As Seattle police scramble to respond to the Department of Justice’s damning report on SPD—which says officers’ frequent use of excessive force has gone unchecked within the police department—one of the DOJ’s examples of alleged officer misconduct has riled police department officials.
A source tells Publicola that DOJ officials used SPD’s heavy response to an ugly domestic violence call on New Year’s Eve last year as an example of excessive force. SPD officials have taken issue with the DOJ’s take on the incident, and are now questioning whether the DOJ grasps the dynamics of day-to-day police work.
Immediately following the release of the DOJ’s report, SPD officials had said they “initially disagree with the [DOJ’s] conclusion” about the state of the department, and have been trying to pull together information and statistics about officers’ actions which might contradict the data culled by Justice Department investigators.[pullquote]While the DOJ report certainly contains details on many questionable uses of force, a particular domestic violence response criticized by the DOJ appears to be an example of why SPD is reluctant to accept DOJ’s findings as gospel.[/pullquote]
Sources tell PubliCola that the Justice Department has rebuffed SPD’s requests to take a closer look at the data on officers’ use of force used to compile its report, and police department officials have taken issue with some of the examples offered up by the DOJ of misconduct.
The DOJ’s report says officers’ use of force was evaluated by investigators based on the “totality of the circumstances” which balances an officer’s actions against the seriousness of the crime they’re stopping.
However, one example of excessive force cited by the DOJ during a tense meeting between DOJ and city and police officials have raised concerns among SPD about how the DOJ is defining excessive force. Although it isn’t detailed in the DOJ’s final report, the incident involved a horrific domestic violence case on New Year’s Eve 2010, when an angry boyfriend broke into his girlfriend’s apartment and attacked her.
According to police and court records, on New Year’s Eve, police were called to a woman’s apartment after another tenant in the building heard her screaming for help.
Police records say the woman had been in a fight with her boyfriend—who she had allowed to move into her apartment after he was released from jail for another incident, despite the fact she had filed a no-contact order against him—but he fled the apartment before officers arrived.
The woman told police she was afraid her boyfriend would come back, so when officers left she barricaded the doors and windows of her ground floor unit, and jury-rigged an alarm system, wrapping Christmas bells around the front door handle. Later that evening, her boyfriend returned to the apartment, and forced his way inside, where he grabbed the woman and began choking her.
“You bitch, you screwed up my life! I’m gonna go to prison for two years!,” he told her, according to court records.
The woman struggled with her boyfriend, knocking over a Christmas tree in her living room, where he pinned her to a couch, where he ripped her shirt open, wrapped an electrical cord around her neck, and shoved a sofa pillow over her face, court records say.
He then proceeded to unzip and remove his pants, according to court records.
Officers arrived back at the apartment, and found the man standing over his girlfriend, who was in the fetal position on the couch.
“I thought ‘this is it, this is how I’m gonna die’,” the woman later told officers. “I had flashes in my head that my kids were gonna come home and find me dead.”
Police records don’t provide many details on what officers did next—police records only note they “immediately took [the man] into custody”—but the incident was apparently cited as an example of excessive force by police, according to a source.
DOJ took issue with the fact that both the officers that responded to the domestic violence call gang-tackled the man, the source says. DOJ believed one officer tackling the man would have been sufficient.
The DOJ’s report on SPD noted that pairs or groups of officers frequently misused force, saying “When multiple officers use force against one person, it becomes more difficult for officers to reasonably defend the use of force as necessary.”
While the DOJ’s report certainly contains details on some other questionable uses of force by SPD officers—including the use of pepper spray, and knee and baton strikes on a man in a “stressed mental state,” who was yelling at traffic lights while holding a stuffed animal and an incident where officers pepper sprayed and punched a shoplifter—the domestic violence case appears to be an example of why SPD is reluctant to accept DOJ’s findings as gospel. Police believe the incident is an example of the split-second decisions officers are often faced with, rather than a clear example of excessive force.
Justice Department officials have refused to disclosure further details about how they came to their findings, both to the city and to PubliCola, and the DOJ’s report simply says investigators looked at “randomized stratified, and statistically valid sample” of SPD use of force reports between January 1, 2009 and April 4, 2011 to come to the conclusion that officers excessively used force, which included frequent misuse of police batons and flashlights.
The DOJ officials declined to comment.