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Originally published Sunday, May 13, 2012 at 4:01 PM

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Court-ordered consent decree a necessary prod for Seattle Police Department reforms

The city of Seattle must enter into a court-ordered consent decree supervised by a professional independent police monitor if the Seattle Police Department is to achieve the level of improvements all residents want and deserve, write three leaders of a multiracial task force on police accountability.

Special to The Times

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AFTER several high-profile incidents of police misconduct, including the shooting of First Nations wood carver John T. Williams, Seattle's leaders have learned something that communities of color have known for decades: Seattle police have a problem with the use of force against people of color. This fact has created a climate of distrust between the Seattle Police Department and many of the people it serves.

The city now has an opportunity to significantly change this dynamic. We call on the city leaders to move swiftly to avoid a lawsuit by the Department of Justice and enter into a court-ordered consent decree.

As the co-chairs of the Minority Executive Directors Coalition's Multiracial Taskforce on Police Accountability, we have long advocated for meaningful reforms to improve policing in Seattle. We supported the request for the Department of Justice to investigate allegations that the SPD engaged in excessive use of force and racially biased policing. And we were encouraged last December when the Department of Justice issued its report confirming our concerns.

But the report and findings can only help improve the SPD if the recommendations are implemented through a court-ordered consent decree, supervised by a professional independent police monitor.

In February, our task force provided the city leaders and Department of Justice with a detailed list of recommendations for provisions to be included in a consent decree. Our recommendations are consistent with the DOJ report and promote additional measures for community protection. These reforms include:

• Improved policies and practices for use of force;

• Training in use of force that includes de-escalation tactics;

• Better training to prevent racially biased practices;

• Policies that hold supervisors accountable for the misconduct of line officers;

• Meaningful independent civilian oversight.

We appreciate Mayor Mike McGinn's and Chief John Diaz's effort to create a strategy for improvements through their "SPD 20/20" plan. This plan includes many initiatives that can be implemented immediately. However, the "20/20" plan lacks specific measures necessary to reform the police department. It is not sufficient to create the sustained change that Seattle requires. Seattle needs the help and guidance of a court-ordered monitor to make the kind of change needed to regain the trust of the people in Seattle.

In other cities, court-enforced consent decrees have resulted in significant improvements in police practices. For example, by the time the consent decree was terminated in Los Angeles, the city experienced more-effective policing, improved relations between the community and the police, and increased officer morale. The consent decree helped the city and department leaders focus on the kind of changes needed to make the entire city safer. Seattle needs the same kind of help.

If our city leaders do not fully engage in the negotiation process, the Department of Justice is likely to file a lawsuit in federal court. A court case will be extremely costly and drawn out, potentially taking years to resolve. Rather than spend time defending a court action and money on attorneys' fees and other costs of litigation, our leaders should concentrate on creating a more-effective police department that respects the needs of all people in Seattle.

The problems with the SPD have existed for decades. Seattle will not be able to solve them on its own. We call on city leaders to quickly complete the negotiations with the Department of Justice to craft and implement a consent decree that protects the people of Seattle.

Estela Ortega, executive director of El Centro de la Raza; the Rev. Harriet Walden, founder of Mothers for Police Accountability; and Pamela Masterman-Stearns, Tlingit and Haida, Washington, civil rights liaison, are the co-chairs of the Minority Executive Directors Coalition's Multiracial Taskforce on Police Accountability.

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