Will the Department of Justice Get Their Way in Seattle?

Seattle firefighters walk toward a torched Seattle Police Department vehicle.

Seattle City attorneys officially threw down the gauntlet with the Department of Justice last week, filing court documents which challenged the “reliability and trustworthiness” of a recent DOJ report on the Seattle Police.

The DOJ report, which “finds a pattern or practice of constitutional violations regarding the use of force… as well as serious concerns about biased policing,” has been offered as evidence in an ongoing court case brought by Martin Monetti Jr. against the City of Seattle.Monetti, a Latino man, had his head stomped into the pavement after being told by then-Detective Shandy Cobane that he would “beat the [expletive] Mexican piss out of you, homie.”

This is just the latest move by Mayor Mike McGinn and the Seattle Police Department in their escalating strategy of resistance to the Department of Justice, who have repeatedly called for reform of the city’s embattled police department.

A violent department and the prelude to reform:

Seattle residents – particularly those in working class and non-white communities – have called for reform of the police department  for some time, and for good reason; there have been a number of high-profile police murders in Seattle – not least of which was the shooting of unarmed Native wood-carver John T. Williams by Ian Birk, whose death sparked months of protest and outright attacks on police.

There is also the issue of routine instances of physical force used by SPD officers, which the DOJ has found to be “unconstitutional… nearly 20% of the time.” Of use of force encounters, moreover, particularly those in which impact weapons are used by police, “57% of the time it is either unnecessary or excessive.”

This, of course, is only of incidents we can statistically gather. The DOJ report also finds that in nearly half of all investigations by the SPD’s Office of Professional Accountability, officers did not include any mention or report of their having used force when, in fact, they had. It was also recently revealed that a whopping 100,000 dash cam video’s in police cruisers have disappeared during a lawsuit against the department by KOMO News.

Moreover, many residents may simply be too intimidated to take legal action against the department, as officers with the Seattle Police Officers Guild may go out of their way to intimidate citizens who dare even file complaints against the SPD.

Harry C. Bailey, in fact, (formerly a sergeant hired by Mayor Mike McGinn to improve community relations for the Police Department) made headlines for overseeing the filing of five lawsuits against citizens in 1994, accusing them of making false complaints with the department’s internal-investigations section – all 5 lawsuits were later dismissed when the guild simply abandoned them in court,  leading many to speculate “whether the lawsuits were brought to have a chilling effect on others.”

The mayor and the police recognize that there is, if only in terms of their public relations, a problem with police violence in Seattle. They may contest the methodology used by the DOJ in surveying the department’s use of force, but they are politically savvy enough to recognize that at the very least, they have to feign reform.

Not only is animosity towards police politically dangerous for McGinn and the SPD brass, but physically dangerous for officers – resistance to police have mounted in numerous communities around Seattle.

The ACLU and the Seattle Human Rights Commission have put pressure on the city to address what the ACLU called a “consistent pattern that people of color were  being targeted.”  Crowds of black clad protestors have repeatedly attacked police and police vehicles, and Seattle Police Department spokesman Jeff Kappel recently revealed that the Department has become increasingly worried about a rising number of citizens becoming openly and physically hostile towards police actions in their neighborhoods, in which residents have physically prevented the police from carrying out their work.

In response, Seattle Police introduced what they call the “20/20 plan,” a list of 20 initiatives the department wants to implement in the next 20 months in order to create “a culture in our police force of respect for the community, accountability, and service to the public.” The ploy, of course, was to convince the public that DOJ oversight was unnecessary.

The city’s resistance to federally mandated reforms is unlikely to work, however, as city leadership has been unable to meet even the basic requirement of winning over the self-appointed community leadership of organizations such as the Seattle Human Rights Commission, the ACLU or El Centro de la Raza. These groups, and several dozen others, have repeatedly been denied access to negotiations surrounding reform efforts, prompting them to refuse further cooperation with the mayor and police’s 20/20 plan, which, they note, was never legally binding to begin with.

This complete break down in the city government’s ability to handle the escalating crisis has led many to speculate that a consent decree, in which Seattle allows a federally appointed monitor to help implement recommendations made by the DOJ, is on its way in.

Captain Dave Bailey, of the Cincinnati Police Department – the man tasked with overseeing similar reforms in his city ten years ago – said of the struggle between Seattle and the DOJ: “[SPD is] going to find out what we found out.” Namely, that the reforms are inevitable.