The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Federal monitors cost millions, with disputed results. Seattle's police watchdog was a case in point.

Demonstrators face off with law enforcement personnel near the Seattle Police Departments East Precinct on June 6, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. (David Ryder/Getty Images)

Merrick Bobb came to Seattle to oversee police reform in 2012, bringing impeccable credentials, broad authority and a deep expense account.

He left last summer with the police department improved but still under federal oversight and facing renewed criticism for its use of force against Black Lives Matter demonstrators.

Bobb says city officials were at times hostile to his presence, while Seattle leaders and activists say his team was tone-deaf and lacked clear performance goals. Their clashes highlight the struggles of federal monitors who have been appointed more than two dozen times across the country since 1994 to force change in troubled police agencies, but who according to their critics have not achieved lasting, measurable results.

The Trump administration abandoned federal consent decrees, which it viewed as Washington overreach. But Attorney General Merrick Garland has reauthorized the Justice Department to pursue the tactic in policing and other areas, including housing and the environment.

In doing so, President Biden’s top law enforcement official also initiated a broad review of all federal monitors to increase their effectiveness, bolster accountability and boost public confidence. That report is due this month.

“There are valid concerns,” said Robert Moossy, a deputy assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Division who worked on the first federal police settlement in Pittsburgh in the late 1990s. “As we look back and have some experience, we’re trying to grow and acknowledge and address them.”

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Police leadership, officer unions and community activists have decried the high costs and indefinite timetables of the court-approved settlements that require monitors. Local jurisdictions have paid police monitors up to $2 million per year, even as supervision often stretches on longer than city leaders expect.

The Justice Department spent more than 12 years overseeing police reforms in Los Angeles, 11 in Detroit, nearly a decade in New Jersey and seven years in both Washington, D.C., and Prince George’s County, Md. Among ongoing agreements, federal authorities are still monitoring reforms that began in the Virgin Islands in 2009, in New Orleans and Puerto Rico in 2013, and in Portland, Ore., and Albuquerque in 2014.

“I really felt as though we had embedded a culture of innovation in the organization, but the target kept moving,” said former Seattle chief Kathy O’Toole, who was hired in 2014 and clashed with Bobb during her four-year tenure. “It was getting quite frustrating — not only for the command team but for the officers. It was like consent-decree fatigue.”

Led by Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta, federal authorities are examining ways to establish clearer progress benchmarks, improve community participation and tighten rules for monitors, according to people who have spoken with Gupta’s team.

Justice officials who worked on consent decrees during the Obama administration pointed to more recent police agreements in Newark and Ferguson, Mo., in 2016 and Baltimore in 2017 that capped monitors’ salaries, mandated community input and established periodic performance reviews.

At the same time, some officials say the federal government’s willingness and ability to keep existing decrees on track waned during the Trump administration.

Kristen Clarke, the assistant attorney general who oversees the Civil Rights Division, emphasized that while the agency is working to address concerns, officials believe consent decrees have “been successful and are critically important” to reining in unconstitutional policing and restoring trust in communities.

Christy Lopez, a former Justice Department official in the Obama administration, said the federal government now has enough experience to play a stronger role in crafting guidelines and managing public expectations.

“We were expecting monitors to figure it out, and we would learn from them,” Lopez said, noting a “lack of universal agreement” over how to define success or even about the role of police in a community.

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In Seattle, Bobb, now 75, was at the center of a maelstrom from the start.

A sweeping Justice Department investigation in 2011 found that Seattle police had acted unconstitutionally in 20 percent of its use-of-force cases, resorted too quickly to using weapons and escalated tensions while making arrests. The resulting settlement, administered by U.S. District Judge James L. Robart, required the department over five years to bolster training, supervision and accountability, improve data collection and analysis, and increase transparency.

Then-Mayor Mike McGinn (D) and then-Police Chief John Diaz opposed the decision by Seattle’s city attorney and City Council to hire Bobb, the executive director of the Police Assessment Resource Center. They voiced concerns that a board member of his Los Angeles-based nonprofit had helped in the Justice Department investigation.

Bobb’s contract with Seattle called for a budget of $880,000 to cover salaries and travel ex­penses for him and a team of 14 consultants. City officials soon flagged several expense-account charges as problematic, including the purchase of alcohol, a corkscrew and a $35 pillowcase.

In an email to the city, Bobb said the purchases were needed in part to furnish a local apartment. He called the situation “humiliating” and warned that a lack of cooperation could jeopardize compliance with the consent decree.

“It started out horribly the first two to three years,” Bobb said in an interview. The mayor opposed his presence, he added, and the police “were very hurt and anxious to torpedo the whole thing.”

Bobb did not just tangle with city leaders, however. Some community activists accused his team of adopting an imperial air and disregarding local input.

Lisa Daugaard, who helped lead Seattle’s Community Police Commission from 2013 to 2019, said Bobb and Robart remained wedded to reforms that were inadequate or misguided and “sucked out the oxygen from any other path.”

She recalled a meeting at which Bobb’s team rejected the approach her commission advocated for building consensus. One monitoring team member, Daugaard said, entered the room wearing a bulletproof vest as a practical joke. When the team tried to create a new use-of-force policy without accepting her group’s input, the entire commission threatened to quit.

“It was like he saw us as the enemy,” Daugaard said. The new policy “was meant to be the crown jewel, but they didn’t want to run it past community representatives until it was fully crafted.”

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By the spring of 2013, with police reform a focus of the mayoral race, Diaz resigned as police chief. In early 2014, the new mayor, Ed Murray (D), announced the hiring of O’Toole, a former Boston police commissioner who had embraced reform and was serving as the consent decree monitor in East Haven, Conn.

O’Toole reconstituted Seattle’s police leadership, mandated officer body cameras, tripled training requirements and expedited the release of public information. In progress reports to Robart, Bobb praised the department’s efforts; he declared in April 2017 that police had made dramatic progress in curbing excessive force, which he called “a singular and foundational milestone.”

Five months later, however, Bobb questioned the fatal shooting of a Black woman by two White officers, infuriating O’Toole. Bobb’s status report said there was “more to be done in various areas” to comply with the consent order.

In response, O’Toole sent an email to officers praising them for achieving “real, measurable success.” She attached a 47-page memo arguing that the department had exceeded its federal obligations.

“It reached the point where I said, ‘Look, we’ve done it,’ ” O’Toole said. “Merrick kept saying, ‘I’ll know it when I see it.’ I said that was completely unfair.”

In Bobb’s view, O’Toole was shifting the blame.

“She and the command staff say it was opaque because we didn’t make clear what the standards are,” Bobb said. “My response is, ‘Hell no, we made it absolutely clear.’ The command staff never really got around to getting the rank-and-file behind the thing.”

Police union officials contend that monitors have an incentive to keep the consent decrees going because their salaries depend on it. Some monitors have served on teams in multiple cities, sometimes simultaneously.

Matthew Barge, who was Bobb’s deputy in Seattle, became the lead monitor of the Cleveland police in 2015. He was later replaced by Hassan Aden, a former police chief in Greenville, N.C. Barge is a partner and Aden a senior adviser with 21CP Solutions, a consulting firm whose partners include O’Toole and Sean M. Smoot, who consults on monitoring teams in Cleveland and Baltimore.

“You’ve got to have somebody to monitor the monitors,” said Jim Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, who calls the federal overseers “an incestuous little group.”

Bobb said he was underpaid at $250 an hour, saying monitors in other cities have earned up to $400. He also reported logging hundreds of pro bono hours.

But O’Toole’s deputies raised billing concerns and questioned why Bobb was visiting Seattle less frequently.

Bobb called their frustration misplaced.

“I’m not the guy who ultimately makes the decision,” he said. “What Merrick thinks and what Judge Robart thinks are two different things.”

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In December 2017, weeks after Jenny Durkan (D) was elected mayor, O’Toole stepped down as police chief. Durkan — who as a U.S. attorney in 2012 had helped the Justice Department implement Seattle’s consent settlement — replaced her with Carmen Best, a longtime Seattle police official who became the first Black woman to lead the department.

A month later, Robart declared Seattle in compliance with the consent decree, a decision that kicked off a mandatory two-year review period. But in 2019, Robart ruled that the city had fallen out of compliance in the area of accountability. He was incensed over a provision in the city’s new police union contract that required the department to rehire an officer who was fired for punching a woman while she was handcuffed.

Monitors and judges “don’t want to leave before a department is completely fixed,” said Lopez, the former Justice Department official. She believes some reforms must be addressed through legislation and policy changes that happen in tandem with, or after, consent-decree implementation.

“Fixing the monitor problem,” Lopez added, “is partly a question of resetting expectations of what the consent decree is supposed to achieve so the monitor can feel like, ‘I’ve done my bit. We went from an F to B-minus. That’s not satisfactory, but we’ve created a structure for the department and the community to go forward towards an A in public safety.’ ”

In May 2020, Seattle leaders petitioned Robart to terminate 100 pages of the consent agreement, saying the police department had sustained compliance in the majority of requirements. The Justice Department supported the move, telling the court that the force had “undergone a remarkable transformation.” Seattle police had used serious force in 60 percent fewer incidents than before the consent decree was implemented, officials said.

Within weeks, however, the department was criticized for using tear gas, pepper spray and batons against crowds protesting police brutality after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Amid the fallout, city leaders withdrew the court petition. Best resigned as police chief that August, to protest police budget cuts.

Bobb stepped down that fall, lamenting that the department was “at its nadir.”

“Seattle fell apart in a very big way,” said Bobb, who was replaced as monitor by Antonio Oftelie, a public policy expert from Harvard University.

Looking back, however, Bobb insisted that the police had made progress that showed consent decrees can work. He blanched when asked whether officials should temper public expectations.

“If all you get up to is a B-minus, you’re telling me that Black Lives Matter and the community is going to say that’s okay?” he said. “Of course not. Why even try to go there?”

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