Seattle Police Violence Investigated by the Justice Department

When I was working on The Hustle, I heard a litany stories about Seattle Police abuses against minorities dating from the 1950s to the present. That these accounts all came from people who lived in the Central Area and South Seattle was no surprise — in general, the average Seattlite has historically liked to look at police violence in cities such as L.A. and reassure himself that it “could never happen here.”

The YouTube era has helped put an end to that. In the last few years, we’ve seen videos of a Seattle Police officer stomping a suspect in the head and threatening to beat the “Mexican piss” out of him; an officer beating up a black teenager already in custody; and the tragic shooting of John Williams, a Native American who was walking through town carrying a small woodcarving knife when an officer stopped, pulled a gun, and killed him.

Some of these ugly incidents can be viewed here on this YouTube page.

To an outsider, it would seem that the SPD has at the least serious problems with training and accountability. But the city’s legendarily weasely politics of accommodation and denial, as well as an obfuscating police union, blocked any real investigation. As a result, the U.S. Justice Department has taken the rare and extraordinary step of opening an investigation into the SPD’s conduct.

The Seattle Times does a good job explaining how the city got to this sorry state. Hopefully, some reform and improvement will come out of the process. Of course nothing will reverse the years of harassment, beatings, and needless deaths. If anything, perhaps it will help erase the misbegotten notion still prevalent in other parts of the country that Seattle is some kind of racially progressive utopia.

The article is here. Excerpts below:

In March, [the Justice Department’s] Civil Rights Division — at the urging of the American Civil Liberties Union and 34 community groups — opened an investigation into the Police Department following a string of high-profile confrontations between officers and minority citizens in the past 17 months.

The incidents, all captured at least partially on video, included the fatal shooting one year ago of First Nations woodcarver John T. Williams; a gang detective threatening to beat the “Mexican piss” out of a Latino man; an officer repeatedly kicking a young African-American man whose hands were raised during a convenience-store arrest; and the violent rearrest of a mentally disturbed man inadvertently released from jail.

Mayor Mike McGinn and Police Chief John Diaz welcomed the probe, but Diaz at first seemed not to grasp its significance: The day it was announced, he likened it to a “free audit” — a comparison met with stony silence by the U.S. attorney in Seattle, Jenny Durkan.

Department of Justice (DOJ) spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa said such investigations are rare. With roughly 16,000 police and sheriff’s departments in the country, the DOJ has opened just four so-called “pattern or practice” investigations this year, Seattle among them. There are only 17 active cases nationwide, some stretching back several years, she said.

While the breakdowns had been years in the making, videos of the incidents brought more intense scrutiny on the department. Estela Ortega, the executive director of El Centro de la Raza, a Seattle social-justice organization, said the videos represented behavior that had occurred previously but not been caught on camera.

“From our perspective, El Centro de la Raza and other communities of color, police misconduct has been an issue for decades in our community,” Ortega said

Some of the incidents involved clear misconduct, such as the gang detective’s “Mexican piss” comment.

In other cases, including the video-recorded punch thrown by a white officer at a belligerent 17-year-old African-American girl in a jaywalking incident, it was more difficult to draw conclusions about who was at fault.

But whether officers were right or wrong, those violent images — outcomes that some in law enforcement cringingly refer to as “lawful but awful” — damaged the department’s credibility and public trust.

At a time of low crime rates and public sympathy over the October 2009 fatal shooting of Officer Timothy Brenton, the goodwill enjoyed by the department seemed to vanish overnight.

The police guild went along with virtually all of the 29 changes in its 2008 contract with the city. In exchange, officers won hefty pay raises. But the union has continued to be a dissonant voice, even after Kerlikowske left and Diaz became chief.

O’Neill, the union president, said the alleged excessive-force incidents have been blown out of proportion or didn’t involve misconduct. He believes the Justice Department won’t find a pattern of biased policing.

The investigation, O’Neill said, grew out of complaints from a small number of groups. “But that’s the way it works, the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” he said.

McGinn, Diaz and top police commanders failed to back officers when it was appropriate, O’Neill added, stressing he has been forced to fill the “void” and speak out on officers’ behalf.

The union’s newspaper, The Guardian, became a soapbox for officers to lash out at police and city leaders.

In December, Officer Steve Pomper wrote a column in which he called city leaders a “quaint socialist cabal” and disparaged mandated anti-bias training for city employees.

Pomper called the city’s 5-year-old Race and Social Justice Initiative an attack on American values and referred to its supporters as “the enemy.”

Pomper expressed contempt for a training class aimed at raising awareness of racial profiling, and asked whether officers should say “Hell no!” to the city’s attempts to “indoctrinate SPD in social justice culture.”

The training involved vignettes of police stops, with officers voting anonymously on how to proceed based on partial information. How they voted directed the unfolding incident, which showed the consequences of their choices.

Recalling the assistant chief’s wildebeests remark, some officers have ordered T-shirts depicting a wildebeest skull and the Greek phrase “Molon Labe,” which translates to “Come and take them” — the dark invitation by King Leonidas to Xerxes, the Persian conqueror, who demanded Leonidas and his 300 Spartans put down their weapons and surrender at Thermopylae in 480 B.C.


  1. Louise Hundertmark says

    Beautiful reflection on your Dad, Doug. (Luann passed it along to me). In these erly days of grief, writing is a big help. When we lost Sheila, I often referred to a book, With Pen in Hand, by Henriette Klauser, an Edmonds author. ISBN is: 0-7382-0788-8. Would be
    glad to send you my copy if you do not find it.

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