Monday, June 11, 2012

Seattle takes aim at Justice Department report on police tactics

City attorneys for Seattle have filed court documents in a federal civil rights case attacking the "reliability and trustworthiness" of the U.S. Department of Justice report that found Seattle police officers routinely use excessive force, even as city and federal lawyers attempt to negotiate a plan to fix the department.

The documents, filed May 18, challenge an effort to admit the Department of Justice report as evidence in a lawsuit against the city over an officer's threat to "beat the (expletive) Mexican piss" out of Martin Monetti Jr., a Latino man who was being questioned in a robbery two years ago.

The city is asking U.S. District Judge Ricardo Martinez not to allow the Department of Justice (DOJ) report into evidence and to eventually dismiss the lawsuit filed by Monetti. The city argues that then-Detective Shandy Cobane's "Mexican piss" remark was intended to control Monetti during a robbery investigation and not to offend Monetti, who was later released.

Meantime, the depositions of the officers involved in the incident, filed by the attorneys for Monetti, have caught the attention of DOJ lawyers attempting to negotiate a settlement with the city over its findings. Executive Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Bates, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Seattle, said he was "deeply troubled" by the sworn statements of officers, saying they appear to be attempts to "short-sell the unacceptable nature of this event."

The officers' recent sworn statements have only added to the DOJ's insistence on imposing a court-monitored consent decree on the Police Department to address findings that its officers routinely use excessive force, Bates said. The DOJ, in a report issued in December, said it also found strong, but inconclusive, evidence of biased policing.

Monetti has sued the city over an incident in which Cobane, during a robbery investigation in April 2010, threatened him as he lay prone on the pavement.

The community backlash led to a tearful apology by Cobane - who received a 30-day suspension - and a promise by Chief John Diaz that such language and attitudes would not be tolerated in the Police Department and would be considered firing offenses going forward.

But Bates said the recent filings - including portions of sworn depositions by Cobane and the other officers involved - indicate that message may not have been clear.

The filings have also added another flash point to the already difficult negotiations: Cobane acknowledged in a deposition taken May 21 that there is a department culture that tolerates that sort of language. DOJ lawyers cited the Monetti case in their December report as troubling evidence of biased policing in the department.

Bates said the depositions demonstrate that the officers involved in the Monetti incident continue to be "woefully unaware" of the department's policies regarding use of force and biased policing.

For example, Bates said, Cobane acknowledged that, two years after the incident with Monetti and after being reprimanded and ordered into additional training, he is unfamiliar with the department's policy on unbiased policing.

"You know, quite frankly, ma'am, I haven't read it," he told Monetti's lawyer during the deposition.

Cobane was asked whether the fact other officers at the scene didn't comment on the "Mexican piss" remark was indicative of a "department culture that tolerates that phrase being used?"

"I would say, yes. In the context that it was used, yes," Cobane replied.

Likewise, the supervisor on the scene that night, Sgt. Keith Swank, acknowledged in his deposition May 24 he did not think the phrase Cobane used was derogatory and suggested it was a "control tactic."

Bates said, "The attempts to short-sell the unacceptable nature of this event only confirm the need for comprehensive, enforceable reforms on all of the issues highlighted in the DOJ report."

The city's court filing provides its first detailed critique of the DOJ report, labeling it as full of errors.

In its filing, the city is asking Martinez to consider the DOJ's report document "inadmissible hearsay opinion," arguing that it is sloppy and incomplete.

"There are many negative factors that weigh against the reliability and trustworthiness of the DOJ report," wrote Assistant City Attorney Brian Maxey, who said the Justice Department based its findings on the "subjective opinions" of two retired law-enforcement officials hired as consultants.

Use of force, the city's attorneys wrote, must be analyzed under the "totality of the circumstances, not by a subjective review solely of use-of-force reports, which is the methodology used by the DOJ."

The report lacks key information, including "sample sizes," and "margins of error," the attorneys wrote.

They wrote that the DOJ has "systematically refused" to provide underlying data or its analysis for any systemic review, and that the city will be able to show "significant quantitative and methodological errors in the report even without the underlying data."

Kimberly Mills, spokeswoman for City Attorney Pete Holmes, said in a statement that the filing would have to "speak for itself."

"It's ongoing litigation and the DOJ process is as well," the statement said.

According to the city, Monetti disregarded commands from officers to remain still while face down on the ground, forcing Cobane to shift to a "command voice de-escalation" technique, including what Cobane and the city acknowledge was the unprofessional comment, "I'll beat the (expletive) Mexican piss out of you."

But Cobane's comment had "no appreciable discriminatory effect," the city maintains.

The city also contends that a frame-by-frame analysis of video of the highly publicized incident shows that Cobane did not kick Monetti in the head, as Monetti has alleged.

Cobane, who was a gang detective at the time of the incident, was suspended for 30 days last year for the remark - the most severe punishment allowed short of firing - and demoted to officer. At that time, Cobane was contrite and Diaz denounced the remark, saying if officers used such language in the future, they would be fired.

Martinez is to hear the city's motion to dismiss Wednesday.

By Mike Carter and Steve Miletich, The Seattle Times

Source: The Kansas City Star

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