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Friday, December 16, 2011

Department of Justice Finds that Seattle Police Engage "In a Pattern or Practice of Unnecessary Force," But No Evidence of Discriminatory Policing Against Minorities

Posted by on Fri, Dec 16, 2011 at 11:52 AM

*Updated to reflect the fact that Cienna Madrid can't add worth a good goddamn.

Jenny Durkan, game face.
  • Jenny Durkan, game face.
“There is reasonable cause to believe that the Seattle Police Department engages in a pattern or practice of unnecessary force in violation of the U.S. constitution—both by the officers themselves and by the lack of policies and supervision within the department," stated Jenny Durkan, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington, at a press conference this morning to address the findings of a nine-month-long Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation of the Seattle Police Department (SPD).

On the subject of allegedly targeting minorities for their abuse, "We do not make a finding that SPD engages in a patter or practice of discriminatory policing," the DOJ report states, "but our investigation raises serious concerns on this issue."

Bluntly put: “The Seattle Police Department is broken,” said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ, while explaining that the DOJ would seek a court-order to appoint an independent monitor early next year to oversee SPD's transition to a friendlier, less aggressively baton-wieldy department. The timeline for this transition? "Not a day longer than what's necessary," says Durkan.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The DOJ identified breakdowns in all levels of SPD—training, policy, and supervision—which has led to its current excessive force problem. Specifically, Seattle police officers lack adequate training on how and when to use force, and when to de-escalate confrontations. “We found that in the cases we reviewed, when officers used force it was done in an excessive, unconstitutional manner 20 percent of the time,” Durkan says. Surprisingly, officers were found to employ unnecessary force with batons 57 percent of the time. “Officers are taught how to win fights. They are not taught how to avoid them.”

Its these fuckers over here who are the problem. (Note: Not an actual Durkan quote.)
  • "You see, it's these fuckers over here who are the problem." (Note: Not an actual Durkan quote.)
Worse, the DOJ found that supervisors aren’t doing their job monitoring incidents of force reported by officers. The report found that only 44 officers accounted for 30 percent of the total use of force incidents in 2010. And, widening the scope a bit, the DOJ investigation revealed that out of 1,230 departmental use-of-force reports—which officers are required to fill out and submit to supervisors—only FIVE were referred by supervisors for “further review" in a five-year two-year period spanning Jan 1, 2009 to April 4, 2011.

That gives SPD a 0.4 percent average for investigating their own officers for excessive force. Those are some lousy fucking odds that officers are being disciplined for excessive use of force. "It’s become almost a rubber stamp process down the line," Durkan notes.

And those odds get worse if you're a minority!

Even though the DOJ didn't confirm a pattern of discriminatory policing, it found that in "cases that we determined to be unnecessary or excessive uses of force, over 50 percent involved minorities." The DOJ's admittedly limited analysis concludes that "SPD officers may stop a disproportionate number of people of color where no offense or other police incident has occurred."

And it's accompanied by this sharp reprimand:

"SPD must ensure its officers understand that, unless they have a sufficient factual basis to detain someone, a person is free to walk away from police and free to disregard a police request to come or stay. Officers should also understand that in such circumstances, the decision to ‘walk away’ does not by itself create cause to detain.”

While the SPD is doing a somewhat lousy job policing its own, the department's Office of Professional Accountability—which investigates civilian complaints lodged against officers—isn't currently faring much better. "The OPA has become somewhat difficult to navigate," Durkan says. "There's no centralized accountability, and we found that complaints made in other branches [of government] never find their way to the OPA." Part of the problem is that the OPA sends two-thirds of civilian complaints to SPD precincts for investigation—you know, the dudes with the 0.4 percent success rate when it comes to investigating their own people. An unnamed OPA investigator acknowledges in the report that this is "appalling."

Nevertheless, the DOJ decrees the OPA structure "sound" in general—just in need of a good tune up.

The DOJ recommends that city officials meet with SPD command staff early next year to collaborate on a "blueprint for transition" for the department—one with enough bullet points to address training failures, policy failures, supervisor failures, OPA failures, and more. The DOJ would then concurrently file a complaint and accountability document against SPD in court, with the request that an independent monitor come in to oversee changes made to the department. The timeline for this process? "It won't take a day longer than necessary," says Durkan.

Despite all the criticisms, Durkan and Perez were both quick to point out how cooperative and responsive SPD has been to the investigation and their findings along the way.

"Chief Diaz has stated unequivocally his willingness to fix these problems," Perez said.

"[Command staff] did not wait to act," says Durkan. "They took steps immediately when we raised issues and have announced that they're implementing changes... These are very difficult and systemic issues to resolve, but we're very optimistic about the future of SPD and its relationship with Seattle."


Comments (34) RSS

Oldest First Unregistered On Registered On Add a comment
Great reporting, Cienna. One way DOJ can bolster its "admittedly limited analysis" is if the embedding plan comes to fruition. Having DOJ in there day to day alongside SPD officers long-term would be a terrific change agent. Fingers crossed.
Posted by gloomy gus on December 16, 2011 at 11:57 AM · Report this
Westlake, son! 2
Thank you, DOJ. Glad to see you weren't gutted entirely but the department of homeland security.

IN B 4 police apologists.
Posted by Westlake, son! on December 16, 2011 at 12:03 PM · Report this
Short form of the letter. Yes, that is a LOT of lipstick on that pig, but you ARE going to have to have some actual accountability in the Office of Police Accountability.
Posted by Mugwumpt on December 16, 2011 at 12:13 PM · Report this
Fnarf 4
I'm not quite a police apologist, but the problem seems to me to be embedded not just in our police force but in our society. Specifically, a huge portion of the abuse charges in the report involve mentally-ill and intoxicated persons. These people are thrown onto the street, and the cops are the ones who have to deal with them. They don't know how. That's a training issue, but it's also a larger issue of facing up to the fact that cops are not counselors. And, really, how do you get a mentally-ill person to come along? Bashing him with the stick is a poor choice but, in the limited arsenal the cop has at his or her disposal, what do you expect?

Because there are many, many cases of cops being perceived as too lenient on mentally-ill people, like that guy who stabbed Shannon Harps to death a few years ago -- everyone knew he was a threat, but they just stood and watched him deteriorate.

Where this really breaks the public safety into a million pieces is how this affects how the cop sees the average citizen. He or she is already predisposed for the worst. Ultimately, a career of encountering the mentally ill and intoxicated street denizens will cause other people to be abused too. Cops need better tools, but they also need better working conditions, with fewer nutjobs running around the streets.

This isn't really a problem that gets solved; rather, mitigated. One hopes they can find ways to train cops to deal with these situations better, just as they have trained them over the past couple of decades to respond differently, and more effectively, to domestic violence. But at some point, we're going to have to really address the issue of mentally ill people on the street.

Just as a small number of crazy people on the street create an inordinate amount of trouble for everyone, from cops to shelter workers and social workers, a small number of cops are clearly not meant for modern big-city police work. They need to be supervised out of the system. I hope this report moves them successfully in that direction.

Watch the pushback from the cop union, though -- it's going to be spectacular.
Posted by Fnarf on December 16, 2011 at 12:28 PM · Report this
seandr 5
@4: Fnarf, you've wandered off into the weeds.

Read this article. SPD officers are quite literally trained to beat the shit out of people using officer safety as a justification. For example, the SPD considers body slamming a woman on the ground (fracturing her cheekbone) for dispensing legal advice during an arrest to be justified use of force, despite the fact that no crime was committed and she posed no threat to anyone.

As for the police union, nobody is listening to their bluster anymore. They've got nothing.
Posted by seandr on December 16, 2011 at 12:37 PM · Report this
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icouldliveinhope 7
@6: And bears shit in the woods, but it's not part of the breaking story about the investigation.
Posted by icouldliveinhope on December 16, 2011 at 12:48 PM · Report this
Tell me Fnarf, what kind of good citizen/mentally ill ratio do we need to have on the streets before we can expect the cops to stop beating the shit out of us?
Posted by Brandon J. on December 16, 2011 at 12:50 PM · Report this
rob! 9
Seems like kind of a prolonged silence from the city at this point. Given that they knew this was coming and almost certainly had a full copy of the report prior to the U.S. Attorney's presser, shouldn't McGinn and Diaz have had a suitably sober and conciliatory response ready to go?

And I loved Joe Szilagyi's suggestions the other day for restructuring citizen oversight/internal review, but I can't find them right now. Can you put them up again on this thread, Joe, or can somebody else link his comment?
Posted by rob! on December 16, 2011 at 1:00 PM · Report this
seandr 10
@9: Wonder if they are banking on the buzz to die down given that this was released on a Friday.
Posted by seandr on December 16, 2011 at 1:06 PM · Report this
Will in Seattle 11
So, to sum up ...

SPD is out of control.

But not racist.

So, when will Council man up and put some teeth in that Police Oversight and get a new Chief?
Posted by Will in Seattle on December 16, 2011 at 1:10 PM · Report this
Will in Seattle 12
@10 hope not, the Seattle Times boards are blowing up with comments on this.
Posted by Will in Seattle on December 16, 2011 at 1:11 PM · Report this
NaFun 13
Well, if we had a lot more Community Safety Officers instead of Police that would go a long way to solving this problem. You're right, cops aren't trained nearly well enough to handle the mentally ill and chronic addicts on our streets. If we had Public Safety Officers, trained in de-escalation, non-violent conflict mediation, and counseling we'd be able to handle these folks in a much more humane manner.

Oh, and this book should be given to every new SPD hire:…

Do as Amazon says and bundle it with this:…

I specifically asked Chief Diaz about Verbal Judo training for officers at the Police Accountability forum, and his response was basically "well, we don't think it applies well to our force, and we're thinking of doing something similar in a limited pilot project at some point..." - in other words, we don't give a shit about de-escalation training for our officers.

Posted by NaFun on December 16, 2011 at 1:18 PM · Report this
only 44 officers accounted for 30 percent of the total use of force incidents in 2010."

Do they work in Wallingford or the Rainier Valley? If it's the CD, I think these poor policeman deserve a break.

I have a suggestion for all you cop haters out there: move to South Park and be sure to leave your windows open the first warm evening. Don't call the cops.
Posted by Thank you SPD! on December 16, 2011 at 1:18 PM · Report this
Funny, no one on Slog is calling for McGinn's head.
Posted by Thank you SPD! on December 16, 2011 at 1:20 PM · Report this
NaFun 16
Hey anon troll - I live in a predominantly black neighborhood in the Central District, and we regularly leave our windows open in the summer, and doors unlocked most of the time.

Whatever, it doesn't matter to you. I just wish I could block specific IP addresses from appearing in my Slog comments myself.
Posted by NaFun on December 16, 2011 at 1:23 PM · Report this
Westlake, son! 17
Some of the SPD might consider getting a job in DC at the Jefferson Memorial.
Posted by Westlake, son! on December 16, 2011 at 1:27 PM · Report this
@16 Just set registered comments to "on", and don't expand unregistered comments. I know curiosity makes you want to read them, but seriously- it's worth it not to. Anyone who's comment is worth reading also has the balls to register a username.
Posted by UNPAID COMMENTER on December 16, 2011 at 1:42 PM · Report this

On December 5, 2011 at 10:18 AM, Joe Szilagyi wrote:

1. The head of SPD should be nominated by the Mayor and approved by the City Council and should not be an officer. This person should answer directly to the Council, who would have sole authority to hire and fire this person on a contract that they have authority to terminate at any time.

2. OPA should be separate from SPD and should be the sole deciding voice in discipline. Appeals made to the City Council. OPA answers to the City Council. SPD would have no veto rights in any way in OPA business or appointments. OPA gets 100% access to all SPD records and documentation.

3. #1 and #2 should be a legal requirement in City Law so that the city can't enter into any police union contract without them. Simple and easy. If the City Council won't do it, the NAACP and local civil rights groups should do a city-level initiative to make such a thing law. If the City Council, Mayor, and SPD won't fix things, then fix things yourselves: get a law passed that the city is barred from entering into any SPD contract without these provisions.

4. The contract runs usually 2 years. Even if the city and SPD enter a new one today and this law passes tomorrow, the next 2014 negotiations would be bound up in it.

5. Once that is all set, everyone get out of the way and let the 99.9% of SPD that are good cops do their work.

I support this plan 100% and would love to help make it happen.
Posted by Phil M on December 16, 2011 at 1:45 PM · Report this
Fnarf 20
@8, most of the shit-beating-out takes place against the mentally ill and intoxicated. That's what the report says. That's not the weeds; that's trying to find a way forward. Unreasonable force is resorted to too often; that doesn't mean all force is unreasonable. “Officers are taught how to win fights. They are not taught how to avoid them” doesn't mean that the victims are fine upstanding citizens minding their own business; it means they were taken down inappropriately.

The DOJ report is damning, but it's got some powerful suggestions in it. If you're interested in taking the "SPD is just plain fucked, we're done discussing it" you don't want to hear that, but most people do. NaFun has some good things to say there.
Posted by Fnarf on December 16, 2011 at 1:47 PM · Report this
rob! 21
Thanks, @19.
Posted by rob! on December 16, 2011 at 1:56 PM · Report this
@16. You leave your windows open and doors unlocked? So did Teresa Butz.
Posted by Thank you SPD! on December 16, 2011 at 2:00 PM · Report this
NaFun 23
vile racist troll @22 - We have one of the lowest violent crime rates of any comparably-sized city in the country. Our little bubble is pretty goddamned safe, and I refuse to think it's some sort of fucking race war because of isolated attacks by the mentally ill that we can't seem to figure out how to care for in a humane way.
Posted by NaFun on December 16, 2011 at 2:27 PM · Report this
The no evidence of discriminatory policing against minorities is hard to believe and a bit of a black eye on this report-pun intended--The Alley Barnes beating in capitol hill: This started cause a friend of his threw a cigarette butt in the street and the cops tried to take the guy to the police car. A hell of a lot of white hipsters in capital hill throw cigarette butts on the street but don't have the living crap beat out of them much less get stopped for arrest. Has any white harmless white person stopped by the cops around here been referred to as "caucasian piss"?

I've noticed this attitude with too many supposedly well meaning Seattle whites that "the cops have a tough job" as if yeah a person gets beat down, but we shouldn't do anything to alleviate the institutional problems causing the brutality--particularly since we're generally not victims:). Maybe some of them will get the message with this wake up call of a report.

Posted by neo-realist on December 16, 2011 at 2:37 PM · Report this
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26 Comment Pulled (Trolling) Comment Policy
NaFun 27
It is pretty obvious that I am have about the facts of reality.
Posted by NaFun on December 16, 2011 at 2:43 PM · Report this
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Catalina Vel-DuRay 31
Oh don't mind the troll. He has a pretty dull life, just sitting there, hitting F5 over and over, hoping to find a post that he can use to list his same tired old set of odd little statistics and strange conclusions on.

And FWIW, I think Fnarf is on to something. I work downtown, right on the fringe of Pioneer Square - social service capitol of the NW - and it is amazing to me the amount of resources we put into ineffectually dealing with the mentally ill and substance abusers.

The missions, and places like the DESC, keep them alive just enough to be problems for the other citizens and law enforcement. Law enforcement who - as Fnarf points out - are not mental health professionals (indeed, they have a tendency towards mental problems themselves) deal with it in the only way they know how.

Add to that the meathead population who descend on Pioneer Square and Belltown for the nightlife, and the ordinary garden variety stupid criminal, and I can see why a cop gets warped.

I've met a lot of Seattle Police in my line of work, and I think most of them are good solid people. But when you get a group together, and they get defensive, things go sideways quickly. Especially in violent situations.

There has to be a better, more compassionate way to deal with the mentally ill and chronic substance abusers. And to work with those police officers who need psychiatric help themselves.

Posted by Catalina Vel-DuRay on December 16, 2011 at 3:50 PM · Report this
Anyone else notice how much better behaved the drunk Indians have been the past year or so downtown?
Posted by John Trouble Smith on December 16, 2011 at 5:10 PM · Report this
jimmy 33
This is just another indication that the militarization of our police forces has gotten out hand. It must be stemmed.
Posted by jimmy on December 16, 2011 at 9:03 PM · Report this
"And, widening the scope a bit, the DOJ investigation revealed that out of 1,230 departmental use-of-force reports—which officers are required to fill out and submit to supervisors—only FIVE were referred by supervisors for “further review" in a five-year period spanning Jan 1, 2009 to April 4, 2011."

Looking for a correction... a five-year period spanning from Jan 1, 2009 to April 4, 2011... Five years from incorrect dates, or just two-ish?
Posted by IAnonSucks on December 19, 2011 at 2:16 PM · Report this

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