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Originally published May 24, 2011 at 8:00 PM | Page modified May 24, 2011 at 8:12 PM

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Three Seattle police officers suspended over use of 'gutter language'

In another sign that he expects professional behavior, Seattle Police Chief John Diaz has imposed harsh suspensions on three East Precinct officers over their use of "gutter language" during a traffic stop of two suspected gang members last year, according to records disclosed Tuesday.

Seattle Times staff reporter

quotes It's amazing that so many of the fools commenting here equate professionalism with... Read more
quotes At first I thought this was ridiculous, but then I thought about it. What jobs... Read more
quotes Just because the "gang members speak with profanity" does not mean our police... Read more

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In another sign that he expects professional behavior, Seattle Police Chief John Diaz has imposed harsh suspensions on three East Precinct officers over their use of "gutter language" during a traffic stop of two suspected gang members last year, according to records disclosed Tuesday.

The chief's discipline — 20 days off without pay for two of the officers and 15 for the other — drew a tempered response from Sgt. Rich O'Neill, president of the Seattle Police Officers' Guild, who said that though the suspensions might be too severe the officers should not have used the language.

"The chief has said he is not tolerating profanity," he said Tuesday, and is trying to "send a message" that such language is unacceptable unless there is a good reason.

The officers have filed appeals through an arbitration process, but only to reduce discipline that was tantamount to "life in prison for shoplifting" and not to overturn it, O'Neill said.

O'Neill's remarks represent a continuing shift from combative words he has exchanged with city officials over a series of high-profile incidents that prompted the U.S. Department of Justice to open an investigation in March into the police department's use of force and treatment of minorities.

Amid the scrutiny, Diaz has said that he expects his officers to act professionally in every contact with citizens — an expectation that apparently played a significant role in his decision, after an internal investigation, to suspend the three officers last month for using "demeaning" and "very unprofessional" language.

The department released records on the case Tuesday in response to a public-disclosure request.

Diaz and a department spokesman declined to comment because of the pending appeals.

The traffic stop occurred on March 11, 2010, but a complaint by a public-defender agency wasn't filed until five months later.

A verbal exchange between the officers and two men was captured on patrol-car video, although the video was not released on the grounds that it was still the subject of legal proceedings.

The three officers — Corey Williams, 30; Brett Schoenberg, 26; and Casey Steiger, 27 — confronted the men during a reckless-driving stop. A fourth officer was also involved but wasn't disciplined because he didn't use the same harsh language.

The driver, who was arrested, and the passenger, who was released, were identified by police as MS-13 gang members, under supervision by the state Department of Corrections.

During the stop, the two men used profanity while talking of hurting and fighting with the officers, saying they deserved to be killed, according to the records.

In their statements to internal investigators, Williams, Schoenberg and Steiger defended their decision to use strong words as a means to get the attention of the men and avoid using force.

But the language was found to be unacceptable by Lt. Mark Kuehn of the department's Office of Professional Accountability.

In his findings, Kuehn wrote that even though the language was "addressed to profanity-using gang members," the officers' phrases "lacked professionalism and served no useful purpose — contrary to the officers' assertions that they assisted in de-escalating the situation." He deemed the officers' words "gutter language."

"Police officers are held to a higher standard than the general public and gang members," Kuehn wrote in an April 7 memorandum. "It seems professional officers should be able to accomplish their mission and make their point in most situations without resorting to gutter language and without lowering themselves to another's level."

Steiger drew a shorter suspension because his profanity was deemed to be less prolific. All three officers have served their suspensions.

O'Neill, the union president, said while the officers' language was somewhat understandable — "It was not like they were talking to grandma at the bus stop" — they should not have used it.

Diaz has made it known profanity should be used only for a tactical need to gain compliance, O'Neill said. But O'Neill believes the discipline will be reduced on appeal.

O'Neill's comments follow his conciliatory tone after Diaz's recent decision to suspend for 30 days, but not fire, Officer Shandy Cobane for threatening to beat the "Mexican piss" out of a Latino man during a robbery investigation last year.

In that case, O'Neill accepted Diaz's edict that officers would face firing in the future for using racially and ethnically offensive language.

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

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