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Police Consent Decrees Are Coming Back — But They Might Not Make Sense Anymore

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The consent decree is coming back. That is the federal government's main tool to force changes within local police departments. They cover everything from use of force policies to civil rights violations, and they can last for years. Some communities are now questioning how effective they are, whether these paid outside experts get in the way of local ideas for change. NPR's Martin Kaste looks at the case of Seattle.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Civil rights organizers usually welcome the arrival of a consent decree to their cities. Take Alfred Porter Jr. in Cleveland.

ALFRED PORTER JR: The consent decree has allowed people to be able to at least hold the police accountable. If you get rid of the consent decree, then you have the wolves guarding the henhouse.

KASTE: But Cleveland's decree has been in place only about six years. That's not that long for one of these. And as the years go by, patience can wear thin. The best example of this is probably Seattle.

LISA DAUGAARD: In retrospect, like, I would like to go get eight years of my life back.

KASTE: That's Lisa Daugaard, director of the Public Defender Association and one of the city's most prominent advocates for police reform. Her work won her a MacArthur genius grant. She's come to regret all the effort that she and other activists have put into Seattle's consent decree.

DAUGAARD: It was pointless. It was worse than pointless. It suggested that processes like this are a facade and a fraud.

KASTE: To understand where she's coming from, we need to go back a decade to when this process started in Seattle. The catalyst was the killing of an indigenous man named John T. Williams, shot by a cop who saw him holding a knife. The moment was caught on dash cam audio.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: Hey. Hey. Hey. Put the knife down. Put the knife down. Put the knife down.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

KASTE: The shooting, ruled unjustified, attracted the attention of the Justice Department. It investigated and then accused Seattle Police of a pattern of excessive force. It presented the city with the usual ultimatum - accept a consent decree or we'll sue you. At the time, criminal justice professor Geoffrey Alpert looked at the city's use of force numbers, and he thinks Seattle could have fought off the Justice Department. But the situation was about more than just statistics.

GEOFFREY ALPERT: It is political, and it becomes even more political when departments try to get out of them.

KASTE: Alpert has years of experience working on consent decrees. And he says police departments can resent being forced to submit to the feds. But he says it's important for them to try to make the best of things.

ALPERT: For a police department, a consent decree can be positive because all of a sudden, they're going to get resources that they never would have gotten.

KASTE: And by most accounts, the Seattle Police Department did cooperate. It added de-escalation training. It rewrote its rulebook. For the first time, just pointing a gun was reportable as a use of force. By May of last year, the federal court seemed happy and the city was close to being let out of the consent decree. Then, the George Floyd protests happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OMARI SALISBURY: So it's getting hot and heavy early downtown Seattle.

KASTE: That's local journalist Omari Salisbury, livestreaming last year from one of the confrontations between protesters and police.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SALISBURY: The tear gas is out here. And this [expletive] is no joke.

KASTE: The tear gas and flash bangs blew up the impression that the Seattle Police Department was done with the consent decree. Now, it was looking at a whole new process to reform its crowd control policy. Geoffrey Alpert says this can happen. The cliche you often hear is moving goalposts.

ALPERT: Whether or not a department is in compliance can be kind of - I don't want to say all over the place, but, you know, you hear 92%, 95%. I'm not even sure what all that means. Ninety-five percent of what?

KASTE: This open-endedness (ph) can feel especially frustrating to the city, which has to keep paying the hourly fees of the court-appointed consultants, and total costs can run into the millions. The current Justice Department may have heard this criticism. The April memo that clears the way for consent decrees says they should have termination provisions that are, quote, "specific, clear and well-understood by the parties." In Seattle, the current federal monitor running the decree, Antonio Oftelie, is trying to reassure people that the city is not back to square one.

ANTONIO OFTELIE: You could say I was kind of brought in to be the closer - right? - to see what we have to do next in the city to bring a successful, legitimate end to the consent decree.

KASTE: But let's go back to Lisa Daugaard, the MacArthur genius grant-winning public defender. For her, the frustration isn't so much about open-endedness or cost. It's about the fact that the city has been locked into a 2012 vision for fixing police while the world has moved on. In this post-George Floyd era, she says she's less interested in reform now and more focused on reducing police - what some would call defunding. And she doesn't think that can happen as long as the consent decree is in place.

DAUGAARD: It doesn't matter what you think should happen. It can't happen unless it's the court's own idea, and it never is. So, you know, the city council can't prohibit tear gas. The city council can't reduce the budget. It is in the way. It interposes itself between the community and our elected leaders.

KASTE: And oddly enough, this is similar to the argument made by Trump's first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for limiting consent decrees. He'd long argued that they were an end run around democracy and local control.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

(SOUNDBITE OF BJORK SONG, "PAGAN POETRY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.