As part of an ongoing investigation into the Seattle Police Department, the Department of Justice sent a letter to Mayor Mike McGinn in which they slammed the department for allowing officers to invoke protection against self-incrimination in even routine investigations, preventing accountability.
The investigation by the feds started last spring and there’s no indication of how long it will continue. This letter was sent because the department had promised Police Chief John Diaz that they would bring urgent matters to the attention of officials immediately when they were apparent. It’s obvious they believed this particular issue was pressing.
The ability of a police officer’s to be protected against self-incrimination comes as a result of the Supreme Court ruling in Garrity vs. New Jersey (1967). This ruling said that any “potentially incriminating statement made by a police officer cannot be used to prosecute him in a criminal case if the officer believes he was compelled to give the statement under threat of losing his job.”
But the SPD is accused of allowing officers to invoke this right in all use of force cases, preventing the agency from ever knowing what happened in a particular case from an officer’s point of view.
According to the letter, “SPD’s inappropriate blanket invocation of Garrity may result in the exclusion of important evidence from an investigation.” It goes on to say, “The practice makes it too difficult to quickly exonerate officers who have followed policy, and to properly discipline officers who have not.”
Essentially, officers involved in a case where they used force are automatically saying they don’t need to even write a report with details because they are protected under Garrity. This, according to the Department of Justice, is a perversion of the true intention of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Garrity case.
This has been an issue of particular concern in cases like the police killing of John T. Williams, killed in August of 2010. Though the officer involved was fired, no charges were brought, in part because there was no legally admissible statement from the officer and therefore no way to determine his motive.
“In those relatively rare circumstances where an officer might have engaged in criminal misconduct, it is a disservice to the Department, those officers who follow the law, and the community to unnecessarily create artificial obstacles to hold that officer accountable.”
Like most other agencies in the country, the Justice Department would like to see SPD officers filling out routine use-of-force reports without invoking Garrity protection.
Though use-of-force incidents are relatively rare, they do happen. And you want to know that if you are involved in such an incident with police that they will be open and honest about how things went down.
If you are charged with a criminal offense and have questions or concerns about the police’s version, a criminal defense attorney may be able to help. Regardless of the charges, contact our offices today to discuss your case.