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Originally published December 19, 2011 at 9:38 PM | Page modified December 21, 2011 at 9:36 AM

Seattle, feds to open talks on police use of force

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn struck a conciliatory tone Monday, saying the city will begin talks to forge a legally binding agreement with the Department of Justice to address findings that Seattle police officers engage in unconstitutional use of force.

Seattle Times staff reporter

quotes "If that's true, if that pans out, we need to address this," McGinn said. ... Read more
quotes McGinn and the city may be able to lie their way into an agreement, but all that does i... Read more
quotes "I know the chief's values, I know the actions he's already taken and I know his... Read more

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Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn said Monday the city will begin talks to forge a legally binding agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to address findings that Seattle police officers engage in unconstitutional use of force.

McGinn, with Seattle Police Chief John Diaz by his side, struck a more conciliatory tone than was heard Friday, when a blistering DOJ report found one in every five uses of force by Seattle officers was unconstitutional.

McGinn said the talks, to begin after the holidays, are aimed at creating clear guidelines for officers about when and how to use force.

"We've always understood that when the DOJ comes to town, at the end of that discussion you need to have a discussion about a resolution," he said.

Yet, McGinn said the city needs to understand how the Justice Department reached its conclusions, including a finding that only 44 of the Police Department's approximately 1,300 officers were responsible for a vastly disproportionate number of the use-of-force incidents.

"If that's true, if that pans out, we need to address this," McGinn said. "We're going in with a completely open mind and will go where the data leads us."

Thomas Bates, a spokesman for Jenny Durkan, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Washington, said, "We welcome an opportunity to talk about the next steps with the city and move to resolution of the findings and moving forward to address the problems that were found during our investigation."

Diaz emphasized the Police Department has cooperated with the Justice Department's 11-month review and already put in place some of the recommendations even before the report came out, including new processes to review use of force.

"We are going to continue to work collaboratively with DOJ to implement everything we need to," Diaz said. "Whether it's a signed agreement or not doesn't matter."

Until Monday, neither McGinn nor Diaz had talked about the possibility of a negotiated settlement with the Justice Department.

In an email to officers Friday, Diaz said the Police Department had "many reasons to question the validity and soundness" of the federal findings. Several officers interviewed by The Seattle Times expressed outrage at the assertion that use of force was excessive and unconstitutional in 20 percent of the cases reviewed.

Asked how negotiations would affect morale, Diaz said he met with his captains Monday. The officers will continue to be professional and stay focused on their work, he said. "We're going to continue to build the community trust," Diaz said.

McGinn said the city's negotiating team likely would include representatives of the City Council and City Attorney Pete Holmes. The mayor declined to provide specifics about what remedies would be agreed to.

He said he now wants to "drill down" on the Justice Department data. "What [citizens] will expect from the SPD is to look seriously at it, and talk seriously [about] how they're going to address issues," McGinn said.

Seattle City Councilmember Tim Burgess, chair of the public-safety committee, said he was pleased by McGinn's statements.

"If we chose to squabble over a percentage like the 20 percent, or get in a protracted debate over individual cases, we'll miss the sweeping overall message of that report. Which is, we need to head in a new direction in our city with regard to policing," Burgess said.

McGinn agreed that "getting the percentage exactly right isn't as important as knowing what the practices are that we need to change."

He said there were valid community concerns about high-profile, use-of-force incidents including the 2009 shooting of woodcarver John T. Williams and a 2010 incident involving a Seattle officer who used racially inflammatory language as he threatened to beat a prone suspect.

"The question is, were those isolated instances? My belief was, as someone who's been out in the community hearing concerns, was it's more than that," McGinn said.

The mayor said he had full faith in Diaz, despite calls from some community leaders to fire the chief.

"I know the chief's values, I know the actions he's already taken and I know his commitment to the people," McGinn said.

Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605

or jmartin@seattletimes.com

On Twitter @jmartin206.

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