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Originally published December 3, 2010 at 8:00 AM | Page modified December 3, 2010 at 10:03 PM

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Mayor, council leader welcome federal review of SPD tactics

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and the head of the City Council's public-safety committee said Friday they would welcome a federal civil-rights investigation of the Seattle Police Department requested by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and 34 other groups.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Video courtesy of KING 5

Raw Video | Surveillance video of Seattle PD officer kicking suspect

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and the head of the City Council's public-safety committee said Friday they would welcome a federal civil-rights investigation of the Seattle Police Department requested by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and 34 other groups.

"It's the city's practice to engage with the Department of Justice when there are allegations of civil-rights violations," McGinn said in a statement released through a spokesman. "We welcome their participation."

In their request, the ACLU and other organizations assert that some Seattle police officers appear to "inflict injury out of anger" at suspects rather than to protect public safety.

"Distrust of the police by communities of color grows as a result, and it becomes harder for the Seattle Police Department to do its job of keeping all Seattle residents safe," says a six-page letter sent Thursday to the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division in Washington, D.C., and U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan in Seattle.

The letter asks the Justice Department to conduct a "pattern or practice" investigation to determine whether Seattle police have violated the civil rights of suspects, particularly minorities, during a series of violent confrontations in the past 18 months.

Justice Department spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa in Washington, D.C., said Friday the letter is under review.

City Councilmember Tim Burgess, chair of the council's public-safety committee, said in a written statement that he welcomed a federal review and said Police Chief John Diaz has regularly consulted with federal officials.

Burgess said "this collaboration can only strengthen the department" and "officers should embrace this type of outside scrutiny and accountability that affirms their work and holds them to the high standards they set for themselves."

Rich O'Neill, president of the Seattle Police Officers' Guild, reacted sharply Friday, calling the request "grandstanding" by the ACLU.

O'Neill said if the Justice Department opts to look at the department, it won't find institutional racism or civil-rights violations.

"These are incidents that are skewed and have been blown out proportion," he said, arguing that officers have used appropriate force in videotaped incidents cited in the letter to the Justice Department.

The videotaped confrontations include an officer kicking and threatening to beat the "Mexican piss" out of a prone Latino man in April; the repeated kicking of an African-American teen during an arrest inside a convenience store in October; and the pummeling of an African-American man in a police lobby in June 2009 in which officers were cleared of wrongdoing.

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Also cited is an officer's fatal shooting in August of First Nations woodcarver John T. Williams, which led to protests that the officer acted too hastily and, according to sources, a preliminary finding by the Police Department that the officer's action were unjustified.

The letter also points to jaywalking incidents that have led to physical clashes, including an officer's videotaped punching of an African-American teen in June. Four different Seattle police auditors have raised concerns about such stops, the letter notes.

Diaz has sought to quell outrage over some of the incidents, opening internal investigations, making changes to bolster training and reaching out to community groups.

But the letter asserts city leaders and the Police Department haven't adequately addressed "disturbing incidents of excessive force." It asks the Justice Department to examine why officers haven't used alternative techniques to de-escalate confrontations and "whether officers view the use of force differently" when confronting minorities.

Among those signing the letter were the Loren Miller Bar Association, a statewide organization of 300 African-American attorneys and judges, and the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness.

Nicole A. Gaines, president of the bar group, said she found the incidents to be "alarming," particularly in light of promises from McGinn and police officials to make improvements.

"At this point, we have no confidence that the Seattle Police Department or those involved in the administration of the criminal-justice system in Seattle are making this a priority to make changes," Gaines said in an interview.

Alison Eisinger, executive director of the homeless coalition, said the letter should be seen as a "genuine effort to improve our Police Department, not as an opportunity to, quote unquote, bash the police."

Other groups who signed the letter include El Centro de la Raza, the Seattle King County Branch of the NAACP, the Central Area Motivation Program, OneAmerica, Community Christian Leaders Coalition and Mothers for Police Accountability.

The ACLU had announced Nov. 18 its intent to make the request, after news reports of the convenience-store incident.

The Justice Department, which was given broad authority in 1994 to conduct civil-rights investigations of police departments in the aftermath of the police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, will decide whether to open a preliminary inquiry.

If a full investigation is ordered, the Justice Department would conduct a top-to-bottom review of Seattle police operations. It could work with the department to remedy problems or, if constitutional violations are uncovered, seek written settlements to ensure reforms.

In their letter to the Justice Department, the ACLU and other organizations say the Justice Department is well-equipped to determine whether police employees have promptly reported excessive force and fully investigated allegations of abuses, and to provide "technical assistance, advice and guidance" to the city.

"Most Seattle police officers are devoted to their mission of public safety. We recognize, too, that the police department has some training programs in place and has taken other steps designed to curb unwarranted use of force. However, disturbing incidents of excessive force have ... continued, especially against people of color," Kathleen Taylor, executive director of the ACLU of Washington, said in a written statement Friday.

Seattle Times staff reporters Mike Carter and Lynn Thompson contributed to this report, which includes information from Seattle Times archives.

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

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