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Federal judge approves DOJ settlement over Seattle police department

A judge for the US District Court for the Western District of Washington [official website] on Friday tentatively approved a settlement agreement between the US Department of Justice (DOJ) and the City of Seattle relating to a DOJ investigation of the Seattle Police Department (SPD) [official websites]. Judge James Robart gave provisional approval for the agreement [joint motion, PDF], which will implement a package of reforms that overhauls police rules, especially on the use of force, and installs an independent monitor to oversee the department and make regular reports to the court and public. The agreement will also create a Community Police Commission that will suggest many of the reforms and a Crisis Intervention Committee for training and best practices research. Robart stated that the qualifications, staffing, funding and appointment of the monitor [Seattle Times report] are the court's top priority and suggested that the monitor's semiannual reporting schedule stipulated in the agreement should be amended to provide for quarterly or even monthly reports. The city agreed to the reform package to avoid a prolonged lawsuit to compel such changes:

SPD and City officials have expressed their desire to continue the ongoing efforts to improve the Seattle Police Department through the Settlement Agreement. The Parties agree that the measures agreed upon in the Settlement Agreement will enhance SPD officers' ability to provide effective and constitutional policing, will promote transparency and accountability between SPD and the community, and will increase public confidence in SPD. ... Settling this dispute without protracted litigation thus allows the City, the United States, and SPD officers to achieve one of their shared primary goals: ensuring effective and constitutional policing for the City of Seattle.
The DOJ investigation into the SPD and the subsequent settlement agreement stem from a series of high-profile incidents around 2009 in which police allegedly engaged in excessive force [Reuters report], particularly against minorities. Among the incidents was the widely-reported killing of American Indian woodcarver John Williams, who was shot to death by police in downtown Seattle in 2010 even though he appeared not to pose a threat to the officers.

Police practices are often controversial. Last week the US District Court for the District of Arizona [official website] heard arguments on whether to enjoin a controversial provision of Arizona's immigration law [SB 1070, PDF] that requires law enforcement officials to check the immigration status of persons they stop or arrest [JURIST report] if there is a reasonable suspicion that the person is in the US illegally. The two legal questions addressed were whether extending the detention of suspects to determine immigration status violates suspects' constitutional rights, and whether SB 1070 unconstitutionally discriminates against Latinos. Also last week the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit [official website] ruled that police did not violate Fourth Amendment [text] protection against illegal searches when they tracked a suspect's cell phone [JURIST report] using the phone's global positioning system (GPS) [JURIST news archive] signal.

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