SEATTLE, WASHINGTON – A federal civil-rights investigation into the Seattle Police Department has found routine and widespread use of excessive force by officers, and city and police officials were told at a stormy Thursday night meeting that they must fix the problems or face a federal lawsuit, according to two sources.
The meeting, attended by Mayor Mike McGinn, Police Chief John Diaz, members of his command staff and others, ended in raised voices and bitter accusations by city and police officials, upset at the Justice Department’s findings, the sources said. One source said the language in the agency’s report, to be officially released Friday, is “astoundingly critical” of the department.
Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, who heads the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, flew to Seattle from Phoenix on Thursday and will address a 9:30 a.m. Friday news conference alongside U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan.
The sources confirmed the city will get a chance to work with the Justice Department to address the issues, or it will face a federal lawsuit that could result in fines, penalties and even the appointment of an outside special master to oversee the Police Department.
McGinn, reached Thursday night, declined to discuss the report until its official release. He disputed that the meeting was contentious.
Thomas Bates, the executive assistant U.S. attorney in Durkan’s office, confirmed the meeting but declined to characterize it or discuss the contents of the report.
Friday’s announcement comes 11 months after the Justice Department launched a preliminary review of Seattle police at the request of Durkan and others. Evidence uncovered in that review led to a full-scale civil-rights investigation, announced March 31, to examine whether Seattle police engaged in “systemic violations of the Constitution or federal law.”
The investigation focused on the use of force and allegations of biased policing against minorities.
Three weeks ago, the Justice Department issued a sharply worded letter urging the Police Department to immediately address a policy that allows officers to invoke their protections against self-incrimination in even the most routine use-of-force issues. Justice officials said the policy made prosecutions of errant officers difficult and undermined public confidence.
Last week, in response to the letter, Diaz ordered sweeping changes in how the Police Department develops standards and expectations of officers, and created new panels to monitor and oversee the use of force by police.
Diaz has invited the Department of Justice to participate in a top-down rewrite of his department’s policies and procedures.
The Department of Justice investigation is civil, not criminal. Its goal is to bring the Police Department in compliance with the Constitution and federal law if police practices are determined to be in violation. That could be done through a variety of means, ranging from a negotiated consent decree to a lawsuit.
The downtown King County Jail underwent a similar investigation in 2007 and the Justice Department required it to make significant changes in its care and treatment of inmates, under threat of a federal lawsuit.
Such investigations often take years to complete. The jail investigation lasted nearly two years.
Justice’s most recently announced findings, released Thursday and detailing widespread racial profiling by the Maricopa County, Ariz., Sheriff’s Office, took more than three years.
Perez announced the findings of the Arizona investigation via a conference call with reporters. He will announce the Seattle findings in person.
The FBI and Department of Justice investigators interviewed police officers, their commanders and citizens. Assistant Chief Jim Pugel, who was a liaison between Seattle Police and Justice, said the department turned over tens of thousands of documents.
Records show the Department of Justice also obtained dash-cam videos in connection with a number of use-of-force complaints.
The federal agency initiated its review in the wake of several highly publicized confrontations between officers and minority citizens, including the fatal shooting of First Nations woodcarver John T. Williams in August 2010 by Officer Ian Birk. The shooting was found to be unjustified and Birk resigned.
The shooting prompted a letter calling for the investigation, authored by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and endorsed by 34 community groups.
The Department of Justice has opened a criminal investigation into the Williams shooting. No charges have been filed.