ACLU to Seattle Police: End Unjustified Arrests

News Release: 
Saturday, November 15, 2008

Following news reports of large numbers of arrests for "contempt of cop," the ACLU has asked Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske to take action to reduce illegal arrests.

The ACLU sent a letter to Kerlikowske on March 19, outlining several recommendations for preventing unjustified arrests for obstructing a police officer, a charge that is only intended to be used to arrest bystanders who are interfering with police actions.

In practice, Seattle police too often arrest bystanders without cause. According to an investigative report by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, nearly half of the 1,090 people arrested for obstruction between 2002 and 2007 were never charged, had their cases dismissed, or were found not guilty by a jury. More disturbingly, African-Americans are eight times more likely to be arrested for obstruction than whites.

"Police work is inherently dangerous, but obstruction arrests must be based on evidence that the bystander intended to interfere with the police officer's duties," the letter stated. "Exercising one's constitutional right to observe, photograph, or record police activity in public is not, on its own, "obstruction."

The ACLU asked Kerlikowske to better train officers, including sergeants and supervising officers, on de-escalation tactics and other measures that can help reduce unnecessary arrests. The ACLU also urged the chief to adopt a department policy supporting the rights of onlookers, and to keep better track of obstruction arrests.

Finally, the ACLU urged the Seattle Police Department to adopt the recommendations of the Mayor's Police Accountability Review Panel. The panel was created to look into how Seattle police handle complaints of misconduct against officers. In its January report, the panel advocated the adoption of a zero-tolerance policy for police dishonesty, and for efforts to improve police relations with minority communities, among others.

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