The ACLU of Washington and 34 other civil rights and community-based organizations are requesting that the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice investigate whether the Seattle Police Department has engaged in a pattern or practice of violations of civil rights by using unnecessary and excessive force against residents. A letter seeking the investigation was sent to Justice Department officials in Washington, DC and Seattle on December 2.
The letter states that “Over the past 18 months, the City of Seattle has witnessed a series of incidents involving Seattle police officers inflicting physical violence on city residents. In at least one case, a death resulted. In each instance, the use of physical force appeared unnecessary and excessive. We believe a DOJ investigation is now warranted. The City needs help in ending this violence.”
According to the group letter, “The DOJ has the authority and tools to investigate these troubling incidents; to evaluate the SPD’s policies, practices, training and supervision; and to provide technical assistance, advice and guidance to the City of Seattle.” The signers assert that a DOJ investigation can significantly improve equality, fairness, and public safety throughout Seattle. “All residents of Seattle deserve equal and professional treatment by police officers. These highly publicized incidents have further eroded an already strained relationship between the Seattle Police Department and parts of our community.”
“Most Seattle police officers are devoted to their mission of public safety. We recognize, too, that the police department has some training programs in place and has taken other steps designed to curb unwarranted use of force. However, disturbing incidents of excessive force – including assaults on individuals when they are already down – have continued, especially against people of color. These incidents are harmful and cause distrust of the police, making it harder for the Department to do its job of keeping all Seattle residents safe,” said Kathleen Taylor, executive director of the ACLU of Washington.
The ACLU and its allies are seeking an investigation under the federal Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. The Department of Justice’s website explains that the statute “prohibits law enforcement agencies from regularly violating existing constitutional protections against police misconduct, such as excessive force, false arrests, unreasonable searches or seizures, and intentional racial or ethnic discrimination.”
The letter to the DOJ cited the following incidents (see the letter for full details):
June 11, 2009: Daniel Macio Saunders, an African-American man released from jail due to a bureaucratic mistake, went to a police evidence room to pick up his belongings. A police video shows him being tackled, kicked in the face, and taking blows by baton for several minutes by three uniformed officers.
April 17, 2010: Seattle police officers stopped a Latino man they believed might be a suspect in a robbery. Video shows that while the man was lying prone on the sidewalk, an officer kicked him in the face and threatened to beat the "Mexican piss" out of him. Another officer stomped on his legs as still more officers looked on.
April 24, 2010: One of the same officers involved in the previous incident arrested a young man after a bar fight. The man was handcuffed and placed in the back of a patrol car where, he claims, the officer repeatedly choked him. Unfortunately, the in-car video camera that should have recorded the activity in the back of the car was not activated.
June 14, 2010: An SPD officer saw several young people jaywalking near Franklin High School and confronted a teenage African-American girl. Video of the incident shows that after she put her hands on him, the officer punched the girl in the face. Another incident in 2009 also started with a jaywalking stop and ended up with a lawsuit for excessive force after the teenager who was confronted by police suffered a broken nose and concussion. Four different Seattle police auditors have noted that simple jaywalking stops too often escalate into in physical confrontations, and they have called upon the SPD to take steps to reduce such incidents.
August 30, 2010: A Seattle police officer shot and killed John T. Williams, a wood carver who belonged to a First Nations Tribe. The officer’s in-car video camera shows Williams crossing the street in the crosswalk, holding a piece of wood and his 3-inch carving knife. The officer got out of his and yelled at Williams to drop the knife, but it is unclear if he heard the officer since he is partially deaf. The press has reported that the SPD Firearms Review Board made a preliminary finding that the shooting was unjustified, and an inquest is pending.
October 18, 2010: A convenience store’s surveillance camera shows an African-American teenager entering the store, putting his hands up and waiting. A non-uniformed Seattle police officer enters the store and kicks the youth hard in the groin area, causing him to fall to the ground. The plainclothes officer kicks him several times more with blows apparently aimed at the youth’s head. A uniformed officer enters, pushes the kicking officer to the side, and immediately handcuffs the unresisting youth.