The report said police have engaged in a pattern of unnecessary or excessive force that amounts to a violation of constitutional rights. But the Justice Department did not find a pattern of discrimination against minorities.
Investigators found that a small group of officers accounted for a disproportionately large percentage of use-of-force incidents. Also impugned in the report was the department internal investigations unit and a related office, which investigators said "do not provide the intended backstop for the failures of the direct supervisory review process."
Video: The Seattle Police Department is investigating an officer's use of force during the arrest of a teenage suspect last month. The department said a plain-clothed officer kicked a 17-year-old suspect during a drug bust in downtown Seattle on Oct. 18.
"The systems of accountability are broken," said Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Civil Rights division.
As it did following an investigation of conditions in the King County Jail four years ago, Justice Department officials will negotiate a legally binding agreement with the city mandating various reforms. Perez said the agreement will require that an independent investigator monitor the police department's compliance with the court order, which is likely months away.
Report: 1-in-5 violent encounters unconstitutional
The Department of Justice began investigating the department following a string of highly publicized violent incidents, which culminated in the shooting of a homeless woodcarver in August 2010. Durkan, the top Justice Department official in Western Washington, said previously that her office launched the inquiry well before the shooting of woodcarver John T. Williams.
The Justice Department sometimes monitors police departments for "color of law" violations - instances where legal authority is used to unlawful ends. Durkan previously acknowledged that the sting of incidents in which Seattle officers were caught on video in violent altercations with residents - nearly all minority residents - hurt the department's credibility.
While Justice Department investigators did not examine the specific, high-profile cases, they conducted a wide-ranging review of the department's conduct. Investigators faulted the department for poor oversight of use-of-force reporting and suggested concerns of discrimination by Seattle officers remain unanswered.
"Our investigation finds a pattern or practice of constitutional violations regarding the use of force that result from structural problems, as well as serious concerns about biased policing," the report's authors wrote.
"The great majority of the City's police officers are honorable law enforcement professionals who risk their physical safety and well-being for the public good," the report continues. "However, a pattern of excessive force exists as a result of a subset of officers who use force improperly, and is caused by a number of systemic deficiencies that exist in spite of SPD's recent reform efforts."
Noting that the finding stemmed from the officers' own reports, investigators found that one in five uses of force by Seattle officers was unconstitutional.
Investigators went on to assert that "dozens" of other cases may have involved an unconstitutional use of force, but that they lacked sufficient information to rule them to be so. They also noted that officers were too quick to use impact weapons - clubs and flashlights - and that their use was either not justified or excessive in 57 percent of cases.
All of that, though, may mean very little - the investigators also faulted the department for failing to ensure officers reported uses of force.
"SPD's vague Use of Force policy and inadequate training encourage pervasive underreporting and render the Department's statistics on its use of force incomplete," the report's authors noted.
The department's supervisors and command staff don't know what training their officers have received with regard to reporting violent incidents, the investigators continued, leaving officers unsure what needs to be reported to their supervisors.
Some officers told investigators force only needed to be reported when an injury occurred or if the arrestee was injured. Others said they were only required to file use of force reports "when media attention was expected."
Officers were also far too willing to use force while investigating minor crimes such as jaywalking or shoplifting, the investigators opined.
In one instance, officers punched, pepper-sprayed and pinned a small woman suspected of stealing a purse from a department store. In another, officers contacted an incoherent man holding a stuffed animal, then beat the man with a baton, punched him 14 to 18 times, kneed and elbowed him, and ultimately arrested him on a pedestrian interference charge.
Police were particularly apt to use excessive force against people who were drunk, high or mentally ill.
"Assessing the appropriate force in light of a subject's mental state is not just smart policing, it is required," the report authors wrote. "Officers must take into account the subject's mental state in determining the reasonableness of the use of force."
Small group accounts for many violent interactions
Last year, just 20 of the department's 1,300 officers accounted for 18 percent of the uses of force reported, the investigators continued. Put another way, those officers on average each filed a use of force report nearly once a month; more than 789 officers didn't file a single report the entire year.
Durkan said she didn't know whether these officers were assigned to a particular unit or area of the city. It was also unclear whether or not the most aggressive officers were using force unnecessarily.
Still, Durkan said the department has done little to investigate after officers report using force and has not looked into whether those officers who do so frequently need more training, reassignment or disciplinary action. She also suggested that training conducted by the state police academy doesn't give officers the tools they need to defuse potentially violent situations.
"Police officers are taught how to win fights but not how to avoid them," Durkan said.
Of the 1,230 use of force reports filed by Seattle officers in 2010, only five received significant review within the department. No actions were taken against any supervisors for failing to investigate or review their subordinates actions in the field.
Also faulted by the Department of Justice investigators was the Office of Public Accountability, a citizen-led board meant to respond to complaints of police brutality and wrongdoing.
Two-thirds of the complaints received by the office were routed back to the precincts were the abuses were alleged to have occurred. The investigations done at the precinct level were described by an Office of Public Accountability employee as "appalling."
Question of discrimination remains
While investigators stopped short of asserting they found a pattern of discriminatory policing, they asserted their investigation found "serious concerns" on the issue.
More than half of the excessive force cases involved minority residents. That is apparently disproportionate in a city where nearly 70 percent of residents are white.
Investigators faulted the department for failing to collect data that could be used to watch for discriminatory policing, and said they have particular concerns about police stopping minority residents without cause.
"Good policing requires regular and sustained interactions between police and the community," the investigators wrote. "However, SPD must ensure that its officers understand the constitutional restrictions that guide pedestrian encounters.
"Officers must have a sufficient factual basis to detain or investigate someone, or a person is free to walk away from police and free to disregard a police request to come or stay. In these circumstances, a person's decision to 'walk away' does not by itself create cause to detain."
Investigators also said the department collects too little information about its officers interactions with the public to tell whether there is a pattern of discrimination.
With the federal investigation ongoing, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and police officials announced several changes to the department's oversight of incidents where officers used force and created a new review body. McGinn in a letter to the Department of Justice described the efforts as part of a "top-to-bottom review and rewrite" of the department's policies and procedures.
What impact, if any, those changes or the Department of Justice report will have remains unclear.
Sgt. Rich O'Neill, the police union president, said it was his hope the Department of Justice would allow "the police department to examine and study the data that helped them come to their conclusions."
"Officers are often put in very difficult and dangerous situations and all they want are clear and specific ground rules to guide them when making use of force decisions," he said in a statement.
The union also maintained the same stance it has taken in past discussions about police accountability. O'Neill said any changes the city intends to make that affect officers' working conditions would have to be discussed during labor contract negotiations. The guild currently is working without a contract.
City Councilman Tim Burgess, the public safety commmittee chair, expressed disappointment that despite repeated evaluations of police accountability over the last 20 years, "every few years, the same issues resurface."
"The Department of Justice findings confirm what many, including myself, have believed for some time - our police department can do better," Burgess said in a statement.
"The vast majority of our officers do their jobs in a fair and professional manner that meets the high expectations we set," he said. "At the same time, today's findings raise concerns about management and oversight inside the Police Department, from the command staff down to first-line supervisors."
James Bible, president of the Seattle-King County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said earlier this month that he had little faith the department would change the way it operates because of the Justice Department action.
"We don't have a whole lot of faith that the Department of Justice or the city will do much," said Bible, whose organization was one of nearly three dozen groups that asked the department to investigate Seattle police. Bible added that he would like to see federal investigators continue to monitor the Seattle department.
An earlier DOJ Civil Rights Division investigation into conditions at the King County Jail resulted in King County agreeing to federal monitoring of conditions in the jail.
That agreement, however, wasn't reached until a year after Civil Rights Division investigators faulted the county for providing inadequate medical care to prisoners and failing to prevent the spread of contagious diseases such as MRSA, as well as poor security and suicide prevention practices.
Speaking Friday, Perez and Durkan both said they are confident the city can fix what's "broken" in the department while suggesting reform will take time.
"Our goal is to continue to help restore the department to one the public can respect and trust," Perez said.
"These problems were years in the making," he continued, "and they're going to be years in the solving."
Reporter Scott Gutierrez contributed to this report.