Mayor Mike McGinn's legal strategy draws fire from some, support from others.
Seattle’s response to the U.S. Justice Department’s proposal to fix the Police Department is focused on curtailing excessive force but does not address federal concerns about biased policing, according to sources familiar with the document.
The Justice Department concluded in December that Seattle police had engaged in a “pattern or practice” of excessive force. But federal attorneys did not find a pattern of biased policing, although they cited “troubling practices” affecting minority communities and strongly recommended that the Police Department take corrective measures.
Because no pattern of biased policing was found, Mayor Mike McGinn opted not to address the issue in the city’s confidential response delivered to the Justice Department on Wednesday, according to sources who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Police Department already has launched its own reform plan, called “20/20,” for 20 changes in 20 months. Along with steps to deal with excessive force, it lists measures to curb biased policing, including improved training and data collection sought by the Justice Department.
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But McGinn decided on a narrow legal strategy, not wanting to give any ground on biased policing before initiating settlement talks with the Justice Department, the sources said.
Some community and human-rights groups expressed dismay Thursday, saying biased policing was central to what led to the Justice’s Department’s conclusions. But a City Council member who confirmed the mayor’s approach and a leading public defender both backed McGinn’s position.
Federal attorneys are seeking a mutually approved, court-enforced consent decree with the city, delineating police reforms to be overseen by an outside monitor. If an agreement is not reached, the Justice Department could file a lawsuit as early as next month to force the city to make changes.
McGinn has said he is willing to accept a consent decree, depending on the scope of the monitor’s powers, the financial costs and other conditions.
His spokesman, Aaron Pickus, declined to comment on how the city addressed biased policing in its response to the Justice Department.
“We shared our proposal with the Department of Justice yesterday,” he said in a statement Thursday. “We are working in good faith toward a mutually acceptable agreement to support a just and effective police force.”
The Justice Department’s proposal, handed to the city in late March, called for, among other things, more sergeants for front-line supervision and enhanced training, according to a city memorandum obtained by The Seattle Times.
They also want the Police Department to collect information from investigative stops of civilians, including duration of the stop and perceived race of the person stopped, in order to collect data to ensure bias-free policing, The Associated Press reported earlier this week, citing a copy of the confidential document it had reviewed.
Biased policing was a central issue for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and 34 community groups when they asked the Justice Department in December 2010 to open a civil-rights investigation into the Police Department.
In a letter, they cited “multiple incidents of excessive force” by officers, “particularly force used against persons of color.”
The letter cited high-profile incidents, including the August 2010 fatal shooting of First Nations woodcarver John T. Williams by an officer, and an officer’s threat to beat the “Mexican piss” out of a Latino man in April 2010.
Jennifer Shaw, the deputy director at ACLU of Washington, said Thursday the city’s lack of response to the bias issue is “consistent with what we’ve been hearing.”
Shaw said that, if reports are accurate, the city’s stance would be “very disturbing,” both to the ACLU and likely to the groups that signed the letter.
“These organizations represent the communities of color,” and they had come forward to complain about treatment by Seattle police, Shaw said.
While the use-of-force issue was important, Shaw said, the core of the letter was that the force was mostly being used against young people of color.
“I suspect those same groups will be quite upset if it’s true that the city’s response does not address biased policing,” she said.
Those communities signed the letter because “the relationship between the SPD and those communities is strained to the point of being broken, and I’m concerned that relationship will only get worse” if the city’s response to the Justice Department fails to address biased policing, Shaw said.
Councilmember Bruce Harrell, who heads the council committee that oversees police, said McGinn was not obligated to address the issue of biased policing, since the Justice Department made no formal finding that it existed.
He agreed that community groups are liable to be dissatisfied with the city’s response.
“We were not required to make a response on biased policing. We can, however, voluntarily address the issue,” Harrell said.
“At this point, however, the strategy has to be to narrow the demands on the city from the DOJ, not expand them.”
Councilmember Nick Licata said he doesn’t understand the reasoning behind McGinn’s legal strategy and would like to gain a better understanding.
“From my reading of the initial DOJ report, biased policing is very important to remodeling our Police Department,” Licata said.
“I don’t see any downside to addressing it in a consent agreement,” he added.
Lisa Daugaard, the deputy director of The Defender Association, which represents indigent defendants, said McGinn is “getting a raw deal” in the criticism of his response.
Daugaard is supervisor of the association’s Racial Disparity Project, which has gathered evidence of biased policing in Seattle, including data showing that African-American drug dealers were 33 times more likely to be arrested than a white person committing the same crime.
She said that information was given to the Justice Department, and that she was disappointed it wasn’t used to justify a conclusion that biased policing exists.
But by not finding a pattern of biased policing, the Justice Department “has no dog in this fight,” she said.
Daugaard praised McGinn and the Police Department for working with her association and said the department is involved in a program aimed at diverting low-level drug and prostitution arrests before those arrested are booked into jail.
McGinn and the Police Department, she said, have gone “further than anyone in the past 15 years” to address biased policing.
Chris Stearns, chairman of the Seattle Human Rights Commission, said in a statement Thursday that the allegation of biased policing was “at the heart of the call for the investigation in the first place.”
Stearns said that although “the jury is still out” on whether biased policing exists in Seattle, it is “vital to the long-term stability of the Police Department and health of the people living in our communities that the consent decree address this issue. We cannot afford to sweep this problem under the rug.”
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