Seattle Police: A Department in Denial

Why is the city's top cop still insisting there's not a problem?

The mayor, the police chief, and the problems they won’t admit exist.

Beset on all sides by critics and embarrassed by a record of unconstitutional and illegal practices, the Seattle Police Department is proving once again that it simply doesn’t get it. 

Last week the Department of Justice announced that what everyone from the ACLU to the NAACP to ordinary residents has been saying all along is true: The SPD regularly engages in discriminatory policing, illegal use of force, and whitewashing of its own transgressions.

The DOJ’s blistering 67-page report shows that the department is “broken,” in Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez’s words, and calls for the assignment of a federal chaperone until the SPD can prove it has cleaned up its act. Among the DOJ’s findings: Officers use “excessive” force one out of every five times they use force at all; officers routinely use race-based policing tactics; and the department’s Office of Professional Accountability almost always shows neither professionalism nor accountability, instead simply passing the buck when it comes to citizen complaints.

In response to the very public scolding, some office holders, like Seattle City Councilmember Tim Burgess, who called the report “constructive criticism,” seemed willing to work toward a better police department. SPD Chief John Diaz and Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, however, chose to go on the defensive.

Rather than address the problems that everyone with an Internet connection and a basic sense for civil liberties seems to know exist, both men have instead publicly raised doubts about the DOJ and its methods. Diaz, hours after the report was released, insisted that his department “is not broken” and sent officers the following message: “We have many reasons to question the validity and soundness of the DOJ’s conclusions. At this time, the city’s simple request is to examine the data, methods, and analyses used in support of these allegations and to reach these conclusions.” McGinn, ever the leader, simply echoed Diaz’s call for a peek behind the curtain.

Questionable incidents, meanwhile, continue to pile up.

As Seattle Weekly staff writer Nina Shapiro reported on Monday, attorney James Egan has released a new video of Seattle police officers slamming his client Miguel Oregon onto a cop car while promising to “skull-fuck” him. One officer’s explanation: He was practicing “de-escalation” tactics—a comment which would be funny if it weren’t so absurd, and which should make any sober observer curious as to what a cop might consider an “escalating” tactic.

This video alone is enough to justify strong criticism of the department for allowing the officers to escape with little punishment—which, in this case, was exactly what happened. But the unfortunate truth is that the video is merely a pebble—what, just a little skull-fucking?—compared to some of the heavier stones the SPD has been justifiably pelted with lately.

Names like Ian Birk, Shandy Cobane, and James Lee, with their respective shootings, stompings, and kickings, are just three of the most high-profile cases involving Seattle cops’ use of excessive and illegal force, almost always against minority residents. Dozens of other examples have been less high-profile—because they either weren’t captured on film, didn’t involve such colorful language, or resulted only in a bruised ego, rather than the more painful black-and-blue alternative.

The SPD’s attitude that the DOJ and other critics are simply engaging in a witch hunt, and that any problems at the department are either invented or exaggerated, mirrors the mentality of its day-to-day dealings with the public and the press. From this journalist’s perspective, no police organization in the state—indeed, in any state I’ve ever reported in—goes to greater lengths to be secretive, unhelpful, aggressively rude, and/or unprofessional.

SPD spokespeople like Mark Jamieson, Renee Witt, and Jeff Kappel—folks paid to talk to the press and provide information—routinely respond to requests with the kind of combativeness and secrecy usually seen from politicians caught in sex scandals or corporate executives found polluting rivers with industrial waste. (One short and sweet recent example: When one of our reporters told Witt that the homicide suspect she’d said was dead was very much alive, her response was to chide the reporter for his “tone” before hanging up on him.)

The department also pulls out all the stops in finding inventive new ways to deny records requests and hide information. For proof, look no further than KOMO News, which is suing the department over its refusal to make available to the public thousands of hours of police-car dash-cam videos—a feature intended to make officers more accountable.

Hundreds of great cops work at SPD. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting several of them, and can speak from experience when I say that residents absolutely appreciate seeing an officer do his job with poise and professionalism. But the fact remains that people continue to get beaten without provocation, arrested without probable cause, and robbed of accountability when those actions miraculously become known. The message has been sent. At some point, SPD needs to get it.