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.

Throwback Thursday: March 31, 2008

Seattle Reads, the arts, and gentrification was the topic in our Throwback Thursday post on March 31, 2008.

Image result for the beautiful things that heaven bears

If you have picked up this year’s Seattle Reads novel, The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu you’ve had a chance to get one novelist’s take on some of the issues and pressures that can fracture a community changing in the face of gentrification and immigration.

Facing similar issues, particularly those of gentrification pressures, local Capitol Hill artists, arts activists, neighbors and interested citizens are gathering at Seattle City Hall in April to discuss community concerns about rapidly diminishing affordable space for arts uses in the City’s core neighborhoods. Get details at:

Make Room for Art: Cultural Overlay Districts for Seattle
April 2, 5pm-6:30pm, Seattle City Hall

City Councilmembers will hear from Seattle residents, arts and entertainment venues and organizations, property owners, developers, and officials on how the Council might go about establishing an overlay district to offer incentives and controls in a specific area to encourage or preserve particular kinds of activities, spaces, and/or design. How can the city grow in a healthy balanced way that benefits all? This could be an exciting opportunity to add your voice as “A City Makes Herself.” Continue reading “Throwback Thursday: March 31, 2008”

Be the Change: Race and Social Justice

Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced. – James Baldwin

Recently on a streaming service, I watched a documentary on White Privilege.  At the beginning of the documentary, which was hosted by a white women, there was a room full of people of color and she asked what can we do to help?  The response was don’t put the work on us to teach you how to change.  This is something I have struggled with on my journey to become more educated on Race and Social Justice.  I have wanted to learn and change but didn’t know how to do it without learning from people of color.

I have always read books involving social injustice and if you are looking for a great book list a place to start is here.  Ultimately though three things have really brought me to where I am today which is my never ending journey.  They are a documentary on white privilege by Tim Wise, a library program that is available by podcast, and the most recent book I read by Crystal M Fleming.

Before “white privilege” become part of our vernacular, Tim Wise was teaching about it.  He would do the college lecture circuit. You can watch Tim Wise: On White Privilege.  Mr. Wise does a great job of breaking down what white privilege is and how it negatively affects society at large. Continue reading “Be the Change: Race and Social Justice”

Social Justice and Activism for Young Adults

From #MeToo to Black Lives Matter to March for Our Lives, the voices of activists are ringing loud and clear across this country right now.  Many of these voices are those of young people, and teens today are more empowered than ever before to create change and make their voices heard.  As a result, there has been a remarkable increase in books for, by, and about teens that explore the topics that so profoundly affect them and show how powerful their voices can be.  Here are just a few recent titles:

Glimmer of Hope: How Tragedy Sparked a Movement by the founders of March for Our Lives
It’s been less than a year since the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, but the students who survived the tragedy swiftly moved into action. Within weeks after the shooting, the survivors organized a student-led demonstration in Washington, DC to campaign for stricter gun control laws.  This collection of writings from those students shows how powerful youth voice can be. Continue reading “Social Justice and Activism for Young Adults”

ACT’s Until the Flood: Beyond the Theatre

policACT (A Contemporary Theatre) presents UNTIL THE FLOOD by Dael Orlandersmith from June 8 to July 8, 2018. UNTIL THE FLOOD focuses on the social unrest following the fatal police shooting of unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Librarians at Seattle Public Library created this list of books and films to enhance your experience of the show: ACT’s UNTIL THE FLOOD: Beyond the Theatre  

The names and places, unfortunately, are tragically familiar: Ferguson, Trayvon, Baltimore, Philando, Tamir, Baton Rouge, and Charles Kinseythe list goes on. How can we take it in? What does it mean? How can we comprehend?

Obie Award winning and Pulitzer Prize finalist playwright Dael Orlandersmith is bringing her work, UNTIL THE FLOOD, to ACT, with her quest of understanding how we got here and what it signifies. Focusing on Ferguson, Missouri, and the death of unarmed 18-year old Michael Brown, the one-act drama uses eight composite characters from the area to explore issues of race, social unrest, and political power. The characters all are working to find their standpoint with racial matters in our society, but from a personal level, ranging from teenagers to seniors, and from anger to reflection. Continue reading “ACT’s Until the Flood: Beyond the Theatre”