Seattle police plan major changes in oversight of use of force
Addressing concerns raised by the U.S. Department of Justice, Seattle Police Chief John Diaz has ordered a "complete revamp" of how the Police Department develops its "professional standards and expectations" and created two new panels to oversee the use of force.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Addressing concerns raised by the U.S. Department of Justice, Seattle Police Chief John Diaz has ordered a "complete revamp" of how the Police Department develops its "professional standards and expectations" for officers and has created two new panels to oversee the use of force.
The Police Department also is conducting a "top-to-bottom review and rewrite" of its policies and procedures and invited the Justice Department to assist in that effort, Mayor Mike McGinn revealed in a letter sent to federal attorneys Tuesday.
The sweeping moves, which come eight months after the Justice Department launched a civil-rights investigation into allegations that Seattle police have used excessive force and engaged in biased policing against minorities, appears to be a pre-emptive strike in anticipation of federal findings.
The Justice Department could issue a report by the end of the month, according to a law-enforcement source with knowledge of the review, although such investigations usually take more than a year.
Thomas Bates, the executive assistant U.S. attorney in Seattle, said the Justice Department is reviewing the letter sent to Jonathan Smith, chief of the department's Special Litigation Section, and Jenny Durkan, U.S. attorney for Western Washington. Beyond that, Bates declined to comment.
McGinn's letter responded to concerns raised by the Justice Department regarding a Police Department policy that prevents use-of-force statements written by officers from being used in criminal cases. In a Nov. 23 letter to McGinn, federal attorneys said the policy is overbroad and undermines public confidence.
McGinn informed the Justice Department that the policy is under review while the city engages in a "more comprehensive approach to moving SPD forward and increasing public trust."
Included is the establishment of a "Force Review Board" and a "Force Investigative Team" within the department, although no details were provided on the scope of their duties. The department already has a Firearms Review Board that determines whether shootings by officers are justified.
In meetings over the past several months, Justice Department officials have noted what they believe is a lack of scrutiny over the use of force, particularly as officers' statements move up the chain of command, according to the law-enforcement source.
McGinn's letter seems to address that issue, saying the revisions include training on the use of force for supervisors and commanders. He also wrote that patrol-car video will be included in use-of-force investigations.
McGinn said the creation of the two panels and the other steps were made in response to "positive and constructive recommendations" the city already has received from Justice Department staff and consultants.
He said the city believes "the vast majority can be implemented within the next year."
The Professional Standards Section will be the "tip of the spear" in rewriting the Police Department's manual, Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, the department's chief spokesman, said Tuesday. The group already has been operating as the department's audit and accreditation unit but will be given more "horsepower," Whitcomb said.
Staffed with a captain and two supervisors with law degrees, the eight-member unit will be responsible for research on standards and best practices, internal audits and inspections, and managing strategic initiatives, including the Justice Department investigation, McGinn said in his letter.
"The Section will be forming a Police Practices Research Consortium with leading academic institutions, and will collaborate with other agencies to bring the best thinking to bear on our police standards," the mayor wrote.
As part of the Justice Department investigation, federal attorneys have reviewed the Police Department's policy involving so-called "Garrity" protections, named after a 1967 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that held that officers cannot be compelled to incriminate themselves under threat of losing their jobs. It allows officers, in narrow circumstances, to provide a "true and involuntary" statement that can't be used against them in a criminal case.
The Justice Department's Nov. 23 letter said the Police Department has improperly institutionalized the protection, requiring officers to invoke Garrity in almost every instance where force is used. As a result, officers' statements can't be reviewed by criminal investigators, making it difficult to determine whether a crime may have been committed, and making it even harder to prosecute if one has, the letter said.
The statements can be used for disciplinary purposes in internal investigations.
McGinn, in his letter, said the Professional Standards Section, in consultation with the mayor's office, the city attorney and senior police command staff, is reviewing the Justice Department concerns.
He noted the Garrity policy has been in place for many years and that adopting new practices has implications for internal investigations and potential criminal investigations.
"We are giving these matters careful consideration, and will be in close contact with you regarding next steps," wrote McGinn, who previously has said changing the policy most likely would include negotiations with the Seattle Police Officers' Guild.
In a separate letter sent last week to federal attorneys and released Tuesday, City Attorney Pete Holmes disputed a portion of the Justice Department's Nov. 23 letter that suggested the Garrity policy had jeopardized the prosecution of Seattle Officer James J. Lee on a charge of assaulting a teenage suspect.
Holmes said the policy had no bearing on the dismissal of the charge Nov. 30, which occurred after the city's expert witness changed his position on Lee's action.
Seattle Times staff reporter Mike Carter contributed to this report, which includes information from Times archives.
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