Department of Justice to Seattle Police: Quit Stalling; Stop Thugging

Rash of Emerald City beatdowns triggers federal push to clean house.

Seattle police crack down on May Day Occupy protesters
The U.S. Justice Department found Seattle Police use illegal force 20 percent of the time. (Photo credit: Anthony Bolante/Reuters)
Matt Fleischer was awarded a Fund for Investigative Journalism grant for his series “Dangerous Jails.”

On the night of April 17, 2010, Seattle resident Martin Monetti, Jr. was hanging out near a Chinese restaurant in his neighborhood when he was detained by Seattle Police Department officers looking for an armed robbery suspect. Monetti was innocent, and told the officers so.

The situation spiraled out of control. Officers threw Monetti to the ground and stomped on his head and hands. Shortly before the beating, one cop told Monetti: “I am going to kick the f*&%ing Mexican piss out of you, homey. You feel me?”

The incident was captured on videotape. Armed with that evidence, Montetti took a step that many victims of police abuse shy away from: He sued in federal court.

MORE: Do Cops Need Tanks and M-16s to Protect and Serve?

Monetti’s lawsuit caught the attention of the U.S. Justice Department, which began investigating the Seattle Police Department for racial discrimination and excessive force.

The Justice Department analyzed SPD force statistics over a roughly two-year period, from January 1, 2009, to April 4, 2011. Investigators came back months later with a report that “finds a pattern or practice of constitutional violations regarding the use of force…as well as serious concerns about biased policing.”

Here is a taste of the Department of Justice findings:

  • 20 percent of all uses of force by SPD were unconstitutional.
  • 57 percent of SPD baton strikes were deemed either unnecessary or excessive.
  • SPD has a habit of punishing minor criminals with extreme force. 70 percent of all force incidents involved the mentally ill or the intoxicated.
  • Supervisors aren’t taking force use seriously. Of 1,230 force reports analyzed, SPD supervisors submitted only five for “further review.”

The Justice Department called for prompt reform from the SPD and Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn. So what did the city do?

Nothing. Quite literally, nothing.

Though McGinn did make a public announcement this past March that Seattle would launch a “20 initiatives in 20 months” effort to reform SPD, by its own estimates, the city has achieved “0% progress” on the initiative.

The Justice Department has lost all patience. Last week it announced that SPD had until July 31 to make meaningful progress, or it will be sued—and possibly taken over—by the feds.

Seattle police are not alone in their recalcitrance to meaningful reform. In Los Angeles, the ACLU has been documenting the horrific abuses of inmates by Los Angeles Sheriff’s deputies in the county jail system since the ’70s. The ACLU secured a federal consent decree to monitor the jails in 1985. And yet, the cited abuses have been allowed to continue in systematic fashion to this day.

During the Occupy protests of last fall, America saw police department after police department engage in excessive force against peaceful protesters. One infamous example was that of Lieutenant John Pike, the UC Davis policeman who pepper-sprayed the eyes and faces of a line of tranquil students as if he were painting a fence.

A report commissioned to investigate the UC Davis incident found that “Lt. Pike Bears Primary Responsibility for the Objectively Unreasonable Decision to Use Pepper Spray on the Students Sitting in a Line and for the Manner in Which the Pepper Spray Was Used.”

Pike is still working as a UC Davis cop.

Minority communities in America have been complaining of similar treatment from police, without recourse, for decades.

There is hope: LAPD, once the poster child for excessive police force, has been under federal consent decree since the infamous 1993 Rampart scandal. Today, the force is often held up as a model of community policing. Federal oversight, intensive media scrutiny and fearful politicians eventually demanded and secured reform.

Here’s hoping the feds continue to be tough on rogue departments—don’t expect the culture of these institutions to change unless forced to. 

Do you trust the federal government to reform local police forces? Do local police forces even need reform? Leave your thoughts in COMMENTS.

Comments ()