We can’t go back.
Nearly seven years ago, in December 2010, I received a letter from the ACLU and 34 community organizations asking the Department of Justice (DOJ) to open a “pattern or practice” investigation into the use of excessive force by the Seattle Police Department (SPD).
As the U.S. Attorney at the time, I was deeply concerned with a number of high-profile incidents involving use of force by Seattle police officers, many against people of color. The force used was very troubling, and the videos are hard to watch. But it is important to remember where we were as a city.
It was a critical time, and, in partnership with diverse communities, we made the choice to do what we could to stop unconstitutional police violence. This was before Ferguson and Michael Brown. Before Baltimore and Freddie Gray. Before Cleveland and Tamir Rice. Before New Orleans, Newark and others. All cities that came under DOJ scrutiny or started on the path to reform after Seattle. This was even before the Movement for Black Lives rose up to bring even greater consciousness around the country of police violence and the killing of people of color.
Our diverse community demanded action, and I was proud to work with so many — in countless hours of meetings, hearing heartbreaking stories, inspired by the deep resolve for accountability— to right wrongs and make Seattle a better place for all.
That 2010 letter from the ACLU and dozens of community groups cataloged what was happening in our city. These are quotes directly from that letter (with emphasis added).
[Warning: These videos are graphic and troubling, so please take care of yourself.]
“April 17, 2010: Seattle police officers stopped a Latino man they believed might be a suspect in a robbery south of Lake Union. They ordered the man to lie face down on the ground while they continued their investigation. The man complied. Video shows that while the man was lying prone on the sidewalk, an officer kicked him in the face and threatened to beat the “Mexican piss” out of him. Another officer stomped on his legs as still more officers looked on. Shortly thereafter he was released from the scene.”
“April 24, 2010: One of the same officers involved in the April 17, 2010 incident arrested a young man after a bar fight. The man was handcuffed and placed in the back of a patrol car where, he claims, the officer repeatedly choked him. Unfortunately, the in-car video camera that should have recorded the activity in the back of the car was not activated. . . .”
“June 14, 2010 and earlier jaywalking incidents: An SPD officer saw several young people jaywalking near Franklin High School. The officer confronted a 17-year-old African-American girl. Video of the incident shows that after she put her hands on him, the officer punched the girl in the face. . . .”
“August 30, 2010: A Seattle police officer shot and killed John T. Williams, a man who belonged to a First Nations Tribe. Williams was well known in the community as a wood carver. The in-car video camera from the officer’s car shows Williams crossing the street in the crosswalk. He held a piece of wood and his 3-inch carving knife in his hand. The officer stopped his car, got out and yelled at Williams to drop the knife, but it is unclear if Williams heard the officer since he is partially deaf. So far, no evidence has come to light of any aggressive or threatening act by Williams toward the officer or anyone else, and there is physical evidence indicating Williams was not facing the officer when he was shot multiple times. . . .”
“October 18, 2010: A convenience store’s surveillance camera shows an African-American teenager entering the store, putting his hands up and waiting. The youth’s name has not been reported since he is a juvenile. A non-uniformed Seattle police officer enters the store and kicks the youth hard in the groin area, causing him to fall to the ground. While the youth is on the ground, the plainclothes officer kicks him several times more with blows apparently aimed at the youth’s head. A uniformed officer enters, pushes the kicking officer to the side, and immediately handcuffs the unresisting youth.”
We at DOJ launched a civil rights investigation and, in December 2011, announced our findings regarding SPD: “a pattern or practice of constitutional violations regarding the use of force that result from structural problems, as well as serious concerns about biased policing.”
What we found validated what so many in our community had been experiencing for years. Yet, unfortunately, after we announced our findings, the first reaction from some of the City’s leadership was to try to refute them. The ACLU and community groups had to write another letter in December 2011 to then-Mayor Mike McGinn:
The City’s leadership needs to set a tone indicating that it accepts the DOJ report’s recommendations. These were based on intensive discussions with police, City officials, and community members, and detailed analysis of records provided by the Seattle Police Department itself. We are concerned that some of your public comments give the impression of a reluctance to embrace the recommendations of the report. Instead of focusing on re-evaluating the data, the City’s leadership should focus on finding solutions to well-documented problems that have developed over the years at the Seattle Police Department.
With strong community support, we insisted on a Court-monitored consent decree to change how forced is used, addressed biased policing, and created the Community Police Commission.
The consent decree requires new use of force policies and trainings that emphasize de-escalation, a new approach to how officers interact with people in mental crisis, rigorous investigations when force is used, and community-led accountability when things go wrong. As a result, SPD now has:
- Systemic policy changes that require officers to de-escalate a situation if they are able — something community members demanded for 25 years.
- A requirement to carry a less-lethal alternative like a taser.
- Crisis intervention training for all officers (which didn’t exist before and was developed with community members and mental health experts).
- Real community input and oversight through the Community Police Commission.
- A decrease in uses of force overall — including a 60 percent reduction of the most serious uses of force — and a significant decline in force used against people in crisis. With approximately 9,300 crisis responses reported last year, 149 (1.6%) involved any use of reportable force. And in 99.6% of those cases, officers used the lowest level of force (which they were not even documenting before the decree). Overall, uses of force against people in crisis represented 15% of all incidents in which SPD officers used force, a significant reduction from the 70% during the Department of Justice investigation.
- More transparent, professional and Court-monitored investigations of officer involved shootings.
- A requirement that data on police stops and all uses of force be collected and reviewed to ensure constitutional policing and reduction of bias.
These changes were necessary to improve the police department. But the work is not done. Not in Seattle or across our country.
One of the most difficult days I had as U.S. Attorney was meeting with the family of the late John T. Williams to tell them that the F.B.I. and career prosecutors had concluded that we couldn’t bring criminal civil rights charges against the officer.
For those of us who care deeply about justice, this certainly did not feel like it.
John T. Williams’ death was not in vain, however. Our community was galvanized to finally do something.
The tool we had was the systemic civil rights investigation that diverse community groups demanded and we in President Obama’s Department of Justice were able to deliver — an important legacy of those who have been victims in our city. The work that we do every day and urgently to make sure reforms are meaningful and real is how we honor them and how we can restore faith and trust between our police department and our diverse communities.
I know we have a long way to go because, seven years after the late John T. Williams was shot dead, I am still meeting with families of those who have been killed by police. In June, officers shot and killed Charleena Lyles. Her tragic shooting shows that we need to do better — no call for help should be answered by death. And just a few months ago, I was in court for a week, trying to get answers for the Muckleshoot tribe and the family of Renee Davis, a beautiful Muckleshoot member killed in her home by police.
There is something we can all do right now. I hope you will join me in supporting Initiative 940 by contributing what you can, gathering signatures when you are able, and educating our neighbors about why Initiative 940 matters.
The Initiative requires critical de-escalation and mental health training for all officers across the state. We know that de-escalation can save lives and improve officer safety. We know that mental health training can lead to better results for those in crisis. With I-940, we can give those skills to all officers and reduce the interactions that erode faith in those charged with keeping us safe — and to continue the work of developing officers as guardians, not warriors, in our neighborhoods.
All of that is critical to preventing police violence. We also know that we must have real accountability if things go wrong, and I-940 requires independent investigations into serious uses of force and changes state law to a “good faith” standard when it comes to prosecuting officers when deadly force is improperly used.
I am convinced that we can — and must — do more to prevent the next tragedy and provide true accountability. I also know we will never get to where we need to go as a City unless we remember where we have been. We must carry that with us as we work for justice.