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November 23, 2011 at 12:42 PM

Justice Department rebukes SPD over protection policy

— From Times staff reporters Mike Carter and Steve Miletich:

In a letter to Mayor Mike McGinn, the U.S. Justice Department is sharply criticizing the Seattle Police Department’s policy of offering blanket protection from criminal prosecution to officers who provide statements on their use of force. The practice “may result in the exclusion of important evidence from an investigation” and undermine public confidence in the department, the nine-page letter said.

The Department of Justice is currently investigating the Police Department over its use of force.

The Police Department gives officers protection from criminal prosecution when they are compelled to give statements related to use of force, including officer-involved shootings. The Justice Department is recommending the Police Department amend its policies to allow officers to make voluntary statements without the promise of protection from criminal prosecution.

The policy has already placed in jeopardy the criminal prosecution of one officer, according to the letter. Although he’s not named, the letter is apparently referring to Officer James J. Lee, who was charged earlier this year by city prosecutors with fourth-degree assault for kicking a suspect in a convenience store.

“In those relatively rare circumstances where an officer might have engaged in criminal misconduct, it is a disservice to the Department, those officers who follow the law, and the community to unnecessarily create artificial obstacles to holding that officer accountable,” wrote Jonathan Smith, chief of the Justice Department’s Special Litigation Section. “SPD’s current policies and practices do just that.”

In a separate announcement, the Seattle City Attorney’s Office said today that it will drop the criminal charge against Lee because of statements he made prior to being charged.

In March, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division — at the urging of the American Civil Liberties Union and 34 community groups — opened an investigation into the Police Department following a string of high-profile confrontations between officers and minority citizens.

The incidents, all captured at least partially on video, included the fatal shooting one year ago of First Nations woodcarver John T. Williams; a gang detective threatening to beat the “Mexican piss” out of a Latino man; an officer repeatedly kicking a young African-American man whose hands were raised during a convenience-store arrest; and the violent rearrest of a mentally disturbed man inadvertently released from jail.

McGinn and Police Chief John Diaz said they welcomed the probe.

Department of Justice (DOJ) spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa said such investigations are rare. With roughly 16,000 police and sheriff’s departments in the country, the DOJ has opened just four so-called “patterns or practices” investigations this year, Seattle among them. There are only 17 active cases nationwide, some stretching back several years, she said.

Ultimately, the Justice Department could order remedies, ranging from better training to reforms in internal investigations, and any problems found will most likely be resolved through a consent decree backed up by threat of a federal lawsuit.

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Comments | More in Government, The Blotter | Topics: Ian Birk, John T. Williams, Seattle Police


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