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Wednesday, November 2, 2011 - Page updated at 10:30 a.m.

Justice Department to SPD: Let officers speak freely

By Steve Miletich
Seattle Times staff reporter

The Seattle Police Department was rebuked by the U.S. Department of Justice for purportedly retaliating against a patrol officer who criticized police command staff while being questioned by a federal consultant, according to newly disclosed documents.

The Justice Department, which opened a civil-rights investigation of Seattle police in March, on June 10 sent to police officials a pointed letter requesting that officers be told they should not fear reprisals for speaking candidly when interviewed in the investigation.

"Unfortunately, it has come to our attention that ... SPD has taken actions that could be viewed as intimidating, retaliatory or harmful against an officer for comments that officer made to a consultant of the Department of Justice," federal attorneys wrote. "We take this action very seriously and find it deeply troubling."

The Justice Department, which is looking into allegations that Seattle officers have used excessive force, also asked the Police Department to revoke pending retaliatory action against any cooperating employee and refrain from further "harmful actions."

The Justice Department sent the letter after blistering criticism by Officer Ernest DeBella Jr. to the consultant prompted Assistant Chief Mike Sanford to order DeBella to produce a computer slide presentation on leadership. The slide show was critical of police leadership, including Chief John Diaz.

In response to the letter, Diaz on June 24 sent out a departmentwide email advising officers that they could speak freely and confidentially with federal investigators.

But in a reply letter to the Justice Department, the City Attorney's Office disputed that DeBella had been disciplined, saying he had been counseled about disrupting Police Department operations in violation of official policy.

Nonetheless, the city wrote, DeBella would not be required to complete the slide-presentation assignment.

It was not immediately clear how the Justice Department learned of Sanford's order.

Justice Department officials declined to comment Monday.

Police Department officials issued a written summary of the matter Monday but declined further comment.

"The primary concern was that the employee had needlessly recorded derogatory remarks about the department and command staff and disseminated these comments to other employees," the statement said.

The documents, released to The Seattle Times under a public-disclosure request, outline a series of events that unfolded in the early stages of the Justice Department's investigation. In addition to excessive-force accusations, the Justice Department is investigating claims of biased policing after several violent confrontations between officers and minorities.

The Times was alerted to Sanford's action in an anonymous letter from a writer who expressed concerns about what had occurred.

Sanford's directive to DeBella came after Diaz had sent out a May 5 email directing sergeants and commanders to tell the rank-and-file to cooperate with Justice Department investigators during an upcoming visit.

On May 12, DeBella, 43, who joined the department in 2004 and sits on the board of the Seattle Police Officers' Guild, took the Justice Department consultant — a retired Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy — on a ride in his patrol car, according to the documents. DeBella later wrote a detailed summary of his conversation with the consultant, revealing he had spoken in highly unflattering terms about Diaz and members of his command staff.

Diaz had provided "zero leadership," DeBella wrote. Sanford and Deputy Chief Clark Kimerer were invisible to the rank-and-file, DeBella wrote, adding that Kimerer "appears to be spending all his time trying to undermine Diaz ... and burn the department to the ground by saying harmful things in the press and on TV."

Diaz obtained a copy of the summary, which was circulating within the department, the documents show.

Sanford, who heads the Patrol Operations Bureau, summoned DeBella and his supervisors for a May 26 meeting, according to the documents. The president of the guild, Sgt. Rich O'Neill, also attended.

Sanford instructed DeBella to produce a lesson plan on leadership for a possible slide presentation to command staff, the documents show.

DeBella completed the work but was not asked to present it, a department source told The Times.

It's unclear whether the Justice Department's letter to police officials will have a bearing on the civil-rights investigation.

Bob Scales, the city attorney's representative who wrote the response letter, said Monday that the Justice Department has not asked for further information and has given no indication it is conducting an obstruction-of-justice investigation.

"My assumption is that they have the same view, that this was not in retaliation" for DeBella talking to the Justice Department, Scales said.

He said the Police Department has complied with all requests from the Justice Department to the satisfaction of federal attorneys.

The Justice Department's Civil Rights Division — at the urging of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and 34 community groups — opened the investigation into the Police Department after the string of confrontations between officers and citizens.

The incidents, all captured at least partially on video, included the fatal shooting last year of First Nations woodcarver John T. Williams; a gang detective threatening to beat the "Mexican piss" out of a Latino man; and an officer repeatedly kicking a young African-American man whose hands were raised during a convenience-store arrest.

In a statement Monday, Kathleen Taylor, executive director of the ACLU of Washington, said, "When the Justice Department is investigating a police department, it's important that police officers are able to speak frankly to investigators about their experiences and perceptions. This can help the DOJ assess the department and ultimately make recommendations that can improve problem areas."

At the time the Justice Department investigation was announced in March, Diaz said he welcomed the scrutiny, and Mayor Mike McGinn, through a spokesman, promised the city's "full cooperation."

In his slide show, DeBella contended the Williams shooting "cried out for strong leadership" from Diaz. But a lack of strong statements in support of officers "diminished" the department, while Diaz's effort to appease the Native-American community "probably went farther than any other Chief in the nation would have done," DeBella wrote.

Seattle Times staff reporter Christine Clarridge contributed to this story, which includes information from Times archives.

Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302



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