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Judge Dismisses Lawsuit by Seattle Police Officers Who Believe Restricting ‘Use of Force’ Violates Their Rights

A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by nearly one hundred Seattle police officers, who claimed a “use of force” policy adopted in response to a Justice Department lawsuit violated their constitutional rights to defend themselves.

The Justice Department found that the Seattle Police Department “engaged in a pattern or practice of using unlawful force that systematically deny the people of Seattle their constitutional rights.” The City of Seattle agreed to create new policies and a “Monitor, was appointed to assist in the drafting of the new policy.

According to the decision [PDF] by Chief United States District Judge Marsha J. Pechman, the officers claimed the “way the use of force policy was drafted” violated the Constitution. They maintained their rights under the Second and Fourth Amendments and the Equal Protection Clause were violated. They asked the court to stop the policy’s implementation, declare the policy unconstitutional and award money for damages.

The judge determined that a few of the claims against the court-appointed Monitor named Merrick Bobb could not be brought because he had “immunity” from lawsuits related to his actions in assisting in the resolution of the Justice Department’s lawsuit. Just because the outcome was not what the officers wanted did not mean Bobb was unfair and violated some process.

“Here, the policy represents an effort by an employer, the Seattle Police Department, to regulate the use not only of (employer-issued) weapons but of the force its employees are specially sanctioned to wield on behalf of the city government,” Pechman explains in her decision. “This scenario has no relation to the Second Amendment guarantees for individuals recognized” in previous relevant cases. So, “the policy does not burden conduct protected by the Second Amendment.”

The policy doesn’t “affect officers’ freedom of movement,” so it cannot be said to “seize” them, even if it might place them at greater risk of injury.

But that was not all officers misunderstood when making their claim that their Fourth Amendment rights had been violated:

Plaintiffs further argue that cases analyzing the Fourth Amendment rights of citizens have recognized a “countervailing governmental interest[ ]”—thus purportedly endowing police officers with a Fourth Amendment right to use force. This argument misses the mark entirely. A balancing test establishing the boundary where government action infringes on a citizen’s Fourth Amendment rights cannot be reinterpreted as a positive Fourth Amendment right for government actors to inflict force up to that boundary.

Pechman additionally states that officers “fail to make even the most rudimentary showing in an equal protection claim: they fail to describe themselves as members of an affected class similarly situated to those outside the class.” They do not recognize that the Supreme Court has not identified self-defense as a “fundamental right” similar to “the right to marry or to vote.”

“It does not shock the conscience to see certain de-escalation procedures imposed on police officers in an effort by their department to avoid a pattern or practice of excessive use of force,” Pechman adds. It would be surprising “if allegations of such a pattern or practice did not lead to the adoption of stricter standards for use of force by officers.”

She acknowledges that the “use of force” policy still allows officers to use a “wide range of tools to gain control over situations.” They can use verbal commands, physical restraint, TASERS, pepper spray and batons, in addition to firearms.

When the Justice Department investigated the Seattle Police Department [PDF], they uncovered the following:

  • SPD officers too quickly resort to the use of impact weapons, such as batons and flashlights. Indeed, we find that, when SPD officers use batons, 57% of the time it is either unnecessary or excessive.
  • SPD officers escalate situations and use unnecessary or excessive force when arresting individuals for minor offenses. This trend is pronounced in encounters with persons with mental illnesses or those under the influence of alcohol or drugs. This is problematic because SPD estimates that 70% of use of force encounters involve these populations.
  • Multiple SPD officers at a time use unnecessary or excessive force together against a single subject. Of the excessive use of force incidents we identified, 61% of the cases involved more than one officer.

Despite this past history and despite the way the judge deconstructed each of the officers’ claims, their attorney, Athan Tramountanas, still reacted, “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.”

Whether it is in Seattle or Ferguson, Missouri, police are quick to make it seem like they are the victims when the public—and in this case, the federal government—challenges their ability to use force without any consequences whatsoever.

Police pervert the Constitution to defend their preference for employing aggression while on duty and simultaneously violate that same set of rights when policing citizens. They think they are entitled to more rights than average citizens. In this case, the judge recognized she could not issue a decision that would grant them extra rights.

CommunityThe Dissenter

Judge Dismisses Lawsuit by Seattle Police Who Believe Restricting ‘Use of Force’ Violates Their Rights

A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by nearly one hundred Seattle police officers, who claimed a “use of force” policy adopted in response to a Justice Department lawsuit violated their constitutional rights to defend themselves.

The Justice Department found that the Seattle Police Department “engaged in a pattern or practice of using unlawful force that systematically deny the people of Seattle their constitutional rights.” The City of Seattle agreed to create new policies and a “Monitor, was appointed to assist in the drafting of the new policy.

According to the decision [PDF] by Chief United States District Judge Marsha J. Pechman, the officers claimed the “way the use of force policy was drafted” violated the Constitution. They maintained their rights under the Second and Fourth Amendments and the Equal Protection Clause were violated. They asked the court to stop the policy’s implementation, declare the policy unconstitutional and award money for damages.

The judge determined that a few of the claims against the court-appointed Monitor named Merrick Bobb could not be brought because he had “immunity” from lawsuits related to his actions in assisting in the resolution of the Justice Department’s lawsuit. Just because the outcome was not what the officers wanted did not mean Bobb was unfair and violated some process.

“Here, the policy represents an effort by an employer, the Seattle Police Department, to regulate the use not only of (employer-issued) weapons but of the force its employees are specially sanctioned to wield on behalf of the city government,” Pechman explains in her decision. “This scenario has no relation to the Second Amendment guarantees for individuals recognized” in previous relevant cases. So, “the policy does not burden conduct protected by the Second Amendment.”

The policy doesn’t “affect officers’ freedom of movement,” so it cannot be said to “seize” them, even if it might place them at greater risk of injury. (more…)

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."