have caused them, along with a promise of someone else coming in and “fixing” the police. In practice, they cut off community voices, inflate police budgets at the expense of everything else, and legitimize the very police force that continues to harm the community. Oakland, New Orleans, Albuquerque and Baltimore are among the cities whose experiences with consent decrees match Seattle’s.

Cities across the country should avoid falling for the false promise of a consent decree. Local organizers and community members are already the experts on the kind of changes needed to foster public safety. Reducing contact between the police and the public — by shrinking police budgets and transferring duties out of police departments — will yield more dividends than DOJ intervention ever will. Local organizing in Seattle has yielded such wins, but these hard-won advances have been achieved in spite of the consent decree, not because of it. The massive 2020 protests, which extended well into the fall months in Seattle, made it clear that the people of Seattle were interested in exploring public safety without police, likely contributing to more than 400 officers exiting the force. Relentless, cross-movement budget advocacy resulted in Seattle being the only city to reduce its police budget two years in a row following the 2020 uprising. Partnerships with organizers fighting to #StopShotSpotter in other cities successfully halted an effort to include “Shotspotter” — a racist and harmful acoustic surveillance tool — from the city’s budget this year.

The people of Seattle deserve a city where Charleena Lyles and John T. Williams would still be with us today, where Black and Indigenous communities don’t have to live in fear of constant police harassment, and where these communities have everything they need to thrive, not just survive. That city will only be won through relentless organizing by the people most invested in that outcome, not by the intervention of a federal agency. As cities including Columbus, Louisville, Memphis and Phoenix consider the potential impacts of federal intervention, we invite them to learn from Seattle’s experience and double down on local organizing. No one else is coming to save us. As June Jordan reminded us, we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

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