Originally published December 16, 2011 at 7:08 PM | Page modified December 17, 2011 at 11:00 AM

Rank and file say report unfairly targeted them

Several Seattle police officers responded angrily Friday to the U.S. Department of Justice report that found police violated the constitutional rights of citizens by using excessive force.

Seattle Times staff reporters

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Several current and former Seattle police officers responded angrily Friday to the U.S. Department of Justice report that found police violated the constitutional rights of citizens by using excessive force.

Some said they feared the findings could prompt officers to shy away from proactive police work out of fear of punishment. Others said the report failed to focus adequately on department leadership, although the DOJ concluded police leadership has not dealt adequately with the problems cited in the report.

The active-duty officers who spoke with The Times asked to withhold their names out of fear they could be punished for speaking out.

One lieutenant questioned the DOJ's finding that 20 percent of occasions when officers use force are in violation of the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.

"I don't think anyone believes it's that high," the lieutenant said. "This is a blow, but most of what I'm hearing they [DOJ] aren't right."

A detective called the findings "mind-boggling."

"You're talking about maybe 40 people who are knocking the crap out of people in a department of 1,200 officers," the detective said. "I have a hard time believing there are 40 rogue guys or gals out there gratuitously beating people and getting away with it."

The detective said officers were disappointed the DOJ didn't place more focus on department leadership. Officers have "serious questions whether leaders of the department, the top brass, are competent enough to keep people motivated," the detective said.

The detective said he believes "in the process" but expressed concern that patrol officers on the streets will have an adverse reaction to the report.

"My biggest fear is that the street cops are going to withdraw because they're afraid of doing their jobs. The city won't be as safe."

The detective said that, during 20 years on the force, dozens of citizens have offered to buy him a cup of coffee as a thank you for doing the job, but that the gestures always were refused. While admitting the department likely isn't "squeaky clean," the detective said there are serious layers of "comprehensive controls" and "rechecks" that are monitoring officers.

"I don't think anyone is getting away with anything," the detective said. "The quality of cops in Seattle is second to none."

Another officer told The Times that characterizing use-of-force problems within the department as widespread or systemic is "over the top."

"We expect some level of criticism and suggested reforms," the detective said, "[but] the characterization is very destructive to us."

Another officer said rank-and-file officers are "wondering why there was not more focus on upper leadership setting the tone and culture of the organization that allows the announced problems to fester."

"Rank and file appear very suspect of leadership and feel the DOJ focused on them and failed to address leadership issues," the officer said in an email.

A longtime detective called the report "a sham."

"This is Eric Holder's DOJ," the detective said, referring to the U.S. attorney general. "The whole thing is politically motivated."

Joseph Bouffiou, 68, who spent 41 years with Seattle police, said the report unfairly smears everyone in the department. He said the officers were good when he started and even better now.

"If the Seattle Police Department is corrupt, then the whole world is corrupt," said Bouffiou, who retired as a detective. "Do we have bad apples? Do we have a bad incident from a good guy once in awhile? Of course. But we're talking about rehashing the same handful of incidents over and over in a force of 1,200 officers."

While the report criticizes the department for not focusing more on de-escalating confrontations, Bouffiou said it paints an inaccurate depiction of a culture of violence.

"The media acts as if we're all 6-foot-5 and know karate and can shoot the gun out of a guy's hand at 300 yards," he said. "Most of us are not like that. If I hit a guy in the street, my partner wouldn't work with me. But if you get in a fight with me, yes, I'm supposed to win."

Martin Bisch, who retired last year after 32 years with the department, including several on the hostage-negotiation team, shared Bouffiou's frustration with the report.

"They said the overwhelming majority of officers were in compliance, weren't a problem," he said. "But then they said SPD officers 'routinely' did this, or 'routinely' did that. What does that mean? Ten percent? Fifty percent? Seventy-five?"

Bisch said Friday's news brought back memories of the days when he was on patrol, searching for a suspect. When he saw the suspect, the large man drained a 40-ounce bottle of beer and came at him, using the bottle as a weapon. Bisch said his backup arrived and three or four officers wrestled with the man.

"Just then some guy walks around the corner and sees that and starts yelling at us, calling us Nazis, telling us to leave the guy alone," he said. "It's an ugly situation when you have to hurt someone to get them to comply, but it's not always what it seems."

Seattle Times staff reporter Steve Miletich contributed to this report.

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294


On Twitter @SeattleSullivan.

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