SEATTLE – A 10-month investigation by the U.S. Justice Department has found the Seattle Police Department “engages in a pattern of unnecessary and excessive force” in “violation of the Fourth Amendment,” federal officials announced Friday.
According to the Justice Department report, Seattle police use force in an “unconstitutional manner nearly 20 percent of the time” and “too quickly resort to the use of impact weapons, such as batons and flashlights.”
U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan announced the findings at a Friday morning press conference. She was joined by Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, who flew to Seattle to publicize the findings.
“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. The problems within SPD have been present for many years and will take time to fix,” Perez said.
Durkan said the Justice Department did not find that Seattle officers engage in a pattern of discriminatory policing against minorities, but the investigation did raise “serious concerns” on this issue.
“Many community members believe that SPD engages in discriminatory policing,” she said. “This perception is rooted in a number of factors (and) … can significantly undermine the trust necessary for SPD to conduct effective policing in minority communities.”
But Durkan also said the most Seattle officers never resort to the use of force, and added, “The great majority of Seattle Police Department officers are honorable law enforcement professionals who risk their lives to protect our community.”
The investigation into SPD was launched last March following the deadly shooting of a homeless Native American woodcarver and other incidents of force used against minority suspects.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and 34 other community groups called for the inquiry after Seattle officer Ian Birk shot and killed the woodcarver, John T. Williams, in 2010.
Video from Officer Birk’s patrol car showed Williams crossing the street holding a piece of wood and a small knife, and Birk exiting the vehicle to pursue him. Off camera, Birk quickly shouted three times for Williams to drop the knife, then fired five shots. The knife was found folded at the scene, but Birk later maintained Williams had threatened him.
Birk resigned from the force but was not charged. A review board found the shooting unjustified.
Other incidents captured on surveillance or police-cruiser video include officers using an anti-Mexican epithet and stomping on a prone Latino man who was mistakenly thought to be a robbery suspect; an officer kicking a non-resisting black youth in a convenience store; and officers tackling and kicking a black man who showed up in a police evidence room to pick up belongings after he was mistakenly released from jail.
“The solution to the problems identified within the Seattle Police Department will require strong and consistent leadership along the chain of command, effective training and policies, and vigilant oversight,” said Jenny A. Durkan, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington, who joined Perez for Friday’s announcement.
Among the investigation’s specific findings:
• Seattle police officers too quickly resort to the use of impact weapons, such as batons and flashlights. When SPD officers use batons, 57 percent of the time it is either unnecessary or excessive, the investigation found.
• Seattle officers escalate situations and use unnecessary or excessive force when arresting individuals for minor offenses. This trend is pronounced in encounters with persons with mental illnesses or those under the influence of alcohol or drugs. “This is problematic because SPD estimates that 70 percent of use-of-force encounters involve these populations,” the report said.
• Multiple officers at a time use unnecessary or excessive force together against a single subject. Of the excessive use of force incidents identified by the Justice Department, 61 percent of the cases involved more than one officer.
• In any given year, a minority of officers account for a disproportionate number of use of force incidents. Over the more than two-year period reviewed, 11 officers used force 15 or more times, and 31 officers used force 10 or more times.
• In 2010, just 20 officers accounted for 18 percent of all use-of-force incidents. Yet, SPD has no effective supervisory techniques to better analyze why these officers use force more than other officers, whether their uses of force are necessary, or whether any of these officers would benefit from additional use of force training.
City Councilman Tim Burgess, head of the Public Safety Committee and a former police officer, said in a statement the findings “confirm what many, including myself, have believed for some time – our police department can do better.”
Burgess said the probe raises concerns about department management.
“Over the past 20 years or so, we have gone through repeated evaluations of police accountability,” he said. “Yet, every few years, the same issues resurface.”
He said he expected Chief John Diaz to work to fix the problem.
Sgt. Rich O’Neill, the police union president, said in a statement he hoped federal investigators would let the department study the data that led to the critical report.
“Officers are often put in very difficult and dangerous situations and all they want are clear and specific ground rules to guide them when making use of force decisions,” he said.