Federal Judge Declares ‘Black Lives Matter’ During Hearing over Seattle Police Reform

Steve Miletich, Seattle Times, August 15, 2016

U.S. District Judge James Robart, pointedly reacting to the Seattle police union’s rejection of a tentative contract, said Monday he would not let the powerful labor group hold the city “hostage” by linking wages to constitutional policing.

“To hide behind a collective-bargaining agreement is not going to work,” Robart said during a dramatic court hearing he opened by laying out a path for police-accountability reform and closed with an emotional declaration that “black lives matter.”

Robart, who is presiding over a 2012 consent decree requiring the city to adopt reforms to address Department of Justice allegations of excessive force and biased policing, called for major changes that would directly affect the union’s membership: streamlined appeals of officer discipline and internal investigations conducted by civilians rather than sworn officers.

James Robart

James Robart

Kevin Stuckey, who recently became president of the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG) in a power shake-up and listened in court to the judge’s blistering remarks, said the union is prepared to sit down with the city and reach a deal.

“The judge has given us our marching orders,” Stuckey said, insisting the union’s vote this summer to reject the deal was not tied to money but to the leak of confidential contract details to The Stranger newspaper.

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Last week, Robart issued an order allowing the city to draft police-accountability legislation, as long as he reviews it before it is submitted to the City Council to make sure it does not conflict with the consent decree.

During Monday’s hearing, he provided a blueprint for what he would like to see in the legislation, based on various proposals produced by city officials, the Community Police Commission (CPC) and the court-appointed federal monitor, Merrick Bobb.

Beyond changes to appeals and internal investigations, Robart said he wants the position of civilian director of the Office of Professional Accountability, which handles internal investigations, to be strengthened.

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The Rev. Harriett Walden, the CPC’s co-chair, said the commission would work with the mayor’s office on drafting a package, with the hope Murray will recommend the CPC be made permanent.

Robart ended the hearing with deeply personal remarks, in which he noted a statistic that showed, nationally, 41 percent of the shootings by police were of blacks, when they represented 20 percent of the population.

“Black lives matter,” he said, drawing a startled, audible reaction in a courtroom listening to the words coming from a federal judge sitting on the bench.

He also said the recent shootings of police officers, including in Dallas, Baton Rouge and, in 2009, of four Lakewood, Pierce County, officers, reflected the importance of the work being done to heal police and community relations.

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