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Attorney General Sessions Can Review, But Not Change Police Reform In Seattle

Paula Wissel

For the past five years, Seattle police have operated under a federal consent decree that requires steps to be taken to reduce biased policing.  United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions wants to review Obama-era consent decrees to see if they should remain in place. But the review is unlikely to change the one in Seattle.After several high profile incidents in Seattle, including thekilling of Native American woodcarverJohn T. Williams by a Seattle police officer, the U.S. Department of Justice investigated and found a pattern of biased policing and unnecessary use of force in the city.

Seattle signed a consent decree in 2012 and a federal judge is now overseeing the reform efforts. Ultimately it will be up to the federal judge, Judge James Robart, the same judge who put President Trump's initial travel ban on hold, to decide when the city has done enough.

And it’s for this reason that Attorney General Jeff Sessions will not be able to unilaterally change or rescind the agreement. According to the consent decree, all the parties have to agree to any changes and the court has to sign off on it.

But Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes is concerned that, even with the consent decree in place,  the Justice Department will cut back on its collaborative efforts.

"It’s been less of a true adversarial relationship as we’ve progressed with reform and I’ll be sad to see that come to an end,” he said. 

On the other hand, he says Sessions' memo refers to the need to protect both “public safety and officer safety" and that's something Holmes agrees with.

In a press release issued Tuesday afternoon, Mayor Ed Murray and Police Chief Kathleen O'Toole expressed concern about Session's plan to review police reform plans.

"Our progress under the consent decree cannot be undone by empty bureaucratic threats," said Murray.

O'Toole said, "We remain committed to constitutional and effective policing in our city."

Paula is a former host, reporter and producer who retired from KNKX in 2021. She joined the station in 1989 as All Things Considered host and covered the Law and Justice beat for 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.