We talk a lot about the rule of law. A key part of the rule of law is the obligation of courts to protect the rights of those with less power from those with more. In other words, to protect the rights of the minority from the popular rule of the majority. That is what I believe U.S. District Court Judge James Robart was expressing recently when he declared “Black lives matter” in open court.
The Seattle Police Department and the city are under court order and court oversight. They are required to reform policies and training related to use of force, discriminatory policing, and use of force oversight and discipline. Judge Robart used the phrase “black lives matter” in stating one of his concerns of the case. He referenced statistics that showed disproportionate treatment of persons of color and how it resonates with him. Those concerns should resonate with us all. He expressed his continuing concern that the City of Seattle get police reforms right. Judge Robart said the excessive use of force in police departments across the country makes it important that Seattle get things right. In addition, he said the changes the court ordered will protect Seattle police officers from deadly attacks, such as those that have happened recently.
Getting policing reforms right
The setting was the fifth status conference since the 2012 consent decree to assess the progress toward the goals of the decree. The decree was a result of a Department of Justice investigation of the Seattle Police Department. Justice Department findings highlighted excessive force and disparate impacts on people of color. These failures were due to SPD’s systematic failure to implement adequate policies, procedures, training, and oversight.
The entire status conference is video #5 on the U.S. Courts website. http://www.uscourts.gov/cameras-courts/united-states-america-v-city-seattle Judge Robart’s concluding remarks begin at the 1 hour, 23 minute mark.
Competing rights weighed
Judge Robart examined the competing rights of the Seattle Police officer Guild and the citizens of the city. He was firm. He would not allow the rights of the citizens of Seattle to constitutional policing be held hostage by the union’s demands under collective bargaining. The clearly had a right to bargain collectively, but that right did not allow the union to violate the rights of citizens.
In a free society there are always competing rights. Our courts exist to weigh competing rights and judge equitably.