Brutal legacy of Seattle police

January 5, 2012

A Justice Department investigation has revealed what its brutalized victims already know--the Seattle police think they're above the law. Johnny Mao reports.

THE MEDIA spotlight on the Seattle Police Department (SPD) grew wider and more intense on December 15 when the federal Department of Justice (DOJ) released the results of an 11-month-long civil rights investigation.

The shooting murder of John Williams in August 2010 by officer Ian Birk and subsequent public outcry spurred the federal investigation, and the results have become another firestorm for discussing serial police brutality in Seattle.

Evidence in the report, corroborated by the accounts of citizens and SPD documents, shows a "pattern or practice" in which the SPD violated the U.S. Constitution by engaging in excessive force with "deficiencies in SPD's training, policies and oversight," where "starting from the top, SPD supervisors often fail to meet their responsibility to provide oversight of the use of force" with "troubling practices that could have a disproportionate impact on minority communities."

The report also found that excessive force was enabled by "vague" use-of-force policy, "pervasive underreporting" and a lack of "true finding nor remediation" in failing to seriously punish any abuses of authority.

Seattle Police Chief John Diaz
Seattle Police Chief John Diaz (Jen Nance)

Police Chief John Diaz and Mayor Michael McGinn were caught off-guard by the announcement, and their meeting with the Feds reportedly "ended in raised voices and bitter accusations by city and police officials, upset at the Justice Department's findings," according to the Seattle Times.

In anticipation of the Justice Department announcement, police officials proposed their own review of police shootings through an independent auditor. "It is my hope that the DOJ will be as cooperative as we have been and allow the police department to examine and study the data that helped them come to their conclusions," Seattle Police Officers' Guild President Rich O'Neill said in a statement.

McGinn, Diaz and O'Neill attempted to defend themselves in public statements. "[Diaz] has implemented reforms to [SPD] training, community outreach and professional accountability, and continues to do so," said McGinn.

"I want to make this clear," Diaz told reporters after the results of the report were released. "The department is not broken."

However, Seattle NAACP President James Bible has said that the SPD needs to "clean house," echoing calls of community groups, such as El Comité Pro-Reforma Migratoria y Justicia Social, who are calling for Diaz to resign. "The Seattle-King County NAACP has been aware of the pattern of excessive force for the past 25 years," said Bible.

THIS PATTERN of excessive force is now being visited with ferocity on Seattle's Occupy movement. On November 15, the SPD attacked marchers protesting a police crackdown on Occupy Oakland--indiscriminately pepper-spraying a priest, a pregnant teenager and an 84-year-old community activist.

During protests at Terminal 18 and Terminal 5 as part of the West Coast Port Shutdown action, police met Occupy Seattle protesters with pepper spray, tear gas and flash grenades for maintaining a blockade of traffic.

However, as demonstrated in the evidence brought to light by the Justice Department report, the recent acts of police violence against Occupiers are part of a disgraceful tradition of serial police brutality committed against people of color in Seattle.

This history includes the cases of Martin Monetti Jr., Daniel Maceo Saunders, Angel Rosenthal, D'Vontaveous Hoston and Christopher Harris. The combined punishments for the police responsible for these videotaped abuses amount to one 30-day suspension, and one gross misdemeanor charge for over half a dozen police brutality cases.

In the one recent ruling of excessive assault by an officer for the petty crime of jaywalking--one of at least three incidents in which an officer has punched a jaywalker--a clerical mistake sent the disciplinary notice to the wrong officer, nullifying any possible recourse for punishment as the notice had expired after 180 days.

The most horrific act of the Seattle police in the past years was Officer Ian Birk's cold-blooded murder of Native American woodcarver John Williams. On August 30, 2010, within seconds after shouting at Williams, Birk shot Williams four times in the side and back. Despite damning evidence, Birk wasn't charged with homicide, which led the Justice Department to open a criminal investigation into the shooting.

According to the 2010 "Race and the Criminal Justice System" report cited in an article by's John Stang, across Washington state, "race appeared to be a significant factor in the greater likelihood of a non-white person going to prison or jail than a white person would for committing the same crime." This is compounded by the fact that cities such as Seattle have more people struggling to pay rent, fewer Blacks owning homes and the majority of housing too expensive for thousands of people.

These findings ran contrary to the comments of Supreme Court Justices Richard Sanders and James Johnson, who claimed that "Blacks are over-represented in prisons because they commit a greater portion of crimes than white people." However, apparently unbeknown to the justices, in 2010, a Black person in Washington was almost four times more likely than a white arrestee to be convicted of a drug crime, three times more likely to be convicted of a property crime, and 5.6 times more likely to be convicted of a violent crime.

In a world where the U.S. still sends soldiers thousands of miles away to kill in the crudest and bloodiest of forms, the evidence of immoral force used at home, however more covert, is indisputable.

As African American journalist Stacy Patton stated in the Washington Post, if the Occupy movement is to succeed in its collective goals and actions, it must take on the same fight that has been ongoing since the European conquest. This is the same fight as the fight against forced assimilation, slavery and genocide of indigenous people since the arrival of Columbus; and this is also the same fight of Huey Newton and the Black Panther Party, Anna Mae Aquash and the American Indian Movement, Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, and numerous others.

From the Justice Department to the state of Washington to the city of Seattle, the numbers have spoken and have revealed a pattern of violence deemed illegal, immoral and institutionalized. Yet the most powerful of the police still remain unconvinced.

On the other hand, Occupy Seattle has the youth, exuberance, energy, power--and most importantly, numbers--to revitalize the police brutality struggle, and every other struggle.

Jesse Hagopian, Steve Leigh and Leela Yellesetty contributed to this article.

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