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Justice Department says Seattle police used excessive force

The conclusion follows eight months of investigation that began after an officer fatally shot a Native American woodcarver on a city street.

December 16, 2011|By Michael Muskal, Los Angeles Times
  • Jenny A. Durkan and Thomas E. Perez of the U.S. Justice Department say an eight-month investigation shows a pattern of excessive use of force by Seattle police.
Jenny A. Durkan and Thomas E. Perez of the U.S. Justice Department say an… (Ken Lambert, Seattle Times )

The Seattle Police Department has broken its trust with the community by using excessive force, charged federal investigators who called for more training and better supervision.

The conclusions were reached after more than eight months of investigation into the department's use of force, Assistant Atty. Gen. Thomas E. Perez of the U.S. Justice Department's civil rights division told reporters Friday at a Seattle news conference.

"We found that the systems of accountability are broken. Accountability is at the heart of constitutional policing," Perez said, adding that the Justice Department would work with local officials to improve training and supervision. "The trust between the Seattle Police Department and the people of Seattle is broken and must be repaired."

While insistent in calling for change, including a court monitor to check on progress, federal officials stopped short of finding that the police had engaged in discriminatory policing, and were gracious to the department, which has been under community fire after several cases of violence against minorities. U.S. Atty. Jenny A. Durkan cited the city's cooperation with the investigation and willingness to make changes as reasons to be optimistic.

"Our investigation has found serious constitutional deficiencies," she said, adding that the majority of officers were dedicated. She said that the murder of five local officers and the attempted murder of a sixth highlighted the types of dangers police faced.

"We take the allegations very seriously," Mayor Mike McGinn said in a telephone interview, adding that the city was looking forward to working with Justice officials. "I and Police Chief John Diaz are committed to the best police force possible, open and transparent. We will continue to work building trust with community."

The Justice Department is investigating about 20 police departments across the country, Perez said.

The Seattle investigation was launched last spring after a Native American woodcarver, John T. Williams, was fatally shot by police in 2010. A police dashboard camera video showed Williams holding a piece of wood and a knife as he crossed a street, but the rest of the incident occurred off-camera.

Officer Ian Birk left his car to chase Williams, shouted for him to drop the knife, and then fired several shots. Birk maintained that Williams threatened him, but a 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.

"The in-depth report by the Department of Justice confirms what many people of color and others have experienced — that the Seattle Police Department has engaged in a pattern and practice of excessive use of force," said Kathleen Taylor, executive director of American Civil Liberties Union of Washington state. "We are pleased that the DOJ intends to work with the SPD and community groups to develop a 'blueprint for sustainable reform' and to put in place a court order and monitor."

In its letter to Seattle city officials, federal officials said they found "a pattern or practice of constitutional violations regarding the use of force."

The Justice Department looked at a sample of police reports on the use of force between Jan. 1, 2009, and April 4, 2011. Investigators said they found that when Seattle officers used force, they did so in "an unconstitutional manner nearly 20% of the time."

michael.muskal@latimes.com

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