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Feds criticize Seattle police on use of force

Sat., Dec. 17, 2011

SEATTLE – The Seattle Police Department has engaged in a pattern of excessive force that violates federal law and the Constitution, the U.S. Department of Justice announced on Friday.

The finding comes after a more than eight-month investigation into the police use of force, said Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez of the department’s civil rights division. He was joined at a Seattle news conference by U.S. Attorney Jenny A. Durkan of the Western District of Washington.

“Our investigation has revealed that inadequate systems of supervision and oversight have permitted systemic use-of-force violations to persist at the Seattle Police Department,” Perez said. “Our findings should serve as a foundation to reform the police department and to help restore the community’s confidence in fair, just and effective law enforcement.”

But the federal investigation did not find that police had engaged in discriminatory policing, according to a letter sent by officials to the city.

“Our investigation raises serious concerns on this issue,” federal officials wrote. Investigators noted that parts of the city believe that the police department engages in discriminatory policies because of the widely reported incidents involving violence against minorities.

“This perception can significantly undermine the trust necessary for SPD to conduct effective policing in minority communities,” investigators said.

A defiant Seattle police Chief John Diaz disputed the U.S. Justice Department’s conclusion that his department routinely uses excessive force, saying he wants to see more proof.

“I want to make this clear,” Diaz said during an interview. “The department is not broken.”

Diaz spoke hours after the Justice Department issued its report on the Seattle Police Department. Diaz sent a departmentwide email earlier in the day questioning the validity of the findings, potentially putting the city on a collision course with federal attorneys.

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn did not directly address whether he accepts the findings, which his spokesman described as “allegations.” McGinn said that members of his staff, the city attorney’s office and Diaz are examining the report to understand how the findings were made.

The federal probe was launched last spring and is not tied to any specific incident. But it came after a Native American woodcarver, John T. Williams, was fatally shot by police in 2010. The American Civil Liberties Union and more than two dozen other community groups called for the investigation.

Williams was holding a piece of wood and a knife as he crossed the street, according to a police video of the incident. Officer Ian Birk left his car to chase Williams and shouted for him to drop the knife then fired several shots. A folded knife was recovered.

Birk maintained that he was threatened by Williams, but a later review board found the shooting was unjustified. Birk eventually resigned.

Though the Williams incident was the most well-known nationally, there were others. Officers were recorded using anti-Mexican epithets as they beat a Latino man, wrongly believed to be a robbery suspect. There were also incidents of African-American males being beaten.

“For many years, the city of Seattle periodically has faced accusations of police misconduct, including claims of excessive force and discriminatory policing techniques. Over the last decade, the city has responded to these allegations by implementing significant measures to improve police oversight, including developing and refining an elaborate police accountability system,” investigators said.

In its letter sent to Seattle city officials, including McGinn, the federal officials said they found “a pattern or practice of constitutional violations regarding the use of force that result from structural problems, as well as serious concerns about biased policing. Resolution of our findings will require a written, court-enforceable agreement that sets forth remedial measures to be taken within a fixed period of time.”

But the federal authorities also said they were aware of the special problems that the Seattle Police Department faced and that could have contributed to officers’ overreaction.

“We were mindful of the realities police officers face and the service they provide,” they wrote. In Seattle, “those realities include the backdrop of the murders of five police officers in and around Seattle, and the attempted murder and wounding of a sixth officer. These deaths were the result of unprovoked, unexpected attacks against on-duty uniformed officers by members of the community. We do not underestimate the impact that these events have on all police, and particularly on SPD officers.”

The Seattle Times contributed to this report.


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