By undertaking the first steps of an investigation into the Seattle Police Department, US Attorney Jenny Durkan, the top federal prosecutor in Western Washington, says, “This is not going to be a cursory review.”
On the other hand, the preliminary review—or full investigation, if it comes to that—is unlikely to result in a suit against police. During a phone interview, Durkan says the decision to look deeper into Seattle police resulted from widespread complaints that officers have used excessive force and encouragement from the mayor, city council members, and police brass to probe police conduct.
“There are various ways you can go from here,” says Durkan. “There are times when the Department of Justice comes into a jurisdiction and says, 'We don’t think you are complying under the civil rights law.' Then we can file a lawsuit to do that. Or we can do a preliminary investigation and say, ‘Here is what we would hope would change.’”
Facing those options, Durkan—who was formerly a civilian member of the SPD’s internal Firearms Review Board and part of the blue-ribbon panel on police accountability in 2007—notes that Seattle's law enforcement is nowhere near as bad as, say, the New Orleans Police Department, which she described as troubled by corruption and the murder of civilians. The DOJ opened an investigation and also indicted several officers in New Orleans. “We are not there,” she says. Court mandated reforms of police also take a long time to implement and create an adversarial culture between police officers and those they serve, she says. “Sometimes that is all the Department of Justice has, but that is not what we have in this situation.”
Asked how common these reviews are, Durkan says, "I don’t know how common they are." (I have requested that information from the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division in DC and will update this post if I hear back.)
In Seattle, if the DOJ decides to take any official position, Durkan says, it would likely end by making recommendations about appropriate use of force in the department, de-escalation tactics, and training de-escalation.
Doug Honig, spokesman for the ACLU of Washington, which first requested an investigation along with 34 other organizations, would welcome to federal guidance. "The purpose of bringin in the DOJ is to get their expertise to help the department change its approach so it doesn't have the problems it is having now with excessive use of force," he says. "If they have suggestions for how to do that, it is the reason that we and other people want to see them brought in."
Durkan says that the review, done in conjunction with the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, will begin with interviews of groups that requested the review, certain elected officials, and beat cops. “We need some sort of vehicle to talk to officers, to find out what they think—that may be through unions or other mechanisms—so individuals can convey their own information and opinions,” Durkan says.