Justice Dept. weighs probe of Seattle police killings

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SEATTLE - The U.S. Department of Justice has launched a preliminary probe of the Seattle Police Department to determine whether a full-fledged investigation is needed into brutality and unjustified use of lethal force by police officers, especially against African Americans, Latinos, Native American Indians and other people of color.

The probe comes in response to a request sent to the Justice Department by 34 organizations, including the NAACP, El Centro de la Raza and Mothers for Police Accountability. The request was also endorsed by two former U.S. attorneys in Seattle who have filed a lawsuit on behalf of a Latino youth threatened by a police officer with his sidearm drawn.

The issue became front-page news during an inquest into SPD officer Ian Birk's shooting of First Nation woodcarver John T. Williams, last Aug. 30. Birk claimed he fired in self defense, striking Williams four times, killing the revered woodcarver who was holding a folded jack-knife with a three-inch blade, the tool of his trade. The inquest found that the bullets struck Williams in the back as he was crossing the street in downtown Seattle, disproving Birk's claim that the Native American Indian was advancing toward him aggressively.

A video shown at the inquest proved that Birk opened fire four seconds after he had ordered Williams, who was partially deaf, to drop the jack-knife. Several witnesses testified that officer Birk was the aggressor, not Williams.

The jury returned a split verdict, but the finding by four jurors that Birk's use of lethal force was unjustified is virtually unprecedented.

It threw a hot potato to the King County prosecutor who must now decide whether to charge Birk with murder, manslaughter, or aggravated assault.

Gyasi Ross, a Seattle lawyer, a member of the Blackfeet Nation, and a former Seattle Public defender, hailed the outcome as "a victory for transparency in government, for people who feel bullied by public servants."  Writing on the op-ed page of the Seattle Times, Gyasi thanked the four jurors who "saw through the smokescreen that Birk's attorney, Ted Buck, concocted."

Yet Gyasi expressed strong skepticism that the prosecutor will put Birk on trial given the "lenient laws that protect police officers from criminal prosecution" when the officer pleads "self defense." He too called for a full investigation by the U.S. Justice Department as the only way to root out a culture of racist violence in the SPD.

The SPD was caught in a cover-up when the Seattle Times forced disclosure of an email that Seattle City Councilman, Tim Burgess, sent to SPD Chief John Diaz, urging that an outside agency be brought in to investigate the shooting of Williams. Burgess, a former SPD officer, who chairs the Public Safety and Education Committee, sent the email two days after Williams was slain last Aug.

"I want to encourage you to take specific actions that will dispel a further erosion of the public's confidence in our officers," Burgess wrote.

The SPD did not include Burgess' email in 75 pages of documents released in response to a Seattle Times request last Sept. 8 under the State Public Disclosure Act. Instead, the Times obtained the email in a request to the City Council.

The media in the Pacific Northwest is saturated with reports of harassment, beatings and killings by law enforcement officers.  In one notorious videotaped incident, police knocked a Latino youth to the ground and kicked him repeatedly while an officer is heard snarling that he will "beat the Mexican piss" out of him. In another case, a police officer slugged a teenage girl in the jaw for not showing proper respect.

The King County Sherriff's Department reached a $10 million settlement Jan. 25 of a two-year old lawsuit by the family of Christopher Sean Harris who suffered permanent brain trauma when Deputy Matthew Paul slammed him headfirst into a wall. Officer Paul's vicious act was recorded by a surveillance camera.

Then there is the case of Donald Morehead who was standing on a street corner in mid-Jan. 2009 selling copies of "Real Change," a local newsweekly, when a police officer grabbed him and slammed him into the side of a cruiser, smashing out Morehead's front teeth. The officer then arrested Morehead on unspecified charges, confiscating $20 in Morehead's pocket claiming it was "drug money." Morehead spent 16 days in jail before staff members of the paper scraped together the bail to get him released.

Penetration of the SPD by rightwing extremists was exposed with leaking of "The Guardian," a newsletter circulated exclusively among SPD officers. Seattle elected officials are described as "a quaint socialist cabal."

Writes one SPD officer, "A liberal after my money in taxes may be my opponent but a socialist attacking the Constitution and my liberty is my enemy."

Image: Joe Mabel // CC BY-SA 2.0

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