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Columns : Editorial

Seattle PD Lawsuit: Calling Out Goliath

A group of Seattle officers have challenged the federal government to a legal duel over a new use-of-force policy established by a consent decree.

June 21, 2014  |  by - Also by this author

The story is told in the Bible and in the Jewish scriptures of a teenager named David who volunteered to fight a great Philistine warrior. The Philistine was a giant, described in the holy books as 7 to 9 feet tall, with fearsome strength and an arsenal of deadly weapons. David was your average teen shepherd boy with no armor and just a sling and a stone. So everyone thought David had no chance, except David.

Well…You know what happened.

Today, it's common to refer to any engagement between an underdog and a powerful opponent as a David vs. Goliath match. This is the story of such a mismatch.

Late last month 126 officers of the Seattle Police Department decided it was time to stand up and challenge Goliath, in this case the federal government. Instead of a sling and a stone, they wielded a lawsuit.

Since the summer of 2012, the Seattle PD has been operating under a consent decree as settlement of a U.S. Department of Justice investigation. As part of that settlement, the SPD had to rewrite its use-of-force policy and have that new policy approved by the DOJ, the monitor, and a federal judge.

The officer plaintiffs in the lawsuit say the new policy is confusing and overly complicated, which makes their jobs more dangerous and violates their civil rights. They are suing a long list of federal and city officials and agencies, including Attorney General Eric Holder, the city, and the SPD.

Do they have a fighting chance? Probably not. They have no representation and are facing the endless ranks of DOJ attorneys. They don't even have the support of their union. So their claim will likely be dismissed before it is heard.

Even so, you have to admire their chutzpah.

And just maybe they have a case. Their primary argument is that the new policy does not conform to Graham v. Connor. Specifically, they argue the policy adds additional requirements to the "objective reasonableness standard."

The plaintiffs claim the policy implies that officers should use less force than reasonably necessary or at least attempt to use less than reasonably necessary when facing dangerous subjects. Which places officers at more risk.

That increased risk is one of the reasons why this is a civil rights suit. The plaintiffs say that by forcing them to assume more risk on the job, the new policy violates their Fourth Amendment right to protect themselves.

Another big concern voiced by the plaintiffs is their belief that an officer's use of force will be evaluated after an incident, using information that was not available to the officer at the time instead of the totality of circumstances then known by the officer. "What has become increasingly clear is that the new standard for police conduct under the UF policy is perfection, as determined by 20/20 hindsight by inexperienced, untrained civilians, and non-patrol officers from the safety of a desk or committee room," the suit says.

Perhaps the most explosive contention by the plaintiffs is contained in their statement for why Holder is named as a defendant. The suit argues he has presided over a Department of Justice that has the goal of rewriting law enforcement use-of-force policies "in a manner that conflicts with the Constitution."

There's much more to this suit, but I've hit the basics. You can view the entire document at PoliceMag.com/seattlesuit.

Reaction from the DOJ was swift and dismissive. The day after the suit was filed U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan told the Seattle Times the case had no merit.

I'm not an attorney or a police use-of-force policy expert so I can't give you a definitive opinion on this case. What I can say, however, is that it's really cool to see officers fighting back against a consent decree. Sometimes, I think the lawyers for the DOJ's Civil Rights Division—many of whom have never worked as cops or even served in the military—hold this bizarre belief that officers delight in shooting and killing people. Maybe they wouldn't be so quick to crucify officers and agencies if they had actually ever faced a deadly threat.

So can a group of officers actually defeat a federal consent decree? Again the answer is maybe. In 2002, the Columbus, Ohio, Fraternal Order of Police worked with the city and forced the DOJ to back down. The Seattle plaintiffs have a tougher fight on their hands because they are standing alone. But you never know. Sometimes that lone shepherd boy knocks the giant on its ass.

Tags: graham v. connor, Seattle PD, Lawsuits, Consent Decrees


Comments (8)

Displaying 1 - 8 of 8

krisnlc @ 6/25/2014 1:03 PM

The passage: officers should use less force than reasonably necessary or at least attempt to use less than reasonably necessary when facing dangerous subjects. Is a dangerous position placing Seattle officers at unnecessary risks. I wish the officers well in defending this, and hopefully this is changed. No officer should be forced to take unnecessary risks because of the mistakes of the people before them..this is typically a result of bargaining away tomorrows safety because of the mistakes people made today....the answer, hold those who made the mistake accountable!

David Rogers @ 6/26/2014 7:17 PM

The Seattle PD has a poor reputation, which became widely-known after the brutality during the WTO protests and riots. That fact said, it is also a fact that Atty Gen Holder is more brutish and far more crooked than the common street crooks or certainly the SPD. How can anything the SPD does or have done compare to the massive wrongdoing of Holder, who routinely breaks the law and routinely misuses his immense power for political purposes on behalf of his master in the White House.

kevCopAz @ 6/26/2014 8:08 PM

Holder, the Feds and Libs in general are slowly making a Cops job so unattractive, unsafe and impossible that quality police work will soon be a thing of the past. The type of folks that will take this work will be those that will be happy to NOT enface laws (like Obama/Holder want) and to sit back take reports and then cash a check. Society and the public will suffer in the long run. I sometimes hope it keeps going on, they(Libs etc) continue to hinder Police work until all hell breaks lose and society falls apart. Perhaps then we can start over again and use some common sense.

Chicago Sam @ 6/27/2014 4:18 AM

Yesterday I heard the Seattle P.D. got a female chief from Boston.
That was not good news and now this.

Stay Safe and Good Luck Brothers.

The Right Handed Cowboy @ 6/27/2014 9:37 AM

It is not surprising one bit that Holder would prefer that the violator have the upper hand over the Police and the use of force.

To instruct the Police to use less force than necessary gives the violator the green light to escalate and condone violence against Police..That use less force than necessary is asinine. With that theory the bad guy wins almost every confrontation..

In the real world of police work, the officer is to use that amount of force necessary to effect an arrest..which means the officer should use THE AMOUNT OF FORCE NECESSARY. If the violator throws a rock...officer throws a boulder. If the bad guys hits officer with his hand, you strike back with baton so on and so forth. The officer could not safely do his job by using less force..

So I guessif the bad guy shoots at officer the police should use a paintball gun or a baton...

I hope the officers win the case..but with HOLDER as ATTY. GENERAL..it is doubful..

Concerned Dep in S. Calif @ 6/27/2014 11:30 AM

I wonder why the SPD and Fed DOJ can't take successful use of force policies from similar big agencies (LAPD, San Diego PD, San Diego Sheriff or LA Sheriff) and develop a policy based off of those other policies. Surely they can modify it enough to satisfy all parties and adhere to the state constitution. Just thinking out loud.

Lost in Seattle Politics @ 7/1/2014 6:03 PM

Proactive police work here is nonexistent. Violent crime is on the rise, while most line officers struggle w/ increased aggression from highly empowered criminals and hostility from mentally ill street people. Many good officers are leaving the job or have accepted a different patrol model. This new model is identical to the emergency response model used by many Fire departments. The DOJ is becoming successful in molding an entire Police culture. I am saddened by their efforts to force trained Peace Officers to adhere to their Police model when they're never done the job. The arrogance of (Political) academics.
l hope the DOJ is putting is the same effort with our criminals and our mentally disturbed. 1 feel sorry for my Community.

Jim Carlisle @ 7/9/2014 2:15 PM

Hold your head up, always be able to look in the mirror and say I did what I had to do. Holder is about the closest thing to nothing a human can be, like his master.

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