WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Seattle police officers used excessive force over the last two years and were too quick to resort to using their batons and other weapons, but were not guilty of systematically victimizing minorities, the U.S. Justice Department said on Friday.
The city’s police have been criticized for their practices, especially after a native American woodcarver was shot dead by an officer without appearing to pose a threat. Police were also caught on video stomping on and threatening to beat a prone suspect.
A review by the Justice Department found that when Seattle police used force between 2009 and April 2011, nearly 20 percent of the time it was excessive and when they used their batons, more than half the time it was unnecessary or excessive.
The review did not cover the recent use by police of pepper spray against “Occupy” protesters around the city.
“The problems within SPD (Seattle Police Department) have been present for many years and will take time to fix,” said Thomas Perez, head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division. The Seattle police force was already implementing reforms, the department said.
A 40-page letter detailing the Justice Department’s findings were presented to Seattle’s mayor and police department on Friday by Perez and U.S. Attorney for Western Washington Jenny Durkan.
Neither the police nor the mayor’s office immediately returned calls seeking comment.
This is the second finding of systematic police misconduct in as many days. The Justice Department issued a scathing report on Thursday that said the sheriff’s office in Phoenix, Arizona regularly engaged in racial profiling and unlawful arrests.
In Seattle, the Justice Department said there were deficiencies in oversight, policies and training for police officers on how and when to use force and make use of weapons like batons and flashlights.
It found the unnecessary use of force appeared to be confined to a disproportionately small number of officers.
It did not find evidence that the police engaged in a “pattern or practice” of discriminatory policing against minorities, but noted “serious concerns” on the issue.
After Seattle’s police department has had time to digest the report, Perez and Durkan said the next step would be sit down with police to craft a framework to make the necessary changes, which would be enforced by a court order and independent monitoring.
“These findings are undeniably serious, and we have discussed a number of ways in which we think SPD is broken,” Perez told reporters. “We will indeed be able to fix the problem because the will is there at the highest level of the department.”
Twenty police departments across the United States are under review by the Justice Department, including Miami; Puerto Rico; Newark, New Jersey; New Orleans; and Maricopa county, Arizona.
The Justice Department’s investigation into Seattle’s police practices started after complaints from community groups following a rash of highly publicized altercations, chiefly with minorities.
Seattle appointed a new police chief, John Diaz, in August 2010.
(Reporting by Bill Rigby in Seattle and Jeremy Pelofsky in Washington; editing by Christopher Wilson)
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