Justice Department Says SPD Is “Broken”

In a blistering report released Friday morning (including details that we first reported last night), the Department of Justice blasted the Seattle Police Department for a “pattern” of excessive force, lack of oversight and inadequate training of officers, calling the department, and its accountability system, “broken.”

The report—the result of an 11-month investigation—says SPD officers used excessive force in one out of every five use of force incidents, and investigators found that officers are too quick to use nightsticks, pepper spray, and Tasers during arrests, especially when when arresting people for minor infractions.

“When officers used force, it was done in an unconstitutional and excessive manner nearly 20 percent of the time,” US Attorney Jenny Durkan said at a press conference Friday morning.

Durkan condemned SPD’s internal monitoring of use of force reports—calling it almost a rubber stamp process—saying that of the approximately 1,200 use of force reports examined by investigators, only five were ever sent back down the chain of command for further review.  Durkan also said that while the majority of SPD officers did not use force in the years examined by the DOJ, 44 of the department’s approximately 1,300 officers used force an excessive number of times, accounting for 30 percent of use of force incidents within the department.

The DOJ found the department’s internal investigation unit, the Office of Professional Accountability, improperly handled and investigated two-thirds of citizen complaints, and that officers were frequently given “supervisory intervention”—typically additional training—to avoid the “stigma” of a sustained misconduct complaint.

While the DOJ did not find conclusive evidence of discriminatory policing at SPD, Durkan says investigators saw “troubling signs…we believe merit additional review,” and that police disproportionately stopped people of color on the street in some precincts, which are not identified in the report.

While the DOJ’s report seems fairly damning, sources tell PubliCola that city officials and department brass are furious about the report, and want the DOJ to reveal more about how investigators came to their conclusions.

Publicly, however, some council members appear to be pushing the city and the department into accepting the DOJ’s findings.

“While we can spend an inordinate amount of resources refuting the criticisms and conclusions reached in the report, I do not believe that is a recommended approach,” council member Bruce Harrell said in a statement released Friday.

Another statement from council member Burgess urged the department to “embrace this informed, constructive criticism and work quickly to implement fundamental and sustainable reforms.”

“The Department of Justice findings confirm what many, including myself, have believed for some time,” Burgess said in the statement, “our police department can do better.”