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Originally published November 18, 2010 at 9:22 AM | Page modified November 18, 2010 at 10:39 PM

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Seattle officer's kicking of suspect prompts call for federal civil-rights review

The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington said it will seek a federal civil-rights investigation of the Seattle Police Department, citing a newly released video of an officer kicking an African-American teen and other "unnecessarily violent confrontations" with minorities.

Seattle Times staff reporters

Raw Video | Surveillance video of Seattle PD officer kicking suspect

The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington said it will seek a federal civil-rights investigation of the Seattle Police Department, citing a newly released video of an officer kicking an African-American teen during an arrest, and other "unnecessarily violent confrontations" with minorities.

Executive Director Kathleen Taylor said Thursday the ACLU will send a request letter next week to the U.S. Justice Department, along with documentation of the incidents.

"These repeated incidents over the last 18 months, which have continued without forceful intervention by the Seattle Police Department, the mayor, or Seattle's other elected officials, leads the ACLU to call on the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate whether there is a pattern and practice of civil-rights violations by the Seattle Police Department in violation of the Constitution and federal law," the organization said in a written statement.

U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan in Seattle was traveling Thursday and not available for comment.

A spokesman for Mayor Mike McGinn said it is the city's practice to work with the Justice Department when there are allegations of civil-rights violations.

"We welcome their participation," spokesman Aaron Pickus said.

Seattle police officials did not respond to a request for comment on the ACLU statement.

The Police Department, which has been under siege over its use of force, opened the internal investigation Wednesday into the videotaped incident in which a plainclothes officer kicked the 17-year-old boy three times during an arrest in October.

The arrest came after the assault of two other officers during an undercover drug investigation in downtown Seattle. The teen was tracked to a nearby convenience store, where he was confronted by the plainclothes officer and kicked after putting his hands in the air.

According to a post Thursday on the department's website, Chief John Diaz has directed the Office of Professional Accountability to expedite its review of the incident to determine if the internal investigation should be referred to an outside law-enforcement agency.

Video aired

Disclosure of the video, first aired on KIRO-TV news Wednesday night, comes just as the department is trying to mend community relations after the fatal shooting of a First Nations woodcarver by an officer in August unleashed a torrent of criticism.

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It also follows two other videotaped incidents, including one in which an officer threatened to beat the "Mexican piss" out of a Latino man. In the other, an African-American teen was punched by an officer during a fracas that broke out during a jaywalking stop.

Deputy Chief Clark Kimerer said Thursday the officer involved in the kicking incident has been placed on administrative assignment to home. Kimerer didn't release the officer's name, but sources identified him as James J. Lee, 42, who joined the department in 1999.

Kimerer said he has questions regarding the use of force and whether the amount of "resistance offered by the suspect" warranted the actions of the officer.

"This might be a case where the use of force was potentially excessive," Kimerer said.

Kimerer said that the Police Department is also "open to the potential and the necessity" of a criminal investigation into the officer's actions, but that no decision has been made on whether such an investigation will be launched.

Sgt. Rich O'Neill, president of the Seattle Police Officers' Guild, assailed the ACLU, saying the constant criticism of officers' actions is "getting really old."

"The downtown area at night is not a safe place. We send officers down there to deal with the criminal element," O'Neill said. "I don't care what color they are; a criminal is a criminal. This is an officer being put in a no-win situation."

O'Neill said he spoke with Lee on Thursday. He said Lee defends his actions, saying that he repeatedly ordered the youth to stop and get on the floor, but the youth ignored him.

"What you don't hear [on the video] is Lee screaming at him a half a dozen times 'Stop, police,' " O'Neill said.

A clerk at the convenience store, Joe's Mart, said he heard the officer ordering the teen several times to get down.

Lee said he kicked the youth in the upper thigh, to give him "a charley horse" that would knock him to the floor, O'Neill said. The thigh kick is a training tactic taught to officers, O'Neill added.

"This was not an innocent person who is being attacked and beaten up, this is a felon. He was downtown roving looking for victims," O'Neill said.

Justice's authority

The Justice Department, which was given broad authority in 1994 to conduct civil-rights investigations of police departments after the police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, would have to decide whether to open a preliminary inquiry to determine whether a full investigation is warranted.

If an investigation is ordered, the department conducts a top-to-bottom review of a department's operations. It then may work with a police agency to remedy problems or, if constitutional violations are uncovered, seek written settlements to ensure reforms.

As of September, the department, which has become more aggressive on civil-rights cases under the Obama administration, was investigating 17 police departments across the country, including the New Orleans Police Department at the mayor's request. It also was monitoring settlements involving four police agencies.

Kimerer said that he and other command staff members learned about the video late Wednesday afternoon. In a statement posted Wednesday night on the department's blog, the department said it had learned of the kicking incident from a local news outlet.

About a half-hour after viewing the video, the department's statement said, Kimerer and Deputy Chief Nick Metz briefed Chief Diaz, who then alerted McGinn's staff.

Kimerer said Thursday that an investigation also has been launched to find out why top commanders in the department brass weren't notified sooner about the video.

The incident occurred Oct. 18, when police were downtown conducting a narcotics buy-bust operation.

An undercover officer attempting to buy drugs was taken to a parking lot, where, according to police, he was surrounded by four people, including the 17-year-old boy. One man in the group demanded money and punched the officer.

The undercover officer and a second officer were injured and later treated at Harborview Medical Center.

The 17-year-old fled the parking lot, police said. Lee, working as a plainclothes officer, later followed him into the convenience store. The arrest and the kicks were captured on the store's surveillance camera.

In the video, the teen can be seen with his hands in the air as the officer approaches. The officer then kicks at the teen's groin area, although it is unclear if he strikes the youth.

After the teen falls to the floor, the officer kicks him in the torso and then the head before another officer pushes him away and handcuffs the teen.

The teen, who is not being named by The Seattle Times because he is a juvenile, was charged with first-degree attempted robbery. The youth has previously been convicted of resisting arrest and has a pending criminal case on a drug charge, the King County Prosecutor's Office said.

Another crisis

The incident confronts Diaz, who was named chief in August after serving as interim chief since 2009, with yet another crisis.

On Aug. 30, Seattle police Officer Ian Birk fatally shot a man who didn't respond to orders to drop a knife he was carrying. The department's Firearms Review Board later determined the shooting of John T. Williams, a First Nations woodcarver, was not justified, according to sources.

The shooting prompted the department to make major changes, shifting captains as part of a move to bolster training and assigning Metz to oversee community relations.

On June 14, an officer was videotaped punching a 17-year-old African-American girl in the face after a jaywalking incident during which the officer was shoved.

In April, an officer stomped on a Latino man prone on the sidewalk and threatened to beat the "Mexican piss" out of him as other officers watched. King County prosecutors found no basis for a felony charge against the officer, but the incident remains under review by the City Attorney's Office to determine if misdemeanor charges are warranted.

Kimerer said Thursday that officers need to be aware that video surveillance is everywhere and they "cannot give in to emotion."

"We are in the video age; nothing an officer does goes unnoticed," he said.

Seattle Times staff reporters Mike Carter and Jill Kimball and news researcher David Turim contributed to this story, which includes information from Times archives.

Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or smiletich@seattletimes.com

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