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Originally published March 29, 2012 at 2:50 PM | Page modified March 30, 2012 at 4:26 PM

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Seattle mayor announces broad initiative to improve police force

The city is proposing a sweeping and ambitious package of changes in response to a scathing federal report on the Seattle Police Department after a series of high-profile incidents involving minorities.

Seattle Times staff reporter


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Armed with a newly minted package of proposed police reforms, city officials will gather Friday in a closed-door meeting with the U.S. Department of Justice to begin hashing out a new road map for law enforcement in Seattle.

At issue will be how Seattle will address a Department of Justice investigation that found police routinely use unconstitutional excessive force, uncovered disturbing, but inconclusive, evidence of biased policing, and led to a conclusion by Justice Department officials that police accountability in Seattle was "broken."

The investigation was prompted by a series of high-profile clashes between minority citizens and police, including the fatal August 2010 shooting of First Nations woodcarver John T. Williams.

In advance of the meeting, Mayor Mike McGinn and Police Chief John Diaz on Thursday rolled out a sweeping package of 20 initiatives, aimed at addressing issues from officer hiring to training to biased policing, which they promised to implement over the next 20 months.

Pledging community involvement at every step, McGinn said the proposals go "far beyond a response" to the Justice Department findings, which were issued in December in a scathing report.

He said the initiatives address the issues in the report as well as outline new ideas to target and reduce crime.

The 20 proposed initiatives are aimed at "supporting a just and effective police force," McGinn said at a City Hall news conference.

The mayor said he intends to "negotiate in good faith" with the Justice Department, but would not directly address what some sources said has been a sticking point within the administration — Justice's insistence that meaningful changes within the Police Department can only be implemented and sustained through a court-monitored consent decree, which carries the threat of litigation.

"The changes we are proposing are intended to be lasting and sustainable ... whether or not they are included in a consent decree," he said.

Overseeing implementation of the initiatives will be Assistant Chief Mike Sanford, who commands the Operations Bureau, which includes more than 600 uniformed patrol officers and their commanders.

He said the changes fall into five broad categories: protecting constitutional rights; training for Seattle's values; earning public trust; using data-driven practices; and partnering with the public.

Some directly address issues raised in the Justice Department report: reducing police escalation of low-level incidents into violent incidents; having specific guidelines for reporting the use of force; managing public demonstrations; educating officers on when and how they can stop to question or search citizens; and ensuring that front-line supervisors are doing their job.

It also calls on officers, for the first time, to sign a code of ethics.

The initiative includes some controversial proposals, such as the use of body cameras on officers under a proposed pilot project.

The mayor said some of the initiatives will cost money and will be hard to achieve in such a short time frame.

Others, he acknowledged, will likely involve negotiations with the Seattle Police Officers' Guild.

Sgt. Rich O'Neill, Guild president, was out of town Thursday and unavailable for comment.

"These initiatives reflect the values of our city," Diaz said. "The people of Seattle deserve a Police Department that is effective and just."

Many of the initiatives contain an element of community involvement, from hiring to training to setting a new policy for use of force. The plan did not contain specifics on what form that involvement will take.

McGinn's "vision for the future" of the department comes two days after members of the City Council sent the mayor a letter expressing disappointment that an effort to collaborate on police changes had failed.

While McGinn credited his meetings with the council as helpful, Councilman Bruce Harrell — who heads the committee that oversees police — said the mayor's plan was put together "without any real input from the City Council."

"One of my concerns is that this is a very top-down plan" that appears not to include much input from the rank-and-file or others. "I think we were hoping for a more holistic approach."

One high-ranking Police Department source with knowledge of the plan said it was "slapped together at the last minute."

Still, Harrell called the plan a "good template" that will involve negotiations with the Justice Department, City Council for funding and likely the union.

The Justice Department's investigation was launched at the request of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and nearly three dozen minority community groups after the fatal shooting of Williams, and other high-profile incidents with citizens.

The 41-page report said the Justice Department investigation found "deficiencies in SPD's training, policies and oversight" and that "starting from the top, SPD supervisors often fail to meet their responsibility to provide oversight of the use of force" by officers.

The report, released Dec. 16, concluded that one of every five instances of force by Seattle officers violates the Constitution's protections against illegal search and seizure.

In releasing the findings, Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, said the department's practices to assure accountability and public trust are "broken" and that the only sure fix is through court-ordered, long-term changes and an outside special monitor to oversee it.

Diaz and McGinn initially reacted to the report with skepticism. Diaz questioned the methodology used, saying he and his commanders examined the same data and did not reach the same conclusions.

However, a few days after the release of the report, McGinn ordered Diaz to immediately begin carrying out changes.

McGinn also said he would convene a public review panel to oversee the city's response to the report.

Kathleen Taylor, executive director of the ACLU of Washington, said the organization was encouraged by the proposed changes.

"We urge the city to speedily negotiate a consent decree with the DOJ that will include a monitor and court oversight," Taylor said in a news release. "Seattle cannot solve the longstanding problems of SPD culture and accountability without that assistance. A consent decree is critical to ensure that reforms are thoroughly implemented and are sustained for the long term."

Estela Ortega, executive director of El Centro de la Raza, one of the community groups that requested the Justice Department investigation, stood alongside McGinn and Diaz during Thursday's news conference. She praised them both for their willingness to work with the community.

Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or mcarter@seattletimes.com

Seattle Times staff reporters Sara Jean Green and Steve Miletich contributed to this report, which includes information from Times archives.

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