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DOJ’s SPD Report: The Elephant in the Room (Hint- It’s Racism)

December 20, 2011

By now you‘ve heard that last week the Department of Justice released what is by all accounts a damning report about the Seattle Police Officers’ excessive use of force in an appalling number of incidents every year.  DOJ didn’t mince words: SPD has a long standing systemic problem when it comes to excessive force.

Oversight is a joke.  In 1200 complaints about excessive force in a year, only 5 were handled properly by the department as outlined in its own flimsy policies.  Five.

Much of the media attention has turned from the statistics outlined in the report and are now focused on those in the department and the city, specifically the mayor and police chief, and how they’ve reacted to the news, which despite claims to the contrary, have come across as less than positive. News reports citing unnamed sources say the city and the department are in denial and meetings between the DOJ, Mayor McGinn and Chief Diaz were downright nasty when it came to discussing the findings. The DOJ says SPD is broken. SPD says it isn’t.

But let’s get back to the report. The Department of Justice was tasked to determine if members of the Seattle Police Department regularly use excessive force or enforce discriminatory policing.

Big fat ‘yes’ on excessive force: at least once a week in this city, someone is being physically abused by a Seattle Police Office, in violation of their civil rights.

Yet, when it came to determining whether or not SPD practices discriminatory policing, the DOJ says in its report:

“Although we do not reach a finding of discriminatory policing, our investigation raises serious concerns about practices that could have a disparate impact on minority communities…while not conclusive, some data and citizen input suggest that inappropriate pedestrian encounters may disproportionately involve youth of color.”

The report goes on to say that limited data suggests, in certain SPD precincts, officers may be stopping a disproportionate number of people of color when there has been no offence or other police incident taking place. Translation: SPD is potentially stopping people based on skin color and not much else.

The report also says that of the case the DOJ determined to be unnecessary of excessive uses of force, over half involved people of color.

Why would the DOJ even mention SPD’s encounters with youth of color if they could find conclusively that SPD discriminates against non-white people? I posed that very question to those at the DOJ directly responsible for the report. U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan told me the incomplete data from SPD prevented the DOJ from handing down a finding of discriminatory policing.

Yet she also said the DOJ heard loud and clear from communities who believe it exists.  “Perception is reality,” she told me. She also said SPD needs to clean up its data and tracking, so that incidents between police and people of color can be scrutinized more thoroughly when it comes to race, gender, and so on. Durkan is confident SPD can do this in a way that is appropriate and responsible.   Translation: the DOJ believes SPD practices discriminatory policing, but they couldn’t say that because SPD’s own data is sloppy.

When asked if Chief Diaz needs to be fired in order for authentic changes to be made the way the department polices, the DOJ punted to the mayor’s office, saying it wasn’t their place to make that determination.

The problem is Mayor McGinn is woefully inexperienced when it comes to matters of public safety. Countless stakeholders appealed to the mayor to not appoint Diaz as chief a year and a half ago, but rather than restart the national search process after the most qualified candidates withdrew themselves from consideration, McGinn tapped Diaz who was serving as interim chief at the time. Many say McGinn bent to the wishes of the police union, which was a mistake.

Now the mayor sits on the fence about the DOJ’s report, referring to the findings as mere “allegations” while Diaz openly refutes the report, saying an internal department review of the same data came up with different findings.

That doesn’t bode well for change.

What the mayor fails to understand is that in communities like South Seattle, abusive policing is not a revelation, it’s a reality. It’s why for example, so many youth are afraid to walk the streets in their own neighborhood, or stand at a metro bus stop, or stay out past dark with their friends; they aren’t worrying about a stray bullet from some gang banger, they’re worried about getting snatched up by power-hungry police out to prove their authority. Racism and discrimination happen every day in this city, in public safety and every level of government.  It happens under layers of political correctness, or out of sight, and it happens to those who have no power to stop it.

With Chief Diaz floating happily down the “river of denial,” resisting the facts of the report and thus reforms, the buck stops with the mayor.

This will be one of the defining moments of his leadership, and for the city of Seattle. Will the mayor demand reform, no matter who he upsets, or will he side with the chief, leaving people of color in Seattle to be brutalized by its police department?

What will it be, Mr. Mayor?

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