The U.S. Department of Justice has launched a preliminary review of the Seattle Police Department in response to a request by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and 34 other groups seeking an investigation of officers' use of force, particularly against minorities.
Seattle Times staff reporter
The Justice Department has launched a preliminary review of the Seattle Police Department to determine whether its officers have engaged in a pattern of unnecessary force, particularly against minorities.
The federal review is in response to a request last month by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington (ACLU) and 34 other community groups that asked the Justice Department to investigate police use of force in several recent high-profile incidents, including the fatal shooting of John T. Williams.
U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan said Monday she met last week with officials from the Police Department and the office of Mayor Mike McGinn, representatives of the City Council and some of the community groups pushing for the investigation.
Durkan said attorneys from the federal department's Civil Rights Division in Washington, D.C., will travel to Seattle in early February to begin the process.
The review will be broad and include Justice Department scrutiny of instances of alleged criminal civil-rights violations by individual officers as well as a "global" look at the department to determine whether, as the ACLU and others allege, there exists a "pattern and practice" of civil-rights violations by officers.
Durkan described the process as a "preliminary or scoping review that will help us determine ... how deep we go" with an investigation.
Durkan, who has been deeply involved in use-of-force issues concerning the Police Department for nearly a decade, said she is concerned enough "to take the additional step to see if there is a systemic issue that needs to be examined and changed."
"Any time you start to see a number of complaints, you're obliged to ask whether there might be a ... cultural problem," she said. "Smoke does not always mean there is fire. Our obligation is to determine whether there is a fire."
If a full investigation is ordered, the Justice Department would conduct a top-to-bottom review of Seattle police operations. The federal agency could work with the department to remedy problems or, if constitutional violations are uncovered, seek written settlements to ensure changes.
The ACLU's request comes after highly publicized incidents in which officers have resorted to force, often against people of color. In their request, the ACLU and other organizations asserted that some Seattle officers appear to "inflict injury out of anger" at suspects rather than to protect public safety.
"Distrust of the police by communities of color grows as a result, and it becomes harder for the Seattle Police Department to do its job of keeping all Seattle residents safe," said the letter, which was sent to Durkan and Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, who heads the Civil Rights Division.
The confrontations include an officer kicking and threatening to beat the "Mexican piss" out of a prone Latino man in April; the repeated kicking of an African-American teen during an arrest inside a convenience store in October; and the pummeling of an African-American man in a police lobby in June 2009 in which officers were cleared of wrongdoing.
Also cited is an officer's fatal shooting in August of Williams, a First Nations woodcarver, which led, according to sources, to a preliminary finding by the Police Department that the officer's actions were unjustified. The shooting was the subject of an inquest that concluded last week.
Earlier this month, two former U.S. attorneys, brothers Mike and John McKay, wrote Durkan to support the investigation, claiming the department has stonewalled efforts to investigate a claim that an off-duty Seattle officer last summer threatened a 19-year-old man with a gun over a poor parking job then conspired to have the young man charged with a crime. Mike McKay's firm is representing the man in a claim against the city.
A source within the U.S. Attorney's Office, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said investigative duties will be split in the initial inquiry.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Bruce Miyake, a veteran federal criminal prosecutor, will look at individual incidents, such as the Williams shooting, to determine whether criminal civil-rights cases should be brought against specific officers, the source said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mike Diaz, in the Seattle office's civil division, will oversee the broader investigation into the department, the source said.
Police Chief John Diaz has said he would welcome a Justice Department inquiry. "We welcome any review and will cooperate fully," department spokesman Sgt. Sean Whitcomb said Monday.
McGinn spoke with Durkan about the investigation last week and welcomes the review, spokesman Aaron Pickus said.
"Elevating these issues and bringing some sunshine to them is a good thing," he said. "We need to have an understanding about how widely certain values are held within the Police Department and what we can do to address those issues.
Also welcoming the investigation is City Councilmember Tim Burgess, who oversees the Public Safety Committee. He said Monday he hopes the Justice Department will focus on the role of the Police Department's front-line supervisors — the sergeants and lieutenants — "whose influence and importance within the department is underappreciated."
"You can have all of the advance training, all of the new rules you want," Burgess said. "But unless and until those front-line supervisors take on the role of coaching and nurturing and training our officers, we will continue to have problems."
Durkan said Burgess' observations "are exactly the sorts of things we want to hear."
Before her appointment as U.S. attorney in 2009, Durkan served as the civilian member of the Police Department's Firearms Review Board and played a key role in two citizen panels that have looked at the department's disciplinary practices and the function of the civilian-run Office of Professional Accountability.
Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.
Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or firstname.lastname@example.org