SEATTLE – A series of high-profile incidents involving the Seattle Police Department’s use of excessive force is stirring community outrage and raising concerns about the Department’s treatment of people of color.
The latest incident occurred last August when a Seattle Police officer shot and killed a man. On Feb. 15, King County prosecutors decided not to pursue criminal charges against the officer, Ian Birk, for fatally shooting John T. Williams, a homeless woodcarver.
King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg stated that the evidence gathered does not support charges against Birk. Satterberg said that there is no evidence that Birk acted with malice toward Williams.
The decision has triggered widespread condemnation by community and civil rights groups in Seattle, including members of Williams’ family and Native American tribes.
Despite the Seattle Police Department’s own firearms review board finding, which concluded that Birk’s actions were unjustified, Satterberg said that he could not establish Birk’s guilt based on state statute.
The shooting of Williams came in the wake of an internal U.S. Department of Justice investigation into reported patterns of excessive force by the Seattle Police Department against Seattle residents, particularly residents of color.
The investigation, requested by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and thirty-four community groups, is reviewing six incidents in the past eighteen months to determine whether Seattle Police Department has engaged in a pattern and practice of civil rights violations.
The fatal shooting of Williams and subsequent exoneration of Birk have generated heated reaction by civil rights organizations. Jennifer Shaw, ACLU deputy director, said she hopes that “with the Department of Justice’s expertise and experience, it can help police leadership change ingrained habits of some members of its force.” (View the ACLU-WA’s full editorial on page 2).
Leaders in Seattle’s Asian American community echoed ACLU-WA’s concern about deficiencies in the Seattle Police Department’s treatment of residents of color.
“The OCA of Greater Seattle [formerly the organization of Chinese Americans of Greater Seattle] believes that this incident with Mr. Williams exemplifies clear challenges and gaps within the police department in terms of officer training, community relations and police response,” said OCA of Greater Seattle Board President Kim Nguyen. “Prior and subsequent incidents, similar in nature, also indicate a systemic issue.”
“Moreover, trust within many communities has eroded,” she continues. “The culture at the Seattle Police Department needs to change dramatically. Training, including those on institutionalized racism, are encouraged, as are policy reviews. But, unless the political will is there to implement a true and meaningful culture shift, the effect of any changes will be minimal and short-lived.”
The OCA of Greater Seattle said it plans to continue with its community partners, to monitor and respond accordingly, the after-effects of the incident.
Another community leader who feels fundamental changes are needed within the Seattle Police Department is Bob Santos, former executive director of the Interim Community Development Association. Santos is critical of the Seattle Police Department for its lack of cultural sensitivity towards communities of color.
“I’m really upset about the whole environment of the Seattle Police Guild, which protects their own members despite what they do,” said Santos, a long-time civil rights leader in Seattle. “It’s an environment where rogue police officers are protected regardless of the situation.”
Improved training of young officers is imperative, Santos said. “Young officers have to be more sensitive towards communities of color. They need to take into consideration that the people they interact with are non-English speaking.”
Santos recalled an incident six years ago when a group of young people taking a local leadership class, were detained for forty-five minutes without cause at the intersection of Fourth and Main, by a police officer who ordered them against a wall.
Speaking of the William’s case, Santos had misgivings about former officer Birk’s response. “The guy was a woodcarver and had a three-inch blade. The police officer could have stepped back. Unfortunately, this sort of thing happens too often.”
The police department’s training is inadequate because the people who do the training have no experience, Santos said. “These young officers should be trained by members of the community,” Santos said.