Department of Justice investigation finds excessive use of force, calls Seattle Police Dept. ‘broken’

U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan and Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez presented the findings of their investigation of SPD in a press conference on Dec. 16, reprimanding the department for excessive use of force and a lack of oversight and training to deter such instances.

“We find there is reasonable cause to believe that the Seattle Police Department engages in a pattern or practice of using unnecessary and excessive force in violation of the United States Constitution,” Durkan said. “This finding includes violations committed both by the policing itself in the use of force, but also by the lack of policies and supervision.”

“There are significant deficiencies in oversight, policies and training on how to use force, when to use force and particularly, how and when to use impact weapons (such as batons and flashlights),” she said.

Durkan said the investigation included extensive reviews of incident records, SPD video footage and thousands of interviews with SPD employees and Seattle citizens.

This is in something of a contrast to the SPD's own statement regarding their use of force published on the SPD Blotter today.

Based on a statistical sample for 2010, Durkan said excessive force was used 20 percent of the time force was employed. Also:

- Officers too quickly resorted to the use of impact weapons (batons and flashlights). The Feds found 57 percent of the time batons were used excessively.

- The investigation found SPD officers “often” use excessive force when employing several officers against a single person

- “SPD sometimes escalates situations, particularly with people with mental health issues or who are affected by drugs or alcohol.

“I think it is important for people to understand the vast majority of police officers do not use force in a given year,” Durkan said.

In 2010, she said the DOJ review found 789 officers did not use force at all, 234 used force one time or less, 105 two times or less and 44 officers used force “an excessive number of times,” accounting for 30 percent of the reported use of force in the year. She did not attribute the 44 officers predominantly to a specific precinct.

“The great and honorable work done by the vast majority of police officers in the SPD is being undercut by a subset, and one of the goals we must have is to address our supervision, our training and our policies to ensure those uses of force get greater attention,” Durkan said.

Durkan cited a failure at the supervisory level when it comes to investigating reports of excessive force.

“Supervisors regularly fail to hold their officers accountable for excessive force,” she said. “Equally troubling is there is virtually no review at the supervisory level of use of force.”

In looking at 1200 use of force cases, Durkan said only five were sent back by supervisors to ask for additional information.

“It has become almost a rubber stamp process as things work up the line rather than using it as a tool to see why was an officer using force …,” she added.

“Just because an officer has to use force multiple times does not mean that force was excessive but the supervisors should be asking that question,” she said.

Durkan said the investigation did not find “that the SPD engages in a pattern and practice of discriminatory policing, but we did find … some troubling signs that we told the SPD that we believe merit additional review.”

Durkan said the majority of excessive force cases involved people of color and, in precincts with a large population of minorities there was a “disproportionate amount of street stops and other types of investigatory practices involving people of color. Standing alone, it is impossible to determine whether that indicates there is a problem of bias policing …,” she said.

Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez took to the podium next to discuss the road to reform and said, “While these finding are undeniably serious and we have discussed … a number of ways in which we think SPD is broken, we will indeed be able to fix the problem because the will is there at the highest levels of the department, the officers in this department are remarkable and their spirit is remarkable and so I have that optimism.”

“But reform takes time, it is not only about a change in policy, it is about a change in culture,” he added.

Perez mentioned a number of specific steps the DOJ will work with SPD in implementing including:

- Building community trust, “requiring transparency and engagement”

- Uncovering the root causes of problems

- Frontline supervisors need more contact with frontline officers

- The complaint investigation process “needs to be streamlined and more transparent

“To the men and women of SPD, we indeed honor the difficult work that you do day in and day out and believe that addressing the core systemic problems in SPD will in the end make your job easier, safer and more rewarding.”

“We’ve done it elsewhere, we can do it here,” Perez said, referencing problems with the Los Angles Police Department that were fixed over time. He said the issues with the SPD pale in comparison to the LAPD.

When asked by a reporter if the Justice Department will recommend the removal of SPD’s top brass, Durkan said that decision lies with Mayor Mike McGinn.

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