Dept. of Justice launches formal investigation of Seattle cops

Dept. of Justice launches formal investigation of Seattle cops »Play Video
A file image take from video shows the scene of an arrest where a Seattle Police Detective was seen stomping on a suspect's head.
SEATTLE - The Justice Department is launching a formal civil rights investigation of the Seattle Police Department following the fatal shooting of a Native American woodcarver and other incidents of force used against minority suspects.

The wide-ranging probe will focus on "allegations of discriminatory policing and excessive use of force," Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the DOJ's Civil Rights Division, said at a Thursday morning news conference.

The investigation comes after a preliminary review of the Seattle Police Department found cause for a more thorough, formal probe.

Seattle U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan said the investigation is civil - not criminal - and will look at overall practices by the Seattle Police Department.

Perez and Durkan declined to discuss specific incidents at Thursday's news conference. But Perez said "if violations have occurred we will develop a plan to remedy them."

Department of Justice investigators will review records, observe Seattle police officers in the field and talk with community members as part of the formal probe, Perez said.

"Our goal is to follow the facts wherever the facts lead, and if we do have reasonable cause to believe there have been violations of federal law ... then we will issue that finding and work with the city in a collaborative manner to resolve them," Perez said.

Durkan added: "Our goal is not a 'gotcha' goal. The goal is to improve policing."

In a message to Seattle Police Department employees, Chief John Diaz said he views the investigation in a positive light.

"I view this as an opportunity to take advantage of an independent audit by a highly respected law enforcement entity," Diaz said in his message. "I look forward to the feedback that they will provide regarding our existing policies and procedures, and I know that any recommendations made will be based upon research, best practices and sound principles."

"This is a great police department, but even the best police department can benefit from external review if the only result is an increase in public trust," Diaz added.

Separate from the "pattern or practice" investigation of the department, the DOJ also confirmed Thursday that it is taking a look at whether Birk should be charged criminally with deliberately violating Williams' civil rights while acting under "color of law" as a police officer.

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn issued a brief statement saying the city will continue to cooperate with the Justice Department during the investigation.

"We will continue our practice of working openly with the Department of Justice on addressing the issues that they are investigating. They have our full cooperation," McGinn said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and 34 other community groups called for the inquiry after a Seattle officer shot and killed woodcarver John T. Williams after he crossed a street downtown.

Perez said a preliminary review already had been launched several months ago, before the ACLU made its request, but he added, "We read that letter and others with great interest."

ACLU of Washington spokesman Doug Honig welcomed the announcement of the formal investigation.

"We think the DOJ has a lot of experience and expertise in dealing with situations like this around the country," he said. "Our hope is that they can make recommendations that will help the city of Seattle curtail the use of excessive force in the future."

Recent incidents captured on surveillance video include officers stomping on a man and threatening to beat the "Mexican piss" out of him, an officer kicking a non-resisting black youth in a convenience store and an officer punching a 17-year-old girl during a jaywalking stop.

---

The Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Washington welcome information from the community. Comments can be submitted via e-mail toCommunity.seattle.@usdoj.gov or by calling 855-203-4479.