A rare civil-rights investigation of the Seattle Police Department indicates federal officials have decided it's too late for police and city leaders to address the issues on their own.

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For years, accusations of misconduct by Seattle police officers would be met with the same response, whether from then-Chief Gil Kerlikowske or the department’s union leaders: Other cities have it worse.

“We have a squeaky-clean Police Department compared to other big cities,” Sgt. Rich O’Neill, president of the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, said when the department was under scrutiny in 2007 and 2008 over its use of force.

O’Neill said many of the complaints investigated by the department’s internal-investigation unit “would be met with a dial tone if you called another big-city department.”

Three years later, the U.S. Justice Department has come calling.

In March, its Civil Rights Division — at the urging of the American Civil Liberties Union and 34 community groups — opened an investigation into the Police Department following a string of high-profile confrontations between officers and minority citizens in the past 17 months.

The incidents, all captured at least partially on video, included the fatal shooting one year ago of First Nations woodcarver John T. Williams; a gang detective threatening to beat the “Mexican piss” out of a Latino man; an officer repeatedly kicking a young African-American man whose hands were raised during a convenience-store arrest; and the violent rearrest of a mentally disturbed man inadvertently released from jail.

Mayor Mike McGinn and Police Chief John Diaz welcomed the probe, but Diaz at first seemed not to grasp its significance: The day it was announced, he likened it to a “free audit” — a comparison met with stony silence by the U.S. attorney in Seattle, Jenny Durkan.

Department of Justice (DOJ) spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa said such investigations are rare. With roughly 16,000 police and sheriff’s departments in the country, the DOJ has opened just four so-called “pattern or practice” investigations this year, Seattle among them. There are only 17 active cases nationwide, some stretching back several years, she said.

Ultimately, the Justice Department could order remedies, ranging from better training to reforms in internal investigations, and any problems found will most likely be resolved through a consent decree backed up by threat of a federal lawsuit.

The DOJ’s intervention signaled that it had determined it was too late for police and city leaders to address the issues.

Troubles overlooked

In retrospect, it was the Police Department’s sense of self-satisfaction that blinded top commanders to festering issues. For this article, The Seattle Times interviewed past and present officers and department officials, along with community and government leaders, some speaking on condition of anonymity. They provide an inside view of how the failure of police officials to recognize problems effectively obscured breakdowns in training, supervision and community relations.

“I think my general impression was that the department was resting on its laurels and had become disconnected, both from city elected leaders and … also from the community,” said Seattle City Councilmember Tim Burgess, chair of the council’s public-safety committee.

At the same time, a corrosive distrust developed between rank-and-file officers and the command staff, marked by crippling battles over officer discipline. The result has been the emergence of an increasingly powerful police union that has aggressively defended its members and attacked its critics.

Over time, an “incredibly pervasive attitude of cynicism” took hold throughout the department, said a former department official who requested anonymity.

O’Neill, the guild president, has greeted the Justice Department investigation with disdain. And some officers have rallied around two from their ranks charged with criminally assaulting citizens — one in the convenience-store case, the other in an off-duty brawl outside a Ballard bar.

“I think they are shellshocked” about the barrage of criticism and lack of support from superiors, said Mark Evenson, a former Seattle police captain who left in 2006 after being hired as police chief in Brentwood, Calif.

After a meeting with sergeants earlier this year, an assistant chief responded to protests over the discipline of one of their colleagues by likening the troops to a herd of wildebeests crossing the Serengeti — “some just don’t make it,” he reportedly said.

Not long afterward, a doctored photograph was circulated among officers showing Diaz and Deputy Chief Clark Kimerer posed over a dead wildebeest.

Video evidence

While the breakdowns had been years in the making, videos of the incidents brought more intense scrutiny on the department. Estela Ortega, the executive director of El Centro de la Raza, a Seattle social-justice organization, said the videos represented behavior that had occurred previously but not been caught on camera.

“From our perspective, El Centro de la Raza and other communities of color, police misconduct has been an issue for decades in our community,” Ortega said

Some of the incidents involved clear misconduct, such as the gang detective’s “Mexican piss” comment.

In other cases, including the video-recorded punch thrown by a white officer at a belligerent 17-year-old African-American girl in a jaywalking incident, it was more difficult to draw conclusions about who was at fault.

But whether officers were right or wrong, those violent images — outcomes that some in law enforcement cringingly refer to as “lawful but awful” — damaged the department’s credibility and public trust.

At a time of low crime rates and public sympathy over the October 2009 fatal shooting of Officer Timothy Brenton, the goodwill enjoyed by the department seemed to vanish overnight.

Crime-scene scandal

The root of the current troubles can be traced to 1999, when the Police Department was rocked by revelations that veteran officers had failed to report a homicide detective’s alleged theft of $10,000 from a crime scene.

Although two trials ended with deadlocked juries, the scandal sparked efforts to bolster how the Police Department polices itself — efforts that have advanced in fits and starts.

Kerlikowske, police chief from 2000 to 2009, inherited the fallout from the scandal, forcing him to wrestle with disciplinary issues throughout his tenure.

When he was hired as chief, a new Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) had just been created at the urging of a citizens panel formed in the wake of the scandal. The OPA, which placed a civilian in charge of internal investigations for the first time, was supposed to make the disciplinary process more accountable.

Initially, Kerlikowske embraced the goal. In 2001, he released the names of officers who had been disciplined that year, prompting the police guild’s leader at the time to label the chief’s action “disgusting.”

In 2002, Kerlikowske publicly reprimanded an officer for being rude to a group of young jaywalkers, angering rank-and-file officers who responded with a no-confidence vote.

The vote also reflected the guild’s lingering resentment over the department’s mishandling of Mardi Gras rioting a year earlier. One death and 70 injuries were partly blamed on police commanders who had initially kept officers from intervening, fearing for their safety.

Officers were upset that while commanders weren’t disciplined for their handling of the riot, one of their own had been punished in the jaywalking incident.

Although Kerlikowske remained stoic, the vote “shook him pretty hard,” recalled a former city official who asked not to be identified.

“Gil got to the point where he would try and avoid conflicts with the guild.”

Kerlikowske began reversing or softening the OPA’s disciplinary recommendations at a noticeable rate.

In one case, an officer claimed she accidentally fired her gun while chasing a panhandler during an off-duty confrontation. The captain of internal investigations disputed her account, saying evidence indicated she had deliberately fired at the panhandler, who was not hit.

Then-OPA director Sam Pailca found that although it was uncertain the shooting was accidental, there was persuasive evidence the officer initially “lied to cover up” the discharge.

Kerlikowske found the officer had violated rules, but accepted her version. He cut the proposed discipline from 30 days without pay, the most severe punishment short of firing, to 15.

In another case, internal investigators found that an officer had worked off-duty at an all-night dance party in violation of department rules, then made false statements when questioned about it. Pailca concluded there was strong evidence against the officer, but Kerlikowske decided there wasn’t enough to discipline him.

Reluctant to discipline?

Kerlikowske, who now heads the Office of National Drug Control Policy in the Obama administration, declined to be interviewed.

But at the time of the controversy, he defended his disciplinary decisions, pointing to his firing of several officers.

One important consideration, he said, was whether his decisions would withstand appeals. If the department’s decisions are reversed, it’s often costly for the city.

Additionally, his credibility with officers would be damaged if he lost appeals, Kerlikowske said. He noted that many of his reversals involved allegations of unnecessary force, the most difficult to prove.

Former Police Chief Norm Stamper, who retired under pressure in early 2000, sympathizes with Kerlikowske’s concern over appeals. But Stamper said it is a mistake to give too much weight to the prospect of being overturned on appeal.

“What you have done is create a power vacuum,” he said.

Mayor steps in

In 2007, a civilian board that oversees the OPA accused Kerlikowske of improperly intervening in the internal investigation of a controversial drug arrest. The chief had cleared two officers of allegations that they used excessive force, despite a videotape showing they did not provide a complete account of the arrest.

In reaction, then-Mayor Greg Nickels formed a special citizen review panel to study police accountability, citing the board’s accusation and news accounts about a violent arrest in 2005 outside a Capitol Hill bar.

The OPA board report asserted that Kerlikowske had eroded public trust by repeatedly reversing and reducing discipline for officers.

In January 2008, Nickels’ panel offered 29 proposals to bolster police oversight and internal discipline, which were largely adopted. It also said Seattle wouldn’t be able to improve the way it handles officer misconduct until it took a tougher stance with the police union.

Despite the changes, one member of that panel, former U.S. Attorney Mike McKay, who also served on the first panel, is now questioning whether the city’s OPA “experiment is a success.”

McKay, who currently is representing a man who alleges he was threatened with a gun by an off-duty officer during a 2009 road-rage incident, said at a legal forum in May, “It has become obvious from recent events that SPD is encountering difficulty ‘protecting and serving’ the community because of a lack of accountability arising from questions over the use of excessive force, even lethal force by an officer … .”

In addition, a federal judge in Seattle recently questioned the department’s willingness to examine its training. U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman’s comments were directed at police officials, who questioned whether the department could learn anything after an off-duty officer was found by a jury to have violated the rights of a citizen held at gunpoint after the car he was in ran a red light.

“It is a sad day when the Seattle Police Department cannot stop to reflect upon the voices of citizen jurors who think that their conduct has overstepped the line, or contemplate a change when an officer’s judgment is found wanting,” Pechman wrote in an opinion last month.

A voice of dissent

The police guild went along with virtually all of the 29 changes in its 2008 contract with the city. In exchange, officers won hefty pay raises. But the union has continued to be a dissonant voice, even after Kerlikowske left and Diaz became chief.

O’Neill, the union president, said the alleged excessive-force incidents have been blown out of proportion or didn’t involve misconduct. He believes the Justice Department won’t find a pattern of biased policing.

The investigation, O’Neill said, grew out of complaints from a small number of groups. “But that’s the way it works, the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” he said.

McGinn, Diaz and top police commanders failed to back officers when it was appropriate, O’Neill added, stressing he has been forced to fill the “void” and speak out on officers’ behalf.

The union’s newspaper, The Guardian, became a soapbox for officers to lash out at police and city leaders.

In December, Officer Steve Pomper wrote a column in which he called city leaders a “quaint socialist cabal” and disparaged mandated anti-bias training for city employees.

Pomper called the city’s 5-year-old Race and Social Justice Initiative an attack on American values and referred to its supporters as “the enemy.”

Pomper expressed contempt for a training class aimed at raising awareness of racial profiling, and asked whether officers should say “Hell no!” to the city’s attempts to “indoctrinate SPD in social justice culture.”

The training involved vignettes of police stops, with officers voting anonymously on how to proceed based on partial information. How they voted directed the unfolding incident, which showed the consequences of their choices.

Recalling the assistant chief’s wildebeests remark, some officers have ordered T-shirts depicting a wildebeest skull and the Greek phrase “Molon Labe,” which translates to “Come and take them” — the dark invitation by King Leonidas to Xerxes, the Persian conqueror, who demanded Leonidas and his 300 Spartans put down their weapons and surrender at Thermopylae in 480 B.C.

“Insular attitude”

Burgess, the council member, said in the last 35 years city leaders gradually surrendered too much management control to the union.

Additionally, top commanders became isolated, he said. “This insular attitude of, ‘We’re the experts and we know everything we need to know’ set in,” Burgess said.

That has played out, he said, in the department’s lack of innovation and failure to keep up with crime-analysis technology, along with poor communication with the community and a “circle-the-wagons mentality.”

Diaz, in a recent interview, attributed the Justice Department investigation to events that “went viral.” Neither he nor his command staff would say the investigation is warranted.

Still, the department is making changes, Diaz said.

The department will revert to a previous system in which sergeants work closely with the same officers on a regular basis. In the same vein, officers will work one district so they regularly see the same people and can establish relationships.

The department also is conducting neighborhood surveys, holding living-room conversations and using its website to provide more information, Diaz said.

Training is reemphasizing the need for multiple officers, not just one, to respond to urgent calls. Departmentwide racial-sensitivity training is continuing.

Diaz also has handed out harsh internal discipline, ordered criminal probes of officers and forced the resignation of Ian Birk, the officer who shot Williams.

Diaz and Kimerer, the deputy chief, disputed any notion that the department has been too complacent. “I can’t remember a period of resting on laurels,” Kimerer said. “It’s been a very, very dynamic place.”

But Diaz said he is open to any changes proposed by the Justice Department, and that he didn’t mean to denigrate the investigation by calling it a free audit.

Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, head of the Justice Department’s civil-rights division, and U.S. Attorney Durkan, who as a lawyer served on both of the citizen panels that looked into the Police Department, will play a key role in what happens next.

“Effective, accountable policing is critical for any healthy community,” Perez said in announcing the investigation. “The Justice Department’s interest is ensuring that the people of Seattle can rely upon their Police Department to protect public safety and respect their rights.”

Information from Times archives is included in this story. Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or smiletich@seattletimes.com. Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or mcarter@seattletimes.com.