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Justice Dept.: Seattle police used undue force

SEATTLE - Inadequate supervision and training has led Seattle police officers to too quickly resort to the use of weapons like batons and flashlights, and to escalate confrontations even when arresting people for minor offenses, the U.S. Justice Department said Friday.

The department launched an investigation last spring following the fatal shooting of a homeless Native American woodcarver and other reported uses of force against minority suspects. The probe was aimed at determining whether Seattle police have a "pattern or practice" of violating civil rights or discriminatory policing, and if so, what they should do to improve.

Federal investigators said they found Seattle police have engaged in excessive force that violated federal law and the Constitution.

"Our findings should serve as a foundation to reform the police department and to help restore the community's confidence in fair, just and effective law enforcement. The problems within SPD have been present for many years and will take time to fix," said Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the civil rights division.

The Department of Justice is currently conducting 20 investigations of police department across the country and the use of force is a prominent issue in most of them, Perez said.

He was optimistic about Seattle's chances of improving, based on his experience in other cities. He mentioned Los Angeles as an example of a city that had much worse policing problems than Seattle 12 years ago and has since been transformed.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and 34 other community groups called for the inquiry after a Seattle officer shot and killed the woodcarver, John T. Williams, in 2010.

Video from Officer Ian Birk's patrol car showed Williams crossing the street holding a piece of wood and a small knife, and Birk exiting the vehicle to pursue him. Off camera, Birk quickly shouted three times for Williams to drop the knife, then fired five shots. The knife was found folded at the scene, but Birk later maintained Williams had threatened him.

Birk resigned from the force but was not charged. A review board found the shooting unjustified.

A man holding a "Justice for John T. Williams" sign at Friday's news conference said he was mildly encouraged by the Justice Department's findings.

"There are certain things a lot of us have known for years, especially minorities," said Nicholas Polimenakos, who added he has been a concerned citizen of Seattle since 1983. He and another sign holder also identified themselves as members of the Occupy Seattle movement.

Other incidents captured on surveillance or police-cruiser video include officers using an anti-Mexican epithet and stomping on a prone Latino man who was mistakenly thought to be a robbery suspect; an officer kicking a non-resisting black youth in a convenience store; and officers tackling and kicking a black man who showed up in a police evidence room to pick up belongings after he was mistakenly released from jail.

There was no finding that the Seattle Police Department engaged in discriminatory policing, but federal investigators believe this area needs more research.

"The solution to the problems identified within the Seattle Police Department will require strong and consistent leadership along the chain of command, effective training and policies, and vigilant oversight," said Jenny A. Durkan, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington, who joined Perez for Friday's announcement.

Durkan emphasized that the vast majority of Seattle police officers do their jobs well and honorably. Only a fraction of Seattle officers use force more than once a year, with 789 officers using no force at all during 2010 and 44 officers out of more than a thousand using force more than five times that year.

Durkan said the issue is not whether officers use force, but whether they use it correctly and only when needed. Supervision and training are the real problems, she said, adding that Seattle police have already taken measures to make improvements in these areas.

City Councilman Tim Burgess, head of the Public Safety Committee and a former police officer, said in a statement the findings "confirm what many, including myself, have believed for some time — our police department can do better."

Burgess said the probe raises concerns about department management.

"Over the past 20 years or so, we have gone through repeated evaluations of police accountability," he said. "Yet, every few years, the same issues resurface."

He said he expected Chief John Diaz to work to fix the problem.

Sgt. Rich O'Neill, the police union president, said in a statement he hoped federal investigators would let the department study the data that led to the critical report.

"Officers are often put in very difficult and dangerous situations, and all they want are clear and specific ground rules to guide them when making use-of-force decisions," he said.