A pattern of police violence

May 29, 2012

The city of Seattle is trying to evade the recommendations of a federal civil rights investigation even as evidence of brutality piles up, reports Johnny Mao.

SEATTLE MAYOR Mike McGinn and the Seattle Police Department (SPD have unveiled a plan designed to rehabilitate the image of Seattle's police force after a federal civil rights investigation last year uncovered the department's regular use of excessive force and discrimination against minority communities.

"I'm committed to a police force that protects public safety, fights crime and treats every individual with dignity and respect," McGinn said, as he unveiled SPD 20/20, complete with website and press release.

The SPD 20/20 plan picks and chooses from the reforms recommended in a Department of Justice (DOJ) report on the pattern of abuse by the SPD. The reforms--such as better training and de-escalation procedures--are intended to address the DOJ's finding that 20 percent of SPD use-of-force incidents have been unconstitutional and excessive.

The DOJ investigation collected statistical and anecdotal evidence of the routine and illegal use of excessive force against people of color, yet McGinn and the SPD have balked at even mild DOJ proposals to change training procedures and appoint an outside monitor to oversee the implementation of reforms.

A Seattle police officer during a traffic stop
A Seattle police officer during a traffic stop

Though an outside monitor is an essential element of the DOJ's proposals to ensure accountability, McGinn blasted the idea, saying it would create a "shadow mayor" and would slow down police efforts behind the scenes. The SPD also chimed in, labeling the DOJ proposal "wildly unrealistic" and "expensive," though the SPD's projection that it would cost $41 million to implement the reforms has been countered by the DOJ as "simply wrong" and "frankly absurd."

If the two sides can't agree on a plan for implementation by June, the DOJ can file suit against the city to force compliance, with the likely result of a prolonged court battle.

Other aspects of the DOJ proposal include: 1) use-of-force training; 2) data collection during civilian stops; 3) more sergeants for front-line supervision; and 4) an expansion of the city's police-review board, including a review of whether the board should report to the mayor rather than the police department.

But if the DOJ proposals add up to surface modifications that would do little to address the issue of biased and racist policing, the McGinn administration's SPD 20/20 plan is an out-and-out whitewash. The mayor asserts that the 20/20 plan represents "an unprecedented commitment to reform" by implementing 20 reforms in 20 months--while staying perfectly within the existing police budget and without the need for an outside monitor.

But Kathleen Taylor of Washington's American Civil Liberties Union wasn't impressed, describing the SPD 20/20 plan's actual contents as "too vague to serve as the roadmap for reforming our police department's practices, and it lacks teeth to ensure implementation and enforcement."

IF IT were up to McGinn, SPD 20/20 would be the perfect finale to yet another dramatic performance on the grand stage of Seattle politics.

But it's premature to let the curtain come down before addressing the fates of the many citizens of Seattle who have endured brutality at the hands of Seattle police--people such as Josh Lawson, Christopher Franklin, Martin Monetti Jr., John Williams, Daniel Maceo Saunders, Angel Rosenthal, D'Vontaveous Hoston and Christopher Harris.

In fact, the public narrative continues to unfold in the cases of Lawson, Franklin and Monetti.

In early May, for example, in response to a federal lawsuit by Monetti that includes as evidence a video showing Officer Shandy Cobane threatening to "beat the fucking Mexican piss out of you, homey," the city of Seattle has not only displayed indifference to this bigotry, but embraced the SPD's racism. In an attempt to get Monetti's lawsuit dismissed, the city argued that "the language was used in a way to control, not simply offend."

In another example, the Seattle chapter of the NAACP filed a lawsuit in April on behalf of Josh Lawson and Christopher Franklin, two young Black men stopped at gunpoint by Seattle police not once, but twice--the second time just days after they were featured in a television news report detailing their firsthand account of brutality by the SPD. These two en chose to speak out and were punished for it by the long arm of the law.

In the first instance caught on dash-cam video, the two were ridden into the pavement and kicked in the face after being stopped at gunpoint on a false accusation. En route to jail, an officer is recorded saying, "Well, you're going to jail for robbery, that's all."

Franklin then asks, "For robbery?" And the officer responds, "Yeah, I'm gonna make stuff up."

As Franklin said in the TV report, "He showed me that he has the power to do whatever he wanted that night. He has a badge, and all we can do is nothing."

Using a now familiar sleight of hand, Seattle police say the officer was only "bantering" with the pair, and that the comment was at most "inappropriate," since he never actually made up any charges.

Five days after the report aired, Franklin and Lawson were stopped again at gunpoint by more than 10 police officers, cementing the message that even if they weren't going to face prison time, they would at least face the civic penalty for the crime of "living while Black."

IN SEATTLE, the standard excuses no longer add up. Do Blacks commit more crime? Do Blacks commit more drug-related violence? A University of Washington study published in 2005 found that such false stereotypes drove discretionary decision-nmaking by the SPD.

According to the study, the SPD's "racialized conception" meant the allocation of police resources to areas less likely to experience drug activity, but more likely to lead to the arrests of Blacks instead of whites.

The study concluded that "no significant level of violence was associated with crack in Seattle...that other drugs were causing more hospitalizations...[and that] white people are simply not perceived as drug offenders by Seattle police officers."

All the more telling, a city council "listening session" at Seattle Central Community College about the budget revealed that $1 million of city money can pay for either one regular police foot patrol in a neighborhood business district (which requires four full-time officers), one year of shelter for 34 homeless families, or staffing for two community centers.

The priorities of our elected officials in Seattle are telling, as McGinn and the SPD announced most recently in late February that the city would increase police patrols in response to a recent spike in violent crime, while "hitting hot spots where violence has occurred."

Just as legalized segregation deprived Blacks of political rights, economic opportunity, social justice and human dignity decades ago, the web of laws that legalize police brutality and racial profiling today accomplish the same thing.

The racist ideology perpetuated by the 1 percent has taken on a more covert form--manifesting itself in mass incarceration and, sometimes more vividly, police terror. To challenge this brutality, it's essential to build a movement that brings together anyone who opposes oppression to win justice for Lawson, Franklin, Monetti and all the other victims of the police. Without such an effort, we are only watching the same old show.

Steve Leigh contributed to this article.

Further Reading

From the archives