SEATTLE (AP) — The U.S. Justice Department on Thursday launched a formal civil rights investigation into the Seattle Police Department following the fatal shooting of a homeless Native American woodcarver and other incidents of force used against minority suspects.
The investigation aims to determine whether Seattle police have a "pattern or practice" of violating civil rights or discriminatory policing, and if so, what they should do to improve, Seattle U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan and the assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's civil rights division, Thomas E. Perez, said during a conference call Thursday morning. Durkan's office previously conducted a preliminary investigation.
Perez said the investigation would involve reviewing the police department's policies, watching officers on the beat, gathering records, and interviewing officers, police brass and community groups.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and 34 other community groups called for the inquiry after a Seattle officer shot and killed woodcarver John T. Williams last summer.
Video from Officer Ian Birk's patrol car showed Williams crossing the street holding a piece of wood and a small knife, and Birk exiting the vehicle to pursue him. Off camera, Birk quickly shouted three times for Williams to drop the knife, then fired five shots. The knife was found folded at the scene, but Birk later maintained Williams had threatened him.
Birk resigned from the force but was not charged by state prosecutors who cited the high bar of having to prove he acted with malice and without good faith. A review board found the shooting unjustified.
Separate from the "pattern or practice" investigation of the department, the Justice Department also confirmed Thursday that it is taking a look at whether Birk should be charged criminally with deliberately violating Williams' civil rights while acting under "color of law" as a police officer.
Birk's attorney, Ted Buck, told The Seattle Times that was a waste of time because Birk feared for his life and was following his training when he shot.
Other incidents captured on surveillance or police-cruiser video include Seattle officers using an anti-Mexican epithet and stomping on a prone Latino man who was mistakenly thought to be a robbery suspect; an officer kicking a non-resisting black youth in a convenience store; and officers tackling and kicking a black man who showed up in a police evidence room to pick up belongings after he was mistakenly released from jail.
Police Chief John Diaz said in a message to employees Thursday that he looks forward to the Justice Department's feedback and knows any recommendations made will be based on "research, best practices and sound principles."
The investigation comes two weeks after the Justice Department issued a scathing report that followed a similar investigation of the New Orleans Police Department. In that case, the department found that New Orleans police have often used deadly force without justification, repeatedly made unconstitutional arrests and engaged in racial profiling.
Perez said the investigation of the Seattle Police Department would be far more narrow. He expects Seattle officials to cooperate as thoroughly as those in New Orleans did, he said.