Why Seattle Police Are in the Justice Department’s Sights


Police departments have come under increased scrutiny from the Obama administration as the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division steps up investigations of corruption, bias, and excessive force, NPR reports. Some of the targeted law enforcement agencies have had ethical clouds hanging over them for years, like New Orleans, but others, like Seattle, aren’t exactly usual suspects. Seattle came to the Justice Department’s attention a year and a half ago, after the shooting death of John Williams, a homeless man of Native Canadian descent.

Chris Stearns, a lawyer on the city’s Human Rights Commission, says Williams was killed for walking across a street carrying a carving knife and a piece of wood. The shooting was ruled unjustified, and the young cop involved left the force, though he was not prosecuted. “Seattle does have problems,” Stearns says. “Anytime you’ve got the officers, you know, routinely — 20 percent of the time — violating our constitutional rights, that’s a huge problem.” U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan said, “We found in the cases that we reviewed that when officers used force, it was done in an unconstitutional and excessive manner nearly 20 percent of the time.”

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