- Associated Press - Monday, October 20, 2014

SEATTLE (AP) - A federal judge has thrown out a lawsuit brought by more than 100 Seattle police officers who said new guidelines on using force jeopardized their safety.

The officers’ arguments were unsupported by the Constitution or case law, Chief U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman said in an opinion issued Monday.

The Seattle Police Department adopted a new policy concerning the use of force under a 2012 settlement agreement with the U.S. Justice Department, which found that Seattle police routinely used excessive force, especially in low-level situations that might otherwise have been defused.

“It would be at least surprising if allegations of such a pattern or practice did not lead to the adoption of stricter standards for use of force by officers,” Pechman wrote.

The policy lists guidelines for every weapon used and requires the most serious uses of force to be investigated by a special team. It spells out when force is appropriate, stresses that alternatives to force should be used “when time, circumstances and safety permit,” and requires that officers carry at least one less-lethal tool such as a Taser.

While it says that force used must be reasonable, it also specifies that the analysis of whether the force was reasonable must allow “that police officers are often forced to make split-second decisions in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving.”

The officers who signed on to the lawsuit, without the support of the police guild, objected, saying the policy elevates the rights of criminal suspects over those of police. They argued that Merrick Bobb, the court-appointed monitor overseeing the reforms, refused input from the police department in the drafting of the new policy, and that it violates their constitutional right to defend themselves.

Pechman took a dim view of those claims. Even if Bobb did ignore the input of officers, “he used his court-endowed discretion to reach a result Plaintiffs do not agree with,” she wrote. At any rate, Bobb is immune from lawsuits in his capacity as a quasi-judicial officer, she said.

The judge also dismissed the officers’ constitutional arguments, saying that while the Second Amendment ensures the right to keep and bear arms, it doesn’t protect the right to use the weapons.

Nor did she agree with the officers’ insistence that the policy violated a “right of self-defense as embedded in the Fourth Amendment,” which protects against unreasonable search and seizures. Pechman said the argument grossly misconstrued Fourth Amendment law.

She dismissed the case with prejudice, meaning the officers cannot amend or refile their claims.

“My clients are disappointed in today’s ruling, but remain resolute in their belief that the new use of force policy unreasonably restricts their ability to defend themselves and perform their jobs in a manner that best keeps themselves and the public safe,” Athan Tramountanas, a lawyer for most of the officers, said in an email.

The officers are considering an appeal, Tramountanas said.

“Judge Pechman’s dismissal of the suit today confirms that SPD’s use-of-force policy is both practical and constitutional,” Mayor Ed Murray said in a written statement. “Today we move forward with police reform and move past internal divisions over policy. The City and the officers who filed the lawsuit share the same objectives: safety for the public, and safe working conditions for the officers who provide for the public’s safety.”

Justice Department officials said all along the lawsuit was without merit, and stressed that the consent decree requires evaluation of new policies on using force, bias-free policing and responding to people having mental or drug-related issues to make sure they’re working. To that end, the Seattle U.S. Attorney’s Office sent a letter to the city last month seeking data on uses of force between April 1 and Sept. 30, along with any administrative data showing how much time officers spent filling out paperwork on those incidents.


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