The Justice Department has launched an investigation into whether Seattle police have used excessive force — particularly against minorities — in the wake of several controversial beatings and shootings, one of which resulted in a homeless woodcarver's death, officials said Thursday.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and other community groups called for an inquiry after more than a year of high-profile incidents, including the death of John T. Williams, a partially deaf Native American who was shot and killed in downtown Seattle in August after failing to drop his 3-inch carving knife. The officer who shot him has resigned.
That followed the videotaped beating in April of a Latino robbery suspect, whom a gang detective kicked while threatening to beat the "Mexican piss" out of him, and a confrontation in June in which an officer punched a 17-year-old African American girl in the face when she protested the arrest of her friend for jaywalking.
"The officers appear to inflict injury out of anger at the individual rather than the need to protect public safety," said the groups' letter to federal officials.
The inquiry, which follows a months-long preliminary review of the police department's use-of-force practices, will include evaluating policies, sifting through records, interviewing officers and community members and observing the rank and file, Assistant Atty. Gen. Thomas E. Perez said in a statement.
Officials emphasized that the investigation was civil, not criminal, and not tied to a particular incident.
The goal is "to ensure that the community has an effective, accountable police department that controls crime, ensures respect for the Constitution, and earns the trust of the public it is charged with protecting," said Perez, who leads the agency's Civil Rights Division.
A Seattle police spokesman declined to comment. A spokesman for Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn said the city would fully cooperate with federal investigators.
Jennifer Shaw, deputy director of the ACLU of Washington, welcomed the investigation, which she hoped would pinpoint any faulty supervisory or training practices. "The big thing is to look at why things have gone astray," she said.
Minority communities, in particular, have grown wary of dealing with police, she said, after so many hot-button incidents. In October, for example, an officer was videotaped kicking a seemingly compliant African American teenager in the groin and head, the ACLU letter said.
"It divides the community and makes us feel like there are people who are able to trust the police and people who aren't," Shaw said.
The Justice Department recently wrapped a similar investigation of New Orleans police, which found an array of misconduct including the use of excessive force, racial and ethnic profiling, and discrimination against gays.