Alex Milan Trace/Sipa/AP

Seattle police aren’t using enough force, internal memo says

Officers lament new use of force policy, established after DOJ report found pattern of excessive force

A Seattle police department internal email said officers aren’t using enough force and that the softer approach could endanger both the police and the public, local media reported.

The letter, obtained by local television news network KIRO 7, comes amid a national dialogue on excessive force by law enforcement in the wake of racially-charged protests in Ferguson, Missouri, where black teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white officer, Darrell Wilson, on Aug. 9.

But officers of the Seattle Police Department (SPD) argue a new policy on the use of force, which requires extensive reports following such incidents, is preventing them from doing their jobs.

“Some officers are very hesitant to use force in situations where force is clearly needed,” East Precinct Lt. Bryan Grenon wrote in the email, KIRO 7 reported Thursday. “Please communicate to our officers to use force when necessary to protect themselves, fellow officers, the public and the suspect from harm.”

The memo comes in response to the implementation of a new ‘use of force’ policy in 2012, mandated after a Justice Department (DOJ) Civil Rights Division investigation into allegations of civil rights violations found a pattern of use of excessive force in the department.

Some police officers said that in some cases they have avoided using force because of the extensive paperwork they must complete following physical interactions with suspected criminals. The reports were mandated by a new 80-page policy for any situation where minimal contact is made. 

The policy, adopted in January, is the result of a 2012 DOJ investigation into allegations that SPD officers had engaged in a pattern of unnecessary or excessive force.

The investigation was launched after a string of highly publicized police brutality cases including the shooting death of a partially deaf Native American woodcarver in August 2010. John T. Williams, 50, was holding his carving knife and a block of wood when officers told him to drop the knife. After failing to comply, officer Ian Birk shot and killed Williams. Williams’ family told The Seattle Times John likely hadn’t heard the command.

More recently, 23-year-old Oscar Perez Giron was shot and killed by Seattle police in July after witnesses said he was profiled at a light rail station for inspection. After discovering Giron did not have a ticket, the encounter escalated, with police saying Giron had turned a gun on them before they shot and killed him.

Militarized police

The DOJ investigation found that at least one in five uses of force by SPD officers was unconstitutional, according to the news site the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. A report released after the probe noted that officers were too quick to use weapons including clubs and flashlights, saying that their use was not justified or was excessive in over half of the case, the Seattle PI reported.

DOJ investigators added that there were dozens of other cases that could also have been unconstitutional, but they lacked sufficient information on the incidents — a problem that the new use of force policy seeks to remedy by requiring full reports on physical encounters. 

Over 100 Seattle police officers filed a federal lawsuit in May saying the new policy violated their rights to defend themselves.

“I think an officer will eventually get killed,” Severance said, calling the policy “ridiculous.”

But Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole told KIRO 7 she hasn’t seen a case where an officer hesitated in using force.

Even before the DOJ investigation, rights groups criticized Seattle police for actions carried out during protests against a World Trade Organization conference in 1999. Military-grade weapons were used against demonstrators, and Norm Stamper, the SPD police chief at the time, resigned the day after the police launched what many said was tantamount to an armed attack.

In a recent interview with VICE news, Stamper said it is clear police departments across the country are becoming increasingly militarized and have failed to learn lessons from incidents like WTO — citing Ferguson as an example.

“It seems like the rest of the country is hell-bent … that so many police departments seem to outdo themselves in not paying attention to the lessons of WTO,” Stamper said. “I made, personally, the biggest mistake of my career that week.”

'Recipe for disaster'

Stamper lamented the kind of police violence seen Ferguson. In ongoing protests there, a highly militarized police force continues to clash with demonstrators.

“Billions of dollars overall are portioned out to small departments with no provision for training,” Stamper told VICE, “And that’s a recipe for disaster.”

Shootings of unarmed black people have received increasing media coverage following the death of black teenager Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood watch volunteer in February 2012.

The teen's death prompted a renewed national dialogue on the unfair profiling of African Americans in various segments of society.

More recently, a video released Friday showed a South Carolina trooper firing four shots at an unarmed black man during a routine traffic stop. Levar Jones, 35, who survived the incident, said he was simply reaching into his car to bring the officer his driver’s license as requested when the white trooper opened fire.

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