A History of Seattle Police: Part 1, Accountability

Recent events have again highlighted long standing discussions on public safety, the appropriate use of force, the goals and mission of police forces, and accountability to the public, among related topics. In Seattle, how have these conversations changed over time, and what lessons might we find in the past to provide direction and shape public policy in the future?

In response to local interest on the history of policing in Seattle and community-driven police reform movements, Shelf Talk presents a three-part series that dives into historical resources on these topics. In this series we will look more closely at Seattle’s history to see how it impacts us today. First, we will look at how two events in 1965 anticipate in many ways the current conversation on police review boards and greater accountability to the public. (In our next post, we will look at the controversy surrounding the creation and siting of the East Precinct, and our final post will review events in the 1980s and 1990s.)

Content Warning: This post and the linked historical articles contain mentions of racial trauma, violence against Black bodies, and racial slurs that can be disturbing.

​1965: Accountability by Whom, to Whom?

Attempts to call for an independent police review board in Seattle began as early as 1955​, particularly in response to that year’s Mayor’s Advisory Committee on Police Practices which found that the “…Seattle Police Department — like the white community — held essentially racist attitudes about Black citizens, frequently stereotyping them as ‘criminal types.'” Despite the report, requests for an independent police board were denied, and instead only sensitivity training for police was recommended.

Seattle Daily Times January 23, 1965

Formal attempts to create a police review board can be traced back to a request by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in November, 1964 for a hearing on the creation of a police review board. Recently, the Seattle Municipal Archives has made audio, transcripts, minutes, and more from the meetings available digitally through their Seattle Voices online exhibition portal. Key figures, including the Reverend Samuel McKinney, testified.

Excerpts from Committee of the Whole meeting on January 22, 1965:

Reverend Samuel McKinney, Pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church (listen to audio)

…[M]any negros feel there’s a double standard of police. From the canal on the north to the lake bridge on the south – heaven help the negro caught beyond that point after 6 pm…[T]here are many who feel that there should be a review board or something of this type, number one because many people lack faith in the ability of the police department to police itself…

[I]n the Northwest in particular there’s a certain way in which race relations are handled. And today is typical of it. We will do enough for good public relations value but not enough to ultimately solve the problem…

Ernest Barth, Professor, University of Washington Department of Sociology (listen to audio)

It is necessary to understand that there is a tradition within negro communities all over the United States that’s built on past experience and this tradition too affects what’s seen in the relationships between the negroes and police. This tradition…is a tradition of exploitation, brutality. Negroes all over the United States, north, south, east, and west, have come to believe and I would say on basis of sociological studies of this matter, considerable substance behind it, that the law that’s dished out by the court and by police, is white man’s law and in two ways works to the disadvantage of negroes.

E. June Smith, President of the Seattle Branch of the NAACP (listen to audio)

I find that many negroes are not only fearful of the police, but they are antagonistic. They fear violence from the police and therefore they are not very happy about their handling… I know that we have many cases that come in our office and over our telephones which indicate that there must be brutality. After hearing the cases today, the complaints that I have heard today, they are similar to the complaints that we get in our office.​

Additional testimony included Richard Variot, who worked in the Seattle Police Department property room, reporting on the abuse of prisoners as well as members of the public who shared statements of mistreatment or unfair arrests.

On February 20, 1965, the Council of the Whole unanimously rejected the ACLU’s request for an independent police review board, resolving that existing structures were adequate to review misconduct. They did however agree to review the use of force by the police. Less than six months later, this review would be put to a remarkable public test.

Seattle Daily Times, June 21, 1965
Seattle Daily Times, June 30, 1965

A fight between two off-duty white Seattle Police Department officers and two unarmed African-American men in an International District restaurant in 1965 ended with one of the men dead as they attempted to drive away. Accusations of the use of racial slurs by the officers, and conflicting testimony from police officers and witnesses at the cafe only served to heighten long-simmering distrust between police and the predominately African-American community of the Central District, a community already restricted in no small part to racial covenants, redlining, and employment discrimination.

After a month-long inquest, the coroner’s jury came to its conclusion: “Verdict of Excusable Homicide.”

Seattle Daily Times, July 1, 1965​

Public oversight of the Seattle Police Department would not begin in earnest until 1992 when Terrence Carrol was appointed civilian auditor.

Recommended Online Resources for Further Reading:

Seattle Municipal Archives, Seattle Voices:

The 1965 Freedom Patrols & the Origins of Seattle’s Police Accountability Movement (Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project)

Timeline of Seattle Police Reform Seattle Times, January 10, 2018.

Law, Justice Task Force Goals Laudable- Maybe Impossible Seattle Daily Times, March 31, 1969.

Seattle Times Historic Archive  (1895-Current) may also be of interest in finding articles related to police reform, police brutality, police use of force, and related terms. This resource is available remotely to Seattle Public Library cardholders for free, as part of a generous grant from the Seattle Public Library Foundation. Please note that searching is text-only so using similar or related terms or phrases is needed. For example, you can find an article providing an overview of the civil rights investigation by the US Department of Justice into the Seattle Police Department in this January 10, 2018 article, Timeline of Seattle Police Reform, or this March 31, 1969 article, Law, Justice Task Force Goals Laudable- Maybe Impossible.

     ~ Posted by Joe B.

2 thoughts on “A History of Seattle Police: Part 1, Accountability”

  1. Thank you so much for this timely information about police accountability in Seattle. This kind if historical overview is very helpful to my understanding of racial inequities in my community. I can’t wait to read the rest of this series.

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