SEATTLE SOUNDINGS | What's next for the SPD reform process

The week before Labor Day, when embarrassing news is released in the hope it will quietly die, two Seattle Police Department news items appeared, stirred a bit of outrage, and promptly disappeared. Both underscored not only the serious internal cultural rot that continues to plague SPD, but why the November election for Seattle's new mayor is shaping up as critically important.

In the first of those items, former Seattle officer Cynthia Whitlatch, who was fired in 2015 for "overly biased and aggressive policing" after arresting an elderly black man, William Wingate on Capitol Hill for walking with a golf club he was using as a cane, had her termination reversed as part of a settlement that left Whitlatch with over $105,000 in back pay and damages in exchange for her "retirement."

Whitlock was fired not only for the Capitol Hill incident, and the enormous public outcry it triggered, but what turned outt to be a long record of overt racism, both on the job and (until it was scrubbed) in her own social media posts. A jury awarded Wingate $325,000 in damages, finding that Whitlatch engaged in racial discrimination, and SPD apologized for the incident. No matter; it turned out that because Whitlatch's commanders didn't report her conduct at the time of the incident - only later, when it became public - SPD's firing of her came too long after the incident. In other words, Whitlatch is sitting pretty today because, away from the public spotlight, her bosses didn't think her behavior was any big deal - and because SPD officers' union contract is heavily weighted toward avoiding accountability for officer misconduct.

The second story was the release of the autopsy of Charleena Lyles, the pregnant woman shot in her own apartment, in front of three of her kids, by two SPD officers that had come to take a report on a burglary. The June 18 shooting prompted a huge wave of community outrage, and the autopsy results, released over two months after Lyles' death, underscored why so nany found the shooting problematic. The autopsy showed that the officers shot the diminutive Lyles seven times, including twice in the back. (The front page Seattle Times headline also helpfully informed readers that no alcohol or drugs were found in Lyles' system. In case, you know, you were wondering.) All that's left is a county inquest, probably to be held early next year, which will likely conclude that Lyles' killing was "justified."

Of the hundreds of uses of lethal force on duty by law enforcement officers since King County adopted its current inquest system 45 years ago, only one — the 2010 killing of John T. Williams — has ever been found to be "not justified." Those are the only two options, and, as with prosecution under state law, the bar for holding officers accountable for bad shootings is extremely high. That's why, late last week, the Lyles family announced that it would not participate in the inquest process, and instead filed a civil lawsuit directly against the two officers who killed Charleena Lyles.

Moreover, Lyles' death, and what it reveals about SPD's progress in improving its use of force policies, was specifically cited last week in the quarterly report filed by Merrick Bobb, the court-appointed monitor whose job it is to assess whether SPD is complying with the Department of Justice consent decree governing its reforms. Merrick's conclusion? There's still a lot of work to do.

These two stores, buried in the last days of summer, reflect business as usual for SPD - but that will change, for better or worse, depending on who becomes Seattle's new mayor in four months.

And those police union contracts, that gave Cynthia Whitlatch such a nice golden parachute? They've expired, but are still in force until replacements are negotiated. And they've been cited repeatly by Bobb and his boss, U.S. District Judge James Robart, who must approve any new contracts, as major impediments to the reform process.

Seattle's next mayor will be in charge of negotiating new contracts - and, perhaps, nominating a new police chief to implement them. Former U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan and civic activist Cary Moon have very different law enforcement backgrounds - which is to say, it's been Durkan's career, but not Moon's.

It will be up to the winner in November to insist that reforming SPD should extend to holding its officers accountable for their bad old ways. It will be up to voters to decide which candidate will be most likely to do that.

GEOV PARRISH is cofounder of Eat the State! To comment on this column, write to