Will Obama-era consent decree give Trump DoJ the last word on Seattle's police cuts?

There’s irony, and then there’s the current legal position of Seattle’s city council. They just chased off their first African-American female police chief by instituting deep cuts to the police budget in the name of racial justice. This all could have been in vain, KOMO noted last night, because Seattle doesn’t actually have the final word on its policing. Thanks to an Obama-era consent decree, the Department of Justice might force Seattle to spend the money anyway:

For the past eight years Seattle police have had to answer to federal authorities on many major policy moves. The city is accountable to federal monitors under the consent decree. This latest round of police budget cuts could meet that same scrutiny. …

The concern is that deep reductions in the police department budget could make it impossible for the city to fulfill its obligations under the agreement is struck with the U.S. Department of Justice.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said the council’s defunding strategy could compromise the consent decree, especially if it involves cuts to training, data performance, transparency or the number of supervisors overseeing officers.

It’s not just the DoJ that Seattle has to consider either. Once a city enters into a consent decree, it is supervised by federal courts. And the judge assigned to this consent decree has already started clearing his throat:

Initial legislation passed by the city council has already prompted a warning from Judge James Robart who oversees the federal agreement. He wrote “the court encourages the city of Seattle to remain mindful of its consent decree obligation.”

In other words, Seattle might have chased off Carmen Best for no good reason at all, and for no difference in outcome. It’s very possible that the courts order the city to restore funding and staffing levels, especially since staffing reductions will increase the pressure on officers to respond to rising levels of crime with greater displays of force as a means of gaining control, which would in turn end up violating the consent decree.

The DoJ might have an unusual ally in consent-decree enforcement, too — the police unions. The video report from KOMO isn’t embeddable, but the reporter points out that the police union is likely to challenge staffing and pay cuts first as a contract violation. They might also argue that those violate the consent decree as a way of escalating the issue directly to Robart.

This, by the way, is a good example of why consent decrees are a bad idea and abuse the process. Seattle should be in control of its own police department, and should be accountable for its performance. The Obama-era push to use consent decrees intended to essentially federalize law enforcement. There are other ways to enforce civil rights and put pressure on local governments to comply — massive fines, for instance, in systemic cases of abuse — rather than stripping cities of their agency and their responsibility and accountability. When consent decrees allowed progressives to exert top-down control, they were popular. With the Trump administration in control of Seattle’s options, perhaps they will become a less popular strategy, and that would be for the best.