In a blistering report, a federal civil-rights investigation has found the Seattle Police Department engaged in a "pattern or practice" of violating the constitutional rights of citizens by using excessive force due, in part, to a lack of oversight at the top ranks of the department.
Seattle Police Chief John Diaz and Mayor Mike McGinn reacted with skepticism Friday as the U.S. Department of Justice declared that the city’s police officers routinely and illegally use excessive force.
“I want to make this clear,” Diaz said hours after the findings were unveiled. “The department is not broken.”
Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, who heads the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, framed what could be a defining debate in the city’s history, releasing the results of an 11-month investigation that concluded the Police Department’s officers have engaged in a “pattern and practice” of excessive force. Perez said the investigation also uncovered troubling evidence of biased policing, but lacked the data to find a pattern.
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Perez said the department’s practices to assure accountability and public trust are “broken” and that the only sure fix is through court-ordered, long-term reform and an outside special monitor to oversee it.
The 41-page report said the investigation found “deficiencies in SPD’s training, policies and oversight” and that “starting from the top, SPD supervisors often fail to meet their responsibility to provide oversight of the use of force” by officers.
The report concluded that fully one of every five instances of force by Seattle officers violates the Constitution’s protections against illegal search and seizure.
Diaz, who met with Perez and U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan on Thursday and Friday, questioned the methodology used by Justice Department, saying he and his commanders have looked at the same data and have not reached the same conclusions.
But Diaz, in an interview, said he recently made some changes in response to concerns previously expressed by the Justice Department, specifically to bolster oversight into the use of force. McGinn said the report raises “serious allegations.” He stopped short of embracing its conclusions or Perez’s solutions, but he promised the city would continue to cooperate with the Justice Department in coming months.
Representatives of Seattle’s minority communities praised the report, saying it lends legitimacy to what they’ve believed for years — that Seattle police are too quick to use excessive force and that, when they do, the individual is often a person of color.
The report echoed concerns that have been raised for years by Police Department auditors, a review board, blue-ribbon commissions and plaintiff’s attorneys, among others, who have complained that officers escalate to the use of force too quickly, often relying on dangerous and damaging “impact weapons” such as batons and flashlights to subdue resistance. The Justice Department report noted that many victims of these encounters are people with mental illness or under the influence of drugs and alcohol.
The report also stated that a relatively small percentage of officers are responsible for a disproportionate number of incidents where force was used, and it criticized the department for not recognizing the pattern.
Although the report spelled out the findings and recommendations in clinical language, it essentially called for a seismic shift in the Police Department’s culture — citing practices such as using excessive force on people who talk back to officers, punching or hitting someone who is in custody, or, as detailed in one instance, using a police baton to pry free a bag of crack cocaine from a man’s mouth.
Diaz and McGinn were first told of the findings at a Thursday night meeting with Perez and Durkan, who has been deeply involved in police-accountability issues for more than a decade. Sources said the meeting was tense, particularly because the Justice Department refused to discuss its methodology or its data before the report was released.
In an email sent to officers Friday just before the report was made public, Diaz wrote, “We have many reasons to question the validity and soundness of the DOJ’s conclusions. At this time, the city’s simple request is to examine the data, methods and analyses used in support of these allegations and to reach these conclusions.”
Durkan, in prepared remarks Friday, repeatedly expressed optimism that the department will see its way forward and embrace change. Both she and Perez repeatedly praised the Police Department for its cooperation.
“We are also aware of — and sensitive to — the very real and raw feelings some residents of Seattle, particularly members of our diverse communities, have toward the Seattle Police Department,” Durkan said. “We know there is work to be done. I am hopeful this will change, too.”
Seattle City Councilmember Tim Burgess, chairman of the Council’s Public Safety and Education Committee, said the Justice Department’s findings “confirm what many, including myself, have believed for some time — our Police Department can do better.”
“Chief Diaz, the police command staff, every officer and civilian employee of the Seattle Police Department and the elected leaders of our city should embrace this informed, constructive criticism and work quickly to implement fundamental and sustainable reforms,” Burgess said in a statement. “Rebuilding the public’s trust and confidence in the Police Department is an essential and urgent obligation.”
Civic groups react
The Justice Department launched a preliminary review of Seattle police at the request of Durkan and others, including representatives of 34 minority community groups that signed on to a letter seeking a review by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington.
Evidence uncovered during that review led to a full-scale civil-rights investigation, announced March 31, to examine whether Seattle police engaged in “systemic violations of the Constitution or federal law.”
Estela Ortega, executive director of El Centro de la Raza, one of the community groups that requested the Justice Department investigation, called the findings a “victory for all the people who have been victimized and violated over the years. They have been vindicated.”
“This is what people have been saying all along, that police use excessive force, especially against people of color,” Ortega said. “This gives our communities a lot of hope. I think John Diaz has a commitment to wanting his department to have good relationships with the communities, and this gives him the tools he needs to make the changes.”
James Bible, president of the NAACP’s local chapter, called on the Police Department to “clean house” from top to bottom, including Diaz.
“The Seattle-King County NAACP has been aware of the pattern of excessive force for the past 25 years,” Bible said. “Now, we need to take a step back and decide where to go from here.”
Police Guild’s response
Sgt. Rich O’Neill, president of the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, issued a statement that read, in part: “It is my hope that the DOJ will be as cooperative as we have been and allow the police department to examine and study the data that helped them come to their conclusions. Officers are often put in very difficult and dangerous situations and all they want are clear and specific ground rules to guide them when making use of force decisions.”
O’Neill pointedly noted that the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild currently is working without a labor contract.
“As a result of the DOJ report, if the city intends to adopt any changes that affect the working conditions of the officers, then we look forward to discussing those at the bargaining table,” he said.
The report provides not only statistics, drawn from tens of thousands of documents turned over to the Justice Department by the Police Department, but provides graphic examples. It found that many of the incidents that led to an officer using excessive force were minor offenses, such as interference, jaywalking or open-container violations.
“In a number of incidents, failure to use tactics designed to de-escalate a situation, led to increased and unnecessary force,” the report said.
The Police Department is hindered by a “vague” use-of-force policy and “inadequate training” that encourage “pervasive underreporting” and incomplete statistics, according to the report.
Moreover, it said, the civilian-run Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) and an early-warning system designed to spot officers who might be having problems don’t provide an adequate backstop to address the failures of supervisors in dealing with troubled officers.
Additionally, the investigation found, that situation is exacerbated by the fact that OPA overuses so-called “Supervisory Interventions,” where an officer is counseled rather than disciplined. The result is “neither a true finding nor remediation of the officer,” the report said.
The report found that, while OPA generally is sound and its investigations thorough, it is slow and the system complicated.
The report also said that “none of the uses of force our review finds to be excessive were referred to OPA for its review.”
Some changes ordered
Three weeks ago, the Justice Department issued a sharply worded letter urging the Police Department to immediately address a policy that allows officers to invoke their protections against self-incrimination in even the most routine use-of-force issues. Justice officials said the policy made prosecutions of errant officers difficult and undermined public confidence.
Last week, in response to the letter, Diaz ordered changes in how the Police Department develops standards and expectations of officers, and he created new panels to monitor and oversee the use of force by police.
Diaz invited the Justice Department to participate in a top-down rewrite of his department’s policies and procedures.
The DOJ investigation is civil, not criminal. Its goal is to bring the Police Department in compliance with the Constitution and federal law if police practices are determined to be in violation. That could be done through a variety of means, ranging from a negotiated consent decree to a lawsuit.
Conducting the probe
The FBI and Department of Justice investigators interviewed police officers, their commanders and citizens, and reviewed tens of thousands of documents.
Records show the Justice Department also obtained police dash-cam videos in connection with a number of use-of-force complaints.
The federal agency initiated its review in the wake of several highly publicized confrontations between officers and minority citizens, including the fatal shooting of First Nations woodcarver John T. Williams in August 2010 by Officer Ian Birk. The shooting was found to be unjustified, and Birk resigned.
The Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation into the Williams shooting. No charges have been filed.
Seattle Times staff reporter Christine Clarridge contributed to this report.
Mike Carter: 206-464-3706