There’s a lot of talk about the Seattle Police Department and its inability to use force without violating the pesky “Constitution of the United States of America”. So how did we get to this point?
SPD, like nearly all law- enforcement agencies in this country, has been criticized in the past for excessive force, racial profiling and other less-than-admirable actions. Police work, by its very nature, is a magnet for scrutiny. But somewhere in the past couple of years, SPD exceeded the curve in terms of egregious violations of civil rights and liberties, prompting the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the agency, and ultimately to conclude that SPD violates the law in about one out of every five times its officers decide to use force.
Here’s a timeline of some of the incidents that helped lead the DOJ to its conclusions, and the city to its muddled response:
April 17, 2010: SPD officer Shandy Cobane assists with the arrest of a Latino suspect. During the arrest, while the man is lying face down on the ground, Cobane tells the suspect “I’m going to beat the fucking Mexican piss out of you, homey. You feel me?” Then the officer stomps on the back of his head. The incident is captured on a video that makes national news.
June 14, 2010: Seattle Police Officer Ian Walsh sees a 17-year-old black teen jaywalking. He confronts her about the petty crime and goes to grab her arm. A struggle ensues, then Walsh punches the girl in the face. The incident is captured on video, which goes viral by the end of the week.
Aug. 19, 2010: Mentally challenged teen Joey Wilson claims that SPD officers beat the crap out of him while arresting him for jaywalking. Photos of his blood-soaked face seem to confirm the ass-kicking portion of his tale.
Aug. 30, 2010: Seattle Police officer Ian Birk sees homeless Native American woodcarver John. T. Williams walking downtown with his small carving knife in his hand. Birk gets out of his car, orders Williams to drop the knife, then, about two seconds later, shoots him three times. Williams dies not long afterward.
Aug. 31, 2010: The Seattle Police Department releases an official statement that Williams had “lunged” at Ofc. Birk and ignored multiple commands to drop the knife. They also release a photo of an open, foldable knife that was carried by Williams.
Oct. 18, 2010: Officer James Lee responds to a report of an undercover “buy-bust” gone wrong, in which a pair of officers are assaulted by potential “buyers.” Lee chases down 17-year-old black teen Dvontaveous Hoston (who had nothing to do with the assault) at a Belltown convenience store. Lee charges into the store, Hoston raises his arms in a submissive motion, and Lee delivers three kicks to Hoston’s body and head once he’s on the ground.
Dec. 12, 2010: Ofc. Garth Haynes and another officer are drinking while off duty in Ballard. Haynes spots a woman grab jackets belonging to Haynes and his friend, then head outside. Haynes and his friend stop her, and soon a scuffle breaks out between the off-duty officers and some young men nearby. After police show up and have the two parties sit away from each other, one man supposedly kicks Haynes in the head, and then Haynes kicks someone else in the head. The entire affair leads to a lawsuit.
Dec. 17, 2010: Video of the John T. Williams shooting is released, showing very little time between Birk’s order to “drop the knife!” and the shots. SPD also admits that Williams never “lunged” at Birk, and that the open knife they showed the press was actually closed when it was found.
January 2011: Seattle police stop Terry Jefferson while driving in a Central District neighborhood. Police order Jefferson out of his car, but before he can comply, officers drag him out of the car and proceed to beat him bloody, then charge him with “obstruction” when the drugs they thought he had turn out to not be there. A photo of Jefferson’s blood-soaked face becomes yet another damning image of an SPD encounter with a minority.
Feb. 16, 2011: Criminal charges against Ofc. Birk are dropped. Though the shooting was found to be “unjustified” by an independent police panel, Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes says that the law prevents him from charging the woodcarver’s killer.
March 31, 2011: The U.S. Department of Justice announces a formal investigation into the “patterns” and “practices” of the Seattle Police Department. The inquiry stems from many of the same incidents shows in this blog post.
Nov. 15, 2011: During an Occupy Seattle march near Westlake Center, police surround a group of protestors and begin to shove them out of the street. Officers then use pepper spray to force protestors to move and in the process spray 84-year-old activist Dorli Rainey. Her pepper-spray-and-milk-covered face shown in a seattlepi.com photo becomes one of the iconic images of the Occupy movement.
Nov. 21, 2011: Seattle Weekly reports that despite a federal probe into its practices, SPD continues to rack up fines for things like failure to disclose records. The tally: $220,000.
Dec. 15, 2011: New video of officers detaining a Latino suspect and telling him “The badge is the only thing preventing me from skull-fucking you and dragging you down the street,” among other taunts, emerges. The officers say that the reason for using such colorful language is to “de-escalate” the situation.
Dec. 16, 2011: The Department of Justice releases the findings of its investigation into SPD’s “patterns and practices.” Among the findings are that SPD violates the constitution in one out of every five uses of force, that “discriminatory policing practices” are used on minorities, and that citizen complaints are routinely ignored.
Dec. 16, 2011: Both Mayor Mike McGinn and SPD Chief John Diaz come out swinging against the DOJ report, calling the findings “allegations” and demanding that the feds prove that the problems they point out are actually there.
Dec. 19, 2011: A video is released in response to McGinn and Diaz demanding more proof that SPD has problems. The video records two officers talking candidly at the scene where West Seattle resident Tim Nelson was struck by a semi-truck while jogging to work. The impact nearly kills Nelson, but while medics are attending to him, a dash-cam video captures SPD officers mocking the man, saying things like “Don’t jog to work, you dumb fuck.”
Dec. 21, 2011: The ACLU of Washington and 34 other civil-rights groups send a stern letter to Mayor McGinn, demanding that he stop fighting the DOJ findings and enact sweeping changed at the police department.
Dec. 21, 2011: Under pressure from all sides, Mayor McGinn and SPD Chief Diaz call a press conference and announce that they will give up their fight against the DOJ’s recommendations and will embrace the feds’ recommendations for reform.