Seattle Cops Challenge Department of Justice
SEATTLE (CN) - More than 100 Seattle police officers are fighting back against Justice Department-mandated reforms by asking a judge to block a new use-of-force policy they say will "unreasonably restrict and burden" them from protecting themselves and violates their civil rights.
The officers sued the Justice Department, City of Seattle, Mayor Ed Murray, federal monitor Merrick Bob and other current and former officials in Federal Court, claiming the new policy violates their rights under the Second, Fourth, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.
The lawsuit was not filed by an attorney, but the 126 officers, sergeants and detectives consulted an unnamed "DC-based former civil rights attorney" for help with the pleadings, according to the complaint.
The officers did not have approval from their union, the Seattle Police Officers' Guild, according to local media reports.
The Seattle Police Department was placed under a consent decree in 2012 after an 11-month investigation by the Justice Department found routine use of excessive force and civil rights violations. A new use-of-force policy was implemented under a decree that requires "minimal reliance" on physical force.
"It is the policy of the Seattle Police Department to accomplish the police mission with the cooperation of the public and as effectively as possible, and with minimal reliance upon the use of physical force," the new policy states.
The 43-page lawsuit claims the policy will prohibit "using reasonable and effective force tools" and violates the officers' constitutional rights.
The complaint states: "Defendants have promulgated and imposed new use of force (UF) policies and practices in reckless and deliberate indifference to the protections afforded plaintiffs by the Constitution:
"(1) The UF policies and practices unreasonably restrict and burden plaintiffs' right to use force reasonably required, to protect themselves and others, from apparent harm and danger, in violation of the Second, Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution.
"(2) The new UF policies and practices require - without appropriate consideration of an officer's knowledge, training, experience, or the apparent danger of the circumstances confronting him or her - that plaintiffs use significantly less force than is being threatened against them by suspects. This includes, for example, prohibiting plaintiffs from using reasonable and effective force tools or techniques against vaguely defined, newly protected classes of suspects unless deadly force is the only other option.
"This significantly increases the likelihood that such persons will get killed or seriously injured in encounters with the police - a terrible result and a violation of those suspects' rights - as well as a clear violation of constitutional protections afforded plaintiffs to reasonably protect themselves and others from threats of harm."
The officers, led by lead plaintiff Robert Mahoney, say the new rules undermine "the integrity of officers' judgments as a whole."
They claim the new standards require them to engage in "mental gymnastics" that are unreasonable when they are faced with the need to make snap decisions.
"The Court requires UF standards to be simple, practical and useful to the officer doing his or her job. The new UF policy clearly is not. In some places it is overly complicated and contradictory, in other places overly precise and mechanical, but throughout, requires plaintiff to engage in mental gymnastics wholly unreasonable in light of the dangerous and fast evolving circumstances we face every day. This creates unnecessary and, therefore, unconstitutional risks to plaintiffs' safety," according to the complaint.
The new rules will create hesitation by requiring "officers to focus, not on the nature of the threat, but instead to recall pages and pages of confusing and often contradictory factors, qualifiers, analyses, and special considerations," the complaint states.
The officers claim they will eventually "have no choice" but to overreact under the new policies and inevitably officers and citizens will be killed.
"The UF policies and practices require plaintiffs to under-react to threats of harm until we have no choice but to overreact. This makes it inevitable - although unnecessary and unreasonable - that officers and citizens will get killed or seriously injured. Moreover, the policies and practices are designed to trap plaintiffs into violations even where plaintiffs did, or could have, acted in a completely reasonable and justifiable manner under the law. This places unconstitutional risks and burdens on plaintiffs' lives and livelihood and necessarily subjects them to the very second-guessing prohibited by the Constitution," according to the complaint.
The new rules will effectively alter terms of the officers' employment and interfere with qualified immunity for reasonable use of force, the complaint states. Officers will now be required to make force decisions based on "actual threat," rather that "reasonably perceived threat," according to the complaint.
The officers claim that "a dramatic decrease in proactive police work" is being caused by fears of the new policy and that officers are turning in their Tasers because they don't know when they're allowed to use them.
"Patrol officers will testify to an insidious new hesitation to respond to calls for backup. We are increasingly unsure how much help we can offer since our responses are so burdened and constrained by the UF policy, and whether or not providing backup is worth the risk of unreasonable disciplinary action or termination," according to the complaint.
The officers claim the new policy is "so long, complex and contradictory" the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission has refused to conduct training.
The officers want an immediate injunction against the policy, which went into effect on Jan. 1, 2014, and declaratory judgment that the policy is unconstitutional.
They also seek compensatory and punitive damages for lost time and wages, improper disciplinary action, or any other personnel actions taken against them for violating the policy.
Mayor Ed Murray said in a statement addressing the complaint: "Seattle Police Department is under a federally mandated court order, in part because of a disturbing pattern of unnecessary use of force and other forms of unconstitutional policing. The police department will comply with that court order.
"The City of Seattle will not fight the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. This is not the 1960s."