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 this series we will look more closely at Seattle’s history to see how it impacts us today. 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 creation of the East Precinct, and our final post will review publicly available resources related to Seattle Police Department use of force statistics, budget, and more.)

​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.

#BookBingoNW2020 – History or alternate history

“Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” – Winston Churchill

One of the squares for adult bingo this year is History or Alternate History.   History is just one great big story told from different perspectives.  Also, since it’s so diverse the chances are high that you will find a story that you will enjoy. Here are a few that are available via ebook!

Chief Seattle and the Town That Took His Name: The Change of Worlds for the Native People and Settlers on Puget Sound  by David M.Buerge

An in-depth historical account of Chief Seattle, an advocate for peace and Native American rights, from the late 18th to mid-19th centuries.

The Queen: The Forgotten Life Behind An American Myth  by Josh Levin

Levin exposes the racist myth of the “welfare queen” through the life of Linda Taylor. “THE QUEEN tells, for the first time, the fascinating story of what was done to Linda Taylor, what she did to others, and what was done in her name.” (Little, Brown & Co)

Jefferson’s Daughters: Three Sisters, White and Black, in A Young America by Catherine Kerrison

Kerrison examines slavery, race, class, and family ties through the story of Jefferson’s three daughters—one enslaved, two free—asking readers to contemplate why “discredited ideologies of gender and race continue to control and separate Americans so powerfully.”

A World on Fire: A Heretic, An Aristocrat, and the Race to Discover Oxygen by Joe Jackson

An enthralling account of the almost simultaneous discovery of oxygen by Englishman Joseph Priestley and Frenchman Antoine Lavoisier.

The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism by John U. Bacon

The best-selling account of “the largest man made explosion prior to the atomic bomb,” which took place in Halifax, Nova Scotia during World War I. Loaded with 3000 pounds of munitions, the Mont-Blanc ship exploded once it reached Halifax, causing 11,000 fatalities and leveling the city. Bacon recounts the heroism shown throughout the disaster, and its strengthening impact on U.S.-Canada relations during the war.

If the TV series The Plot Against America has you looking for alternative endings to history, here are some books you might be interested in. Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan, Unholy Land by Lavie Tidhar, and The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark.

If you still can’t find a book that interests you check out these blog posts from previous years:

Also, take a look at our book list!

For more ideas for books to meet your Summer Book Bingo challenge, follow our Shelf Talk #BookBingoNW2020 series or check the hashtag #BookBingoNW2020 on social media. Book bingo is presented in partnership with Seattle Arts & Lectures .

~posted by Pamela H.

Covid-19 Community Collection

Are you interested in helping the Library’s Special Collections Department document history? Please consider contributing to our new Covid-19 Community Collection!

We are asking you to tell us (and show us) how the events of the past few months have impacted you. We are looking for stories, photographs, signs, artwork, short videos and other materials that will help future generations learn what life was like in Seattle during this unique period in history. What has your daily life been like? What are ways you are staying connected with friends and family? What will you remember the most ten years from now?

Stories and materials submitted to the project through our online portal will be made available through the Special Collections Online website. We also welcome the donation of physical materials which can be mailed to the Special Collections Department. To learn more about how you can contribute to the project, please visit our Community Covid-19 Collection page online.

     ~ Posted by Jade D.

Trekking Through Time: Seattle Historic Postcard Collection

Many of us walk the same paths and commute by the same route, paying less attention with every trip. During Stay Home, Stay Safe many of us are slowing down, getting some fresh air in our neighborhoods, and noticing little details that can feel grounding. But with parks and trails closed, we can find even these new habits becoming familiar all too quickly.

Invite a new element into your daily stretch by discovering history on your own street. The Seattle Historic Postcard Collection is home to over 800 postcard images dating back to the late 1800’s. The snapshots capture the growth and transformation of many Seattle neighborhoods and landmarks. Search Lake Union to see the view from the Space Needle in 1962 looking out over a now unfamiliar skyline. See the World’s Fair Grounds that were designed and immortalized by renowned architect Minoru Yamasaki into the celebrated Pacific Science Center.

postcard showing view from Space Needle to Lake Union, 1962
Space Needle to Lake Union, 1962
postcard showing Pacific Science Center and Space Needle at night, 1965
Pacific Science Center and Space Needle at night, 1965

Continue reading “Trekking Through Time: Seattle Historic Postcard Collection”

Jazz in Seattle?! Jazz in Seattle!

While jazz has well-established reputations in New Orleans, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, you might be surprised to find that Seattle has long been a part of this rich music tradition. In an effort to capture and preserve this history, the Special Collections department of the Seattle Public Library created the Seattle Jazz Archive, which contains oral history interviews with many influential members of the community.

portrait of Overton Berry

Seattle Times ad for Overton Berry Trio, December 15, 1972From musicians who played in the 1940s to those still playing today, the Jazz Archive covers a deep range of his compelling history. Hear Overton Berry describe his experience of the racial integration of the AMF Local 76 and AMF Local 493 in 1958 or about his seminal extended stay at the Doubletree Inn, which produced the album, The Overton Berry Trio At Seattle’s Doubletree Inn, a classic in its own right but also a sought after “crate-digger” record for hip-hop and rap producers. Evan Flory-Barnes shares developing musically through Garfield High School’s nationally recognized music program to his experience as a constantly “gigging” artist, often playing with his band Industrial Revelation, winners of The Stranger’s Genius Award. Continue reading “Jazz in Seattle?! Jazz in Seattle!”