ACLU asks feds to probe 'excessive force' by Seattle cops

ACLU asks feds to probe 'excessive force' by Seattle cops »Play Video
SEATTLE - Dozens of civil rights groups have filed a formal request asking the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate whether the Seattle Police Department has used "unnecessary and excessive force against residents."

The request follows a series of violent incidents involving Seattle police, including the deadly shooting of a woodcarver by an officer and the videotaped kicking of a possible suspect in a robbery who was later found to be innocent.

The request, spearheaded by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, asks the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division top determine whether these actions and others by Seattle police amount to a pattern of civil rights violations.

"Over the past 18 months, the city of Seattle has witnessed a series of incidents involving Seattle police officers inflicting physical violence on city residents," says the ACLU's letter to the Justice Department.

"In at least one case, a death resulted. In each instance, the use of physical force appeared unnecessary and excessive. We believe a DOJ investigation is now warranted. The city needs help in ending this violence."

There was no immediate statement from the police department. But apparently the department will not oppose an investigation. Seattle Police Chief John Diaz said he has already contacted the Department of Justice and told them he would welcome their participation in any review of what's occurred.

Seattle City Council member Tim Burgess, chairman of the Council’s Public Safety and Education Committee, also said he would welcome a review by the Justice Department.

"I know that Chief (John) Diaz has consulted regularly with federal officials and this collaboration can only strengthen the department," Burgess said. "Our police officers should embrace this type of outside scrutiny and accountability that affirms their work and holds them to the high standards they set for themselves.


Surveillance video of the Daniel Saunders arrest.

Watch the April 17 kicking incident.

Watch the June 14 jaywalking confrontation.

Video of the October 18 arrest that prompted an officer's suspension.

According to the groups' letter, the Justice Department has the authority and tools to investigate the series of incidents, to evaluate the police department’s policies and practices and to provide technical assistance and advice.

The letter also states that a Justice Department investigation can significantly improve equality, fairness and public safety in the city of Seattle.

"All residents of Seattle deserve equal and professional treatment by police officers. These highly publicized incidents have further eroded an already strained relationship between the Seattle Police Department and parts of our community," the letter states.

Although most Seattle police officers are devoted to their mission of public safety, "disturbing incidents of excessive force" continue to occur, the civil right groups say – including assaults on individuals when they are already down, especially against people of color.

The letter cites several specific incidents that it describes as "troubling," including these:

• On June 11, 2009, Daniel Macio Saunders, an African-American man released from jail due to a bureaucratic error, went to a police evidence room to pick up his belongings. A police video shows him being tackled, kicked in the face, and sustaining blows by baton for several minutes by three uniformed officers.

• On April 17, 2010, Seattle police officers stopped a Latino man they believed might be a suspect in a robbery. Video shows an officer kicked him in the face and threatened to beat the "Mexican piss" out of him as the man lay prone on the sidewalk. Another officer stomped on his legs as still more officers looked on.

• On April 24, 2010, one of the officers involved in the stomping incident arrested a young man after a bar fight. The man was handcuffed and placed in the back of a patrol car where, he claims, the officer repeatedly choked him. The in-car video camera that should have recorded the activity in the back of the car was not activated.

• On June 14, 2010, a Seattle police officer saw several young people jaywalking near Franklin High School and confronted a teenage African-American girl. Video of the incident shows that after she put her hands on him, the officer punched the girl in the face. Four different Seattle police auditors have noted that simple jaywalking stops too often escalate into in physical confrontations, according to the ACLU letter, and they have called upon the police department to take steps to reduce such incidents.

• On Aug. 30, 2010, a Seattle officer shot and killed John T. Williams, a wood carver who belonged to a First Nations Tribe. The officer’s in-car video camera shows Williams crossing the street in the crosswalk, holding a piece of wood and his 3-inch carving knife. The officer got out of his and yelled at Williams to drop the knife, but it is unclear if Williams heard the officer since he is partially deaf. Photos released later showed that Williams' knife was closed. The officer's badge has been pulled during an investigation and inquest.

• On Oct. 18, 2010, a convenience store’s surveillance camera shows an African-American teenager entering the store, putting his hands up and waiting. An undercover Seattle police officer entered the store and kicked the youth in the groin area, causing him to fall to the ground. The plainclothes officer then kicked him several times more with blows apparently aimed at the youth’s head. A uniformed officer entered, pushed the kicking officer to the side and handcuffed the youth.

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View a copy of the letter from the ACLU and other groups to the U.S. Department of Justice »