Federal criticism leads to Seattle police reforms

AP News
Posted: Mar 29, 2012 7:30 PM
Federal criticism leads to Seattle police reforms

Pre-empting a meeting with Department of Justice officials, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn on Thursday proposed a series of police reforms in response to a damning federal report that came after several high-profile incidents involving minorities.

McGinn and police Chief John Diaz outlined 20 initiatives to be implemented over 20 months that range from hiring more minority officers, training all officers on standards for use of force, developing protocol to make sure encounters don't escalate, and steps to address biased policing.

"As mayor, I will be holding police leadership accountable to achieve these changes," McGinn said at a City Hall news conference, adding that the initiatives outlined are meant to go beyond the federal concerns.

In December, the U.S. Justice Department said inadequate supervision and training had led officers to grab weapons such as batons and flashlights too quickly, intensifying confrontations _ even when arresting people for minor offenses.

The department launched an investigation following the fatal shooting of a homeless Native American woodcarver and other reported uses of force against minorities. Federal investigators determined Seattle police engaged in excessive force that violated federal law and the Constitution, but did not find discriminatory policing, but the report acknowledged that many community members believe the department does show bias.

The city is yet to agree with the DOJ on terms of reform. A meeting between the city and federal officials is scheduled for Friday.

For advocates of police reform, one area not covered by the city's comprehensive plan is whether court oversight of the police department will be used to see the changes through.

"Seattle cannot solve the longstanding problems of SPD culture and accountability without that assistance. A consent decree is critical to ensure that reforms are thoroughly implemented and are sustained for the long term," said Kathleen Taylor, executive director The American Civil Liberties Union's Washington state office.

McGinn and Diaz mostly sidestepped questions about court oversight, saying that the city will negotiate in "good faith" with the DOJ. Diaz said he's more "concerned about my community monitoring the work we're doing here."

The ACLU and other community groups called for the inquiry after a Seattle officer shot and killed the woodcarver, John T. Williams, in 2010.

Video from Officer Ian Birk's patrol car showed Williams crossing the street holding a piece of wood and a small knife, and Birk exiting the vehicle to pursue him. Off camera, Birk quickly shouted three times for Williams to drop the knife, then fired five shots. The knife was found folded at the scene, but Birk later maintained Williams had threatened him.

Birk resigned from the force but was not charged. A review board found the shooting unjustified.

Other incidents captured on surveillance or police-cruiser video include officers using an anti-Mexican epithet and stomping on a prone Latino man who was mistakenly thought to be a robbery suspect; an officer kicking a non-resisting black youth in a convenience store; and officers tackling and kicking a black man who showed up in a police evidence room to pick up belongings after he was mistakenly released from jail.

Estela Ortega _ executive director of El Centro De La Raza and a past vocal critic of the police department _ said she was encouraged that the city included many recommendaitons made by minority groups.

"The issue will be implementation," she said.

McGinn said some of his proposals would probably be met by the Seattle Police Guild, but did not elaborate. Guild president Rich O'Neill did not immediately return a phone call.

McGinn said he did not have a cost estimate for the proposed police reforms.