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The Seattle lesson: Police abuses start at the top

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on Dec. 21, 2011 at 5:46 pm with No Comments »
December 21, 2011 2:48 pm

This editorial will appear in the Thursday print edition.

Could Seattle’s police force be that brutal? The U.S. Justice Department last week reported that many of Seattle’s officers know way too much about bashing suspects and not nearly enough about de-escalating confrontations.

A couple of numbers sum up the indictment: Justice’s Civil Rights Division concluded that Seattle police engaged in excessive force 57 percent of the time they hammered someone with their batons. Overall, the investigators decided that 20 percent of all use of force by officers was unconstitutionally excessive.

Members of the SPD are angrily challenging those shocking findings. From this distance, it’s impossible to say whether the department has been unfairly tarred by armchair experts. But there’s no doubt that Seattle police have a flair for doing outrageous things in front of video cameras.

Exhibit A is the infamous incident last year in which several officers have a Latino man on the ground and one of them is heard threatening to beat the “Mexican piss out of you, homey.” At least one officer is seen stomping the man – a robbery suspect who turned out to be an innocent bystander.

The video played around the world. As the Justice investigators noted, incidents like that don’t enhance police-community relations.

But leave the disputed numbers and the Seattle infighting aside. This investigation holds lessons for all cities and all police departments.

The investigators found a consistent pattern: The Seattle Police Department did a poor job of tracking the use of force and a poorer job of holding itself accountable.

They found that roughly a third of the city’s police had been on the job three years or less. A relative handful of its 1,300 officers accounted for way more than their share of violent encounters. A mere 20 officers were involved in 18 percent of all such incidents.

The situation called for intensive supervision, but the Justice Department found rampant laxity. Of the more than 1,200 internal reports of force the SPD handled between the beginning of 2009 and April 4, 2011, five – five! – were referred upstairs for “further review.”

Doubtful uses of force were commonly handled informally, with little serious examination, no official findings and no paper trail. When officers were questioned during formal proceedings, union representatives were sometimes allowed to coach them as they responded.

Citizens’ complaints were usually handled carelessly. The investigators found no evidence that any supervisor had ever been disciplined for failing to report an unjustified use of force.

Given the realities of human nature, it’s inevitable that some police officers will be bad actors, just as some in every other profession are bad actors. A far greater number of officers will be inexperienced and in need of guidance on when and how to use their weapons.

Let supervision, training and discipline slide, and you get abuses of power – and worse. The Seattle Police Department has been caught with its pants down on video; now it’s been publicly dissected by the Justice Department. City officials everywhere should be asking themselves if their own police departments can bear the same scrutiny.

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