You might be hearing about the consent decree ending in Seattle after over a decade of federal oversight. You’re also probably seeing stories claiming the consent decree has successfully rooted out “bad cops” and reformed the Seattle Police Department (SPD). Well, here’s the truth based on the numbers:
The consent decree has been wasteful, ineffectual and harmful.
While SPD and the Department of Justice speak of transformation and progress over the past decade, the data tell a different story: of ballooning budgets, missed opportunities for true public safety, and a police force that continues to target people of color.
During the years of the Consent Decree, the Police Budget increased
by more than
The consent decree has blocked true community safety.
In 2020, a large coalition, including nonprofits, labor unions, and community advocates, came together to pass 'JumpStart,' a big business payroll tax designated to fund affordable housing, Green New Deal initiatives, and equitable development.
However, shortfalls for the past two years have led the City to raid JumpStart funds to cover the ballooning police budget.
The consent decree is overseen by a U.S. District Court Judge and a court-appointed Monitor. The Judge and Monitor have been strong voices for expanding police funding.
Here is Judge James Robart scolding the City Council for considering reducing the police budget and funding non-police emergency responses in response to the popular 2020 George Floyd / Breonna Taylor uprisings:
Robart also blocked a City Council ban on SPD’s use of tear gas, pepper spray and other so-called “less lethal weapons”, despite widespread reports of injury and harm to protestors. Robart’s ruling agreed with the DOJ’s advisement that:
The nominally independent Monitor, Dr. Antonio Oftelie, in practice has often defended SPD interests. Recent investigative reporting has revealed his close ties to the police – including evidence that a pro-police funding op-ed he published was secretly ghost-written by SPD’s Chief Strategy Officer.
Here is an excerpt from an email written by Dr. Oftelie to the chair of the City Council’s Public Safety and Human Services Committee:
Dr. Oftelie has often emphasized the need for increased police spending. In this 2021 memo, he takes the City Council to task for proposing cuts to an expensive “Early Intervention” data system that was supposed to predict “bad behavior” among police – but was shown to have no predictive power:
The city continues to fund this flawed system “despite near-universal acknowledgment of its failings”.
A Better Plan?
Invest in communities and meet people’s basic needs.
The city of Seattle and Department of Justice promised the consent decree would end police violence, address racist policing, and make SPD accountable to the people of Seattle. The monitoring team and courts overseeing the decree along with SPD insisted increasing SPD’s budget would deliver those promises.
Eleven years and hundreds of millions of dollars later, none of those promises have materialized. The consent decree is an empty police reform, like body cameras, additional training, civilian review boards, and countless others that increase police budgets without decreasing police violence and racial disparities.
Decreasing police violence and racism requires reducing community contact with the police and investing in what actually makes people safer – like affordable housing and access to health care. Community contact with police can be reduced by investing in communities and meeting people’s basic needs.
A consent decree is a tool of last resort for police departments with ongoing histories of racist and violent policing. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) investigates and then devises a settlement with the city government for a reform and accountability program, overseen by a federal judge until certain goals are met.
Police Department consent decrees were introduced in 1994, when Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. There are currently fourteen police departments with DOJ oversight agreements.
Seattle’s consent decree began over a decade ago, when 34 Seattle community organizations wrote to the DOJ asking them to open an investigation into a pattern of excessive use of force by SPD, particularly against people of color. This led to the federal supervision of SPD.
All police data are from Seattle Open Data and the Seattle Police Monitor’s report. These data are dependent on police officer reporting, which are subject to underreporting and likely underestimation of the racial disparities in policing. Additionally, the unconstitutional stops are reported and defined by SPD, do not account for the perspectives or experiences of people stopped, and are likely an underestimate.
This report was written by Defend the Defund, a group of Seattle abolitionist activists.