The recent “pattern and practices” investigation by the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice is, to put it mildly, troubling.
There are 20 of these types of investigations occurring across the country. The investigation in Seattle was precipitated by a number of high-profile incidents, some shown to be justified and proper police actions, and others, like the tragic shooting death of John T. Williams, not. The evidence is clear that there are officers at SPD that should not be entrusted with the powers and duties that we as a society give them.
Precisely because they understood that these issues need to be addressed, SPD leadership, the mayor, and the city council requested help from the Department of Justice (DOJ). In fact, the DOJ investigators were clearly pleased with the high level of openness and cooperation they received from SPD and other city officials in recent months.
Unfortunately, that same openness and spirit of collaboration has not been reciprocated by the DOJ. In fact, simply asking the question of how the DOJ officials arrived at their findings, some extremely vague, has met with a stony silence.
At the press conference last week, U.S. Attorney for Western Washington Jenny Durkan said that they could not substantiate that SPD was biased in their policing but said this issue “merits further review.” She also said the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) process needs to be streamlined and accomplish more.
The OPA Director in Seattle is Kathryn Olson. She is the current president of the National Association of Civilian Oversight in Law Enforcement. Just over a year ago, the association held its national meeting here in Seattle; Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez attended and, I understand, praised our system of civilian oversight. Apparently, that system — along with the police department — is now broken.
But how broken is it?
In the press conference, Durkan said, “The vast majority of SPD officers are doing their job well and honorably.” Perez, who was back in Seattle for the press conference, said that “systems of accountability are broken.” He said we don’t know if the force that is documented is legitimate or not. But we do know that 70 percent of the incidents of use of force involved people who were mentally ill or under the influence of drugs.
No one can say that SPD is without problems. Just like every large urban police department, there will be problems. But the remedy proposed by DOJ may be even worse than the problem, in addition to being hugely costly to the taxpayer.
If the process continues to roll along, the court will appoint an independent monitor to essentially run the department for two years. These monitors are usually former judges or prosecutors and they don’t come cheap. They cost anywhere from $150 to $200 per hour. That cost, in addition to other expenses is picked up by the local taxpayer. In Los Angeles, the total bill came to around $50 million.
But this type of review does allow the local jurisdiction to challenge the DOJ’s findings in court. Doing so would allow the city to finally understand how the Justice Department came to its conclusions.
While it is unfortunate that this may be the city’s only recourse, it is necessary to take the allegations out of the court of public opinion and force an airing of all the evidence and documentation in a legal setting. This would involve testimony from the DOJ’s subject matter experts who developed the findings and any other information that would be made available in a legal discovery process.
There are encouraging signs that Mayor Mike McGinn and Police Chief John Diaz are looking into challenging the DOJ’s findings. What was first a simple question in a private meeting of how the DOJ reached its conclusions will likely see the light of day in court, thereby providing the public much needed information and accountability. At the end of the day, this process should be about accountability.
Then there is the larger issue of the disproportionate number of African-American and Latino young men in our nation’s jails. While the DOJ could not find sufficient evidence of biased policing, we know that something is seriously wrong with a society that has these kind of rates of incarceration for particular populations.
I submit that these societal problems should not be laid at the feet of the men and women in uniform but, rather, the policy makers in the other Washington who insist on fighting a drug war that has obviously failed. If the DOJ and the president really are concerned with an unfair society and criminal justice system that creates a permanent underclass in our society, they should end this useless war, legalize and regulate drugs, and use the taxes to help poor young people go to college instead of jail.
Police officers deal with tragedy every day. The societal currents that push people down are created by policies they have very little control over. The elected officials that create and sustain these unfair and destructive policies, like the drug war, expect the problems they create to be solved by the people at the bottom.
This larger issue of unjust policy making is why the mayor and the chief should push for a full and fair legal airing of the evidence and the process that produced the DOJ’s allegations before submitting to a Washington, D.C., “solution” to our problems.