Police Abuse

Seattle Cops Suing Over DOJ Use-of-Force Rules


north precinct
Seattle P.D.

More than 100 cops in Seattle filed a lawsuit yesterday against the Department of Justice (DOJ), Attorney General Eric Holder, the local U.S. attorney, and Seattle's recently elected mayor, Ed Murray. They allege that new use-of-force rules, instituted after the DOJ found a pattern or practice of the excessive use of force, are unrealistic and paralyze officers in the street, causing a "bold, new disregard for police authority in the streets of Seattle."

As a consequence, the lawsuit alleges, cops are reluctant to do proactive police work and hesitant about responding to back up calls, worrying that they could fact disciplinary charges. The new use-of-force rules call for physical coercion to be a last resort for police and tell cops to use the minimum amount of force necessary to do their jobs. What cops do before using force, for example escalating or trying to de-escalate a situation, is also taken into account to judge whether the use of force was justified.

Given the admission in the lawsuit that cops aren't doing their jobs because they're not sure they can follow the rules, perhaps its unsurprising the Seattle police union did not endorse it. Most of the officers in the lawsuit are from the North precinct. When they tried to collect signatures elsewhere in the department, they were stopped by their commanders, and the Seattle Times reports:

Ron Smith, [police union] SPOG's president, said of the officers who filed suit, "I knew they were unhappy. I knew they were contemplating this action. I met with them to hear their concerns at their request, back in March. I didn't hear back from them again."

Smith said he gave the group "a conduit" to the Community Police Commission, created as part of the consent decree, and that they shared their concerns with the commission.

"I assumed they were going to get the policy changed in the areas of concern," Smith said. "I would like to say the policy is overly broad, poorly written and somewhat confusing. However, I believe the policy could have been changed with collaboration with the Community Police Commission."

The union doesn't necessarily back the rules imposed after the DOJ found widespread use-of-force abuse in the department, it just opposes getting them changed via lawsuit. It would be bad press. As the mayor pointed out, Seattle police have these mandated rules "in part because of a disturbing pattern of unnecessary use of force and other forms of unconstitutional policing."

The cops filing suit believe they have the Constitution on their side, because the Constitution, according to the lawsuit, "does not permit judges, or in this case DOJ and its Monitor, to look back in perfect hindsight, from the safety of their chambers or offices, to second-guess what patrol officers actually faced at the moment and know from real experience on the streets,"

The lawsuit's lead plaintiff, an Officer Robert Mahoney, was suspended without pay for 30 days in 2009 after being accused of forcibly kissing an 18-year-old cadet. He denied kissing her and was suspended for unprofessional conduct. The 30-day unpaid suspension was apparently the toughest disciplinary action the police chief could've taken short of termination. Mahoney was also found by the police chief to have been dishonest, which could have resulted in termination. Instead, a civil service commission threw out that charge even as it upheld the finding of unprofessional conduct.