Monday, June 11, 2012

SPD and city attorney need an attitude adjustment about police abuses

A Seattle Times report may have won a Pulitzer Price this past year, but that doesn’t mean that the newspaper is not becoming increasingly irrelevant in an age where information can be had at the touch of a key stroke. That is not to say that all of the information out there in cyberspace is reliable; most of it is just opinion on the available data. But the least you can do is ask the right questions based on that data (that is why the Trayvon Martin case frustrates me so much, as does the Daniel Adkins story, though for different reasons). This past Sunday, the Times editorial board tried to throw cold water on the return of the NBA to the city by making ludicrous, unfounded claims about “finite entertainment dollars” and refusing to accept the answers to questions about financial terms and traffic. But last week, the Times reached for a new low by running a front page story about how “the city” was “hitting back” on the Department of Justice’s report on abuses by the Seattle Police Department.

Frankly, the mayor, the city council, the city attorney and the SPD should speak for themselves. The SPD has been accused of excessive force and abuses of power for a long, long time with no measurable change; its “handling” of civil rights activists in the 1960s indicated a lesson or two learned from the likes of Bull Connor. Mayor Mike McGuinn is telling the DOJ “We don’t need your help,” but to do what? Make some half-assed promises of accountability that we’ve been hearing for years that have come to nothing? If there is any ossified culture in this world, it is police “culture.”

The current angst of the police also has an anti-civil rights flavor; the city attorney, who apparently has more interest in covering-up unconstitutional abuses by the police rather than protecting the rights of the people, is attempting to prevent the DOJ report from being entered into evidence to support a lawsuit against the city by a Latino man named Martin Monetti Jr., who a video capture showed being struck on the head by officer Shandy Cobane (a detective since demoted), while Cobane threatened to “beat the fucking Mexican piss” out of him. Another officer, Mary Lynne Woollum--who was involved in the beating of a homeless man in 2003--was also seen to join in the “fun” by stomping on Monetti’s leg. The problem was that the video did not seem to indicate that Monetti—who was lying on his stomach and handcuffed—was “resisting,” as the police claim, and that Cobane seemed to be acting out on an impulse that suggested a natural aptitude for cruelty. Monetti was allegedly a “suspect” in a robbery, but in fact the police just saw some “Mexicans” and used the robbery as an excuse to “intimidate” them; all were eventually let go. Cobane use of an “ethnic” slur had the same intended effect if he had used the “n-word”; the intent was to suggest that being a “Mexican” is akin to some subhuman species. The SPD is also trying to claim in this case that Cobane was not engaging in “use of force,” but merely “responding to resistance.” This is typical of the way the police believe they can cloud people’s eyes with euphemism and deceit. What resistance? If a “suspect” moves his mouth out of the dirt so he can breathe, is that grounds for striking and slurring him?

The Department of Justice seems to think that the city has a problem that it doesn’t want to deal with. A series of brutal attacks on civilians caught on video tape embarrassed everyone except the police, although they promised that they might accept some very vaguely-worded form of civilian oversight. A lot of good that did; the John T. Williams killing indicated that the police hadn’t learned their lesson, and that the city attorney was unwilling to take the hard action needed—despite the fact the Ian Birk inquest essentially green-lighted the officer’s prosecution. Instead, the city attorney continues to whitewash those officers who make it a habit to terrorize residents of this city—usually those least able to offer “resistance.” Such is its attempt to have the lawsuit brought forward by John Kita thrown out. In a 2008 encounter, Kita, who was apparently arguing with a woman, was observed by an officer named Kevin Oshikawa-Clay, who called him over to his patrol car; despite the fact that a police cam appeared to show that Kita was “cooperative,” Oshikawa-Clay acted like one of those playground bullies who likes to hit people for fun. After striking Kita on the back of the head for no apparent reason, Oshikawa-Clay is seen dragging Kita to the ground, putting his knee in his back and striking him twice. No reasonable view could possible justify the officer’s actions. Of course, Oshikawa-Clay’s supervisor determined that he "used the minimum force necessary to effect the arrest of the noncompliant, assaultive and intoxicated suspect" and his “quick reaction, sound decision-making ability and restraint” was “praiseworthy." The problem was that none of this was true by any objective standard, which is what the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals determined in allowing Kita’s lawsuit against the SPD to proceed.

Since the city was going to do nothing about its wayward police department, in stepped the Department of Justice. The DOJ’s recommendations were the expected training regimens, changes in use of force policies and the appointment an independent outside monitor. But the demand that seem to especially irk the police and the city is a requirement to decrease the ratio of patrol officers to sergeants, from the current 8-1 to 6-1; apparently this is so that officers’ behavior can be more closely supervised. The city is complaining that this is too costly, and needs more “time” to implement that process—or at least enough time to appeal the requirement. The problem is that the city has had plenty enough time to reign-in wayward police (especially its black-shirted ACT officers), and yet the police keep acting like nothing ever happened—in fact defiantly behave as before.

The DOJ did not make its determinations lightly. Rather than relying exclusively on citizen complaints or videos of abusive behavior, it waded through thousands of “after action” reports, and how questionable actions were handled, if at all. It found the following:

“SPD officers too quickly resort to the use of impact weapons, such as batons and flashlights. Indeed, we find that, when SPD officers use batons, 57% of the time it is either unnecessary or excessive.”

“SPD officers escalate situations and use unnecessary or excessive force when arresting individuals for minor offenses. This trend is pronounced in encounters with persons with mental illnesses or those under the influence of alcohol or drugs. This is problematic because SPD estimates that 70% of use of force encounters involve these populations.”

“Multiple SPD officers at a time use unnecessary or excessive force together against a single subject. Of the excessive use of force incidents we identified, 61% of the cases involved more than one officer.”

“In any given year, a minority of officers account for a disproportionate number of use of force incidents. Over the more than two-year period reviewed, 11 officers used force 15 or more times, and 31 officers used force 10 or more times. In 2010, just 20 officers accounted for 18% of all force incidents. Yet, SPD has no effective supervisory techniques to better analyze why these officers use force more than other officers, whether their uses of force are necessary, or whether any of these officers would benefit from additional use of force training.”

The DOJ report also found that the SPD routinely uses excessive force against people who “express discontent or talk back to police officers.” The DOJ notes that “It is both unconstitutional and unreasonable for officers to use force to prevent the exercise of free speech, even when such speech constitutes a verbal attack on the police.”

These actions are the “product of inadequate policy, training and supervision.” The SPD does not “properly monitor or investigate the use of force,” does not have “adequate policies” on the use of “force weapons,” and supervisors do not “properly investigate, analyze, or demand accountability from its subordinate officers for their uses of force.” In the movies, internal affairs departments courageously do their jobs corralling corrupt officers in the face of accusations of being “traitors.” In reality, their activities are “little more a formality that provides no substantive oversight or accountability.” Out of 1,230 internal use of force reports the DOJ investigators were provided from January 1, 2009 and April 4, 2011, “only five were referred for further review at any level within SPD.”

The so-called “Office of Public Accountability” has been a Potemkin front from the start. According the DOJ report, “OPA disposes of nearly two-thirds of citizens’ complaints by sending them to SPD’s precincts, where the quality of investigations is, according to one OPA supervisor, admittedly appalling…The OPA consistently overuses and misuses the finding Supervisory Intervention…which results in neither a true finding nor a remediation of the officer. We find that Supervisory Interventions are often improperly used to dispose of allegations as serious as excessive use of force and discriminatory policing simply to avoid the ‘stigma’ of a formal finding.” What this means is that if the OPA had any authority to protect the public from abusive police and get them off the streets, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. Instead, the police use thinly disguised blackmail to gull the city into acquiescing to their demand of being allowed to run their private “club” where phony “moral” principles may see an off-duty cop who gets drunk and wrecks his car get fired, yet cops who are perfectly “sober” who go out looking for trouble and shoot a man in cold blood—with the same amount of “discretion” as a drunk—keep their jobs. Fellow officers circle the wagons around their colleagues guilty of such transgressions, because they don’t know if they may need such “cover.”

The bottom line is that the city is preaching to the converted—the police. It isn’t speaking for, and never has, for the thousands of people who are innocent of any crime (Kita was acquitted of assault charges) who happen to run into police officers with “attitude.”

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