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Originally published December 16, 2011 at 8:34 PM | Page modified December 16, 2011 at 10:49 PM

Civic leaders see vindication in report

"We told you so. " That was the reaction of a number of community leaders who a year ago this month asked the U.S. Department of Justice to...

Seattle Times staff reporter

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"We told you so."

That was the reaction of a number of community leaders who a year ago this month asked the U.S. Department of Justice to review the Seattle Police Department after several high-profile incidents of alleged officer misconduct.

On Friday, federal investigators released a blistering report that leaders and advocates of minority groups say confirmed what they long have maintained: Seattle police all too often use excessive force, particularly when dealing with minorities.

"This is what we've been saying for years," said Estela Ortega, executive director of El Centro de la Raza.

The Justice Department did not find that police engaged in a pattern or practice of discriminatory policing. However, of cases determined to involve unnecessary or excessive force, more than 50 percent involved minorities, the report said.

The Justice Department also found that, when Seattle police officers use force, they use it in an unconstitutional manner nearly 20 percent of the time.

Charles Johnson, a former King County Superior Court judge and chairman of a Citizen Review Panel on police accountability, said he expected the results.

"With the knowledge I have of the Police Department and the history the Department of Justice has doing investigations into wrongdoing in other jurisdictions, I'm not surprised at all," he said. "In fact, I expected it."

Johnson said the Police Department's problems with aggressive tactics, escalation and excessive force began decades ago and never were confronted fully nor resolved.

"What happens in Seattle is that there are a few officers — not the entire department — that engaged in conduct unbecoming and nothing was done to address it," he said.

There never was any punishment or accountability, Johnson said.

"Can you think of anything that's happened to any officer in the last 10 years, regardless of what they've done?" he said.

The tolerance for misbehavior spread and poisoned the culture of the organization, Johnson said.

"I don't know why they didn't address it or correct it, but they didn't and that doesn't build trust within the community and it exacerbated problems," he said.

"We've been aware of the pattern for 25 years," added James Bible, president of the Seattle-King County chapter of the NAACP.

Nevertheless, he said, the findings were a great relief.

"It helps immensely to know that there are people within the system who are willing to confirm that, yes, excessive force is used and it is wrong," Bible said. "This is a vindication of all the kids who were beaten, kicked and hit and all the mothers of children who were killed by police officers."

Harriet Walden, founder of Mothers for Police Accountability in Seattle, said the findings were a "heavy hammer" that will force the department to change.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, in a statement, said the organization was pleased to hear that "improved training, supervision and leadership are needed to end unacceptable behavior by some police officers."

Nonetheless, Ortega said she believes Police Chief John Diaz "has a commitment to his department having a good relationship within communities."

Bible disagrees.

"They need to clean house and means this particular chief, selected by this particular mayor, needs to go," he said.

Johnson said he will reserve judgment.

"I think it can be done with commitment and desire," he said of a change in the department's culture. "But whether the current administrators have that desire, I don't know."

Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983

or cclarridge@seattletimes.com

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