The Epidemic of Police Brutality

The results of an investigation in Seattle are but the latest example of a troubling trend.

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It's a modern article of American faith: Metropolitan police departments have a history of conflict with their cities' minority citizens, conflicts that suggest police agencies trade evenhanded justice for heavy-handed contact with the public. In the recent past, police departments in Los Angeles, New York City and New Orleans have been taken to task for excessive force and have taken actions to correct the problem.

But in the last two years, according to the U.S. Justice Department, allegations of wrongdoing by police departments across the country have mushroomed to unprecedented levels. According to Thomas Perez, the assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, at least 17 U.S. police departments are under investigation for various civil rights violations, "more than at any time in the division's history," Perez said in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in September.

A very recent example, in one of America's most storied precincts of liberalism and tolerance, symbolizes both the breadth of the problem as a national issue and the challenges facing its correction.

After an eight-month Justice Department investigation into allegations of excessive force by the Seattle Police Department, allegations made mostly by black and Latino citizens, U.S. Attorney Jenny A. Durkan said at a Dec. 16 news conference that "there is reasonable cause to believe that the Seattle Police Department engages in a pattern or practice of using unnecessary and excessive force, in violation of the United States Constitution." The department found that about one in every five use-of-force cases by Seattle police was unconstitutional.

As identified by the DOJ, the scope of deficiencies at the SPD is frankly panoramic. The department was faulted for lax oversight of policies and training on the use of force, the reporting of use of force and the amount of force to be wielded by officers; failure of supervisors to follow up on use-of-force cases; faulty methods of complaint investigation, intervention and discipline; inadequate policies on stopping pedestrians; and even poor performance on collecting the data needed to make a determination of bias.

"Many of these officers may have a perfectly legitimate justification for their activities, while others may not," Perez said in Seattle on Dec. 16. "We don't know the answer because the accountability systems have not been put in place."

The complaints filed this year came from the city's chapter of the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union and 33 other nonprofits and advocacy organizations spanning the demographic spectrum. Numerous incidents have aroused the suspicion and concern of minorities in Seattle -- from an officer's punching of a teenage girl in a June 2010 jaywalking incident to the fatal unprovoked police shooting of a wood-carver in August 2010 and the use of pepper spray against peaceful Occupy protesters in downtown Seattle.

Seattle police Chief John Diaz pushed back against the DOJ findings. "Right now I don't find anything that would show me that there is a problem here," he said on Dec. 16 to KOMO, Seattle's ABC News affiliate. "This police department isn't broken."

A Widespread Problem

The Seattle Police Department isn't alone. Other police agencies under the federal microscope for alleged civil rights violations reflect a striking range of bias allegations, not only in the major population centers such as New York City and Los Angeles but also in smaller American cities, towns and territories.