Police Review Board

As early as 1955, there were requests for an independent police review board due to reports of police brutality. On November 13, 1964, the ACLU filed a request for a hearing to discuss the creation of such a board. The issue of police brutality was receiving national attention and other cities were considering oversight boards. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover made a statement that December in opposition to such boards, saying they "could damage effective law enforcement and reduce the orderly processes of community life to petty bickering, suspicion and hatred."

At the hearing which took place on January 22, 1965, ACLU attorney Alvin Ziontz stated, "We have confidence that, having heard the evidence that will be presented today, Council will feel as we did that we cannot sit idly by and allow such serious charges to be made without investigating into them." Ziontz stated that the hearing was structured in three categories: testimony regarding brutality by the police department, evidence relating to booking practices, and comments relating to the relations between the black community and the Seattle Police Department.

Richard Variot, who worked in the SPD property room, testified to abuse of prisoners and use of alcohol by police officers. Several witnesses told of being mistreated on the street and arrested unfairly. Other witnesses included Mrs. June Smith, president of the Seattle NAACP; a University of Washington professor of sociology; the Reverend Samuel McKinney, and Dean George Stevens, a University of Washington law professor representing the Seattle Urban League. Some of their voices can be heard here.

The hearing resumed on February 19, 1965, in order for the Police Department to represent their side. No audio recording of this meeting exists in the Archives, although there are minutes and the meeting was covered by the Seattle Times. Chief Frank Ramon testified that Variot's assertions were "without substance," and he said he found no evidence for the other allegations of mistreatment. Former Mayor Gordon Clinton also testified at the hearing, stating that he saw no need for a police review board.

The City Council Committee of the Whole met the day after this second hearing and unanimously voted to reject the ACLU's petition for establishment of a police review board. City Council ratified this rejection on March 15, 1965, after adopting Resolution 20179 stating the existing officers and agencies are adequate to review charges of misconduct by a police officer.  

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

Alvin Ziontz, ACLU Attorney (listen to audio)
Ziontz: I want to introduce myself. I am Alvin Ziontz, I’m an attorney. I reside at 3874 West Mercer Way, Mercer Island. My office is downtown, Dexter Horton Building, Room 1201. I am counsel for American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, the petitioner in this matter before the Council this morning. This petition was filed in November of last year and, as shown by the petition, we made rather serious charges against a department of this City’s government. And after outlining the charges we asked this Council to do two things: we asked the Council to investigate those charges and then we asked them to hold a hearing on the matter. The Council determined that it would not investigate prior to any hearing. This was substantiated by information given to the American Civil Liberties Union, that we as an organization were expected to bring before the Council whatever evidence we thought was relevant in support of our petition, as the Council intended to take no independent action prior to this hearing. The limitations under which we operate are obvious.

To give one illustration, we asked the Council to use its subpoena power under the charter to obtain for its own evaluation the records of its insurance company, its insurance company adjuster, relating to claims filed against Seattle city policemen for assaults, and relating to the settlements and dispositions of those claims. Council did not exercise the subpoena power and we have no power to bring that information before you. We’re not an organ of government, we are a private organization. Therefore, it should be understood at the outset that we are limited to those people who have voluntarily come to us and brought complaints to us. I have no way of even guaranteeing that all these people will be here this morning.

Now, we feel we are ready to accept the burden of showing to the Seattle City Council probable cause for an investigation of the department. That is, we do not take the position that the evidence we present today is in any sense conclusive or complete. It represents only a very small number of the complaints which are made to many organizations in this city and to the Mayor and to the Police Department.

Furthermore, we have tried to make it very clear that we are not in this hearing attempting to try any policeman. We are not seeking any disciplinary action at all. We feel the problem is much broader and much deeper than that. I have asked the witnesses as much as possible to avoid the mention of names of police officers. We are concerned with a department of government and the manner of its operation.

We have confidence that, having heard the evidence that will be presented today, Council will feel as we did that we cannot sit idly by and allow such serious charges to be made without investigating into them. I don’t believe such charges could be made against any other branch of this municipal government without this Council taking serious notice of it. Now, we therefore feel that when the Council has had an opportunity to hear all the witnesses, it should take action on its own to investigate further, and we will ask for that.

E. June Smith, President of the Seattle Branch of the NAACP (listen to audio)
Ziontz: ...Can you describe to the Council, or try to describe to them as best you can, the attitude of the Seattle negro community toward the Police Department as you understand it?

Smith: Well, 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. The only complaint, if I may go on, that I haven’t heard here today and perhaps I didn’t expect anyone to testify to, is the interracial association case - a complaint where couples that are white and negro who are associating and who are in cars are often intimidated and also harassed... I feel the youths have the same feeling. They are negroes and they don’t feel friendly towards the police. We have had at least one case where a parent called and said that their boy was mishandled and handcuffs were put on the youth, and that started mainly a feeling that perhaps the negro youths did have some reason to fear the police.

Ziontz: Has your organization ever attempted to bring its complaints to the police department or to any other agency of City government?

Smith: We have asked the mayor to set up a police review board and we have also asked the Council to set up a police review board. I feel, as the gentleman who preceded me, that if there is some agency or some review board or some agency outside the police department where the negro can feel that he is getting a break, an even break when he feels he is being held because of his race differently from the other people, I believe it would help the situation very much.

Reverend Samuel McKinney, Pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church (listen to audio)
McKinney:...I think it was about three years ago Look magazine had a 50-page write-up on the beauties and glories of the Northwest. The only place I saw a picture of a negro was showing Saturday night in Seattle down in the jail. I feel we have contributions to make other than that. Unfortunately, this gives off the aroma that we are more crime ridden and laden than any other race, which is not true. What we perhaps are simply fighting and striving for, in this country and in Seattle, is the right to have our food and our geniuses, to have our criminals and our law-abiding citizens, to have our PhDs and no D’s, and for the police department to differentiate between the two. Now that's what we are fighting for. Unfortunately, all of us sometimes get thrown into the same boat...

Questions have been raised which I cannot answer - why are there fewer policemen negro policemen in Seattle today than there was ten years go... I've had complaints come to me personally about alleged brutality and I have directed them on to the legal redress committee of the NAACP... Negros have the same difficulty in Seattle and in the nation that the immigrants from Eastern Europe had, when they came to this country and see the police. There’s a fear of the police on the same that the Bantus have down in South Africa. What we see in the newspapers happening in Alabama, in Mississippi, is happening in this country and we feel it here in the City of Seattle as well...

[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... Many feel that the riots that happened this summer grew out of the fact that the cups of many people just overflowed... [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... Right along with the activities of civil rights, the police department I know has bent over backwards, couldn’t have had a more cooperative group, in making possible these various demonstrations and participating with us with some of the so-called leaders in the Central Area get-together...

In conclusion, I would just like to say this: you will also ultimately hear that the request for such a police review board is a Communist plot. If this is so, it does not exist, in the negro community... But this whole problem gets right down to one of the fundamentals of our democracy: whether the military or the police force is to be controlled by the civilians or by the professionals in the field. This is where the problem has ultimately to be solved. There's a struggle nationally, there’s also a struggle locally. Many of us feel that the control of the police department locally should be in the hands of the civilians, meaning the Mayor of the City and a review board which can look over and hear the legitimate complaints, I think that people will have greater confidence in what can happen if this takes place.

Ernest Barth, Professor, University of Washington Department of Sociology (listen to audio)
Barth:...[I]t 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. First, and I think perhaps equally as important as the second, that negro property rights, and negro personal rights, are not given the same protection as are those of whites by the courts and by the police authorities, Secondly, that negroes are subject to harsher treatment, longer sentences, more brutality, because of their minority status, by both the court and by the police themselves.

Now there are studies that have been done outside of the south, and the north and west, that do suggest that this is in fact the case, that there is racial prejudice and discrimination involved in the administration of justice. And the reason I agreed to come here today is because I feel that this is a really critical concern not just in the southeast, or New York City or in Syracuse or in Rochester, but here in Seattle. I think we have to recognize that the activities of all our legally constituted authorities represent to the negro either a facilitation of first-class citizenship or a denial of it. And I am concerned, I think that the impact of police brutality, the impact of improper practices of other official agencies, is driving deeper and deeper and deeper into the personality and beliefs of the negroes here in Seattle as elsewhere, the conviction that the most important thing about them is their skin color, and that other things are very, very unimportant, and that many values that they cherish and you and I cherish, values not just related to themselves as men, if we are talking about men, but to themselves as husbands and fathers is threatened, and threatened by the law which is supposed to give them protection.

And my fear is that organized opposition, which has arisen this past summer elsewhere, and the threat of it arose here in Seattle, is very very likely. I am not threatening riots, and I am not in a position [to do so]. I am a white man, and I am a college professor, but I am really afraid that a failure to attend both really, and also symbolically, to the allegations and the facts of brutality may lead to increase racial strife in a city that has been pretty proud of the past of fair relations, lack of brutality, and lack of violence...

I have reason to believe that we have a number of racially prejudiced police officers in the city, and some of this prejudice can be seen to be the cause of rather extreme behavior directed towards negroes... [I]t is unique because it is dished up by people who have the instruments of force at their command and there is no way of striking back.

The entire January 22, 1965, meeting can be heard here. Event 19, City Council Audio Recordings (Record Series 4601-03), Seattle Municipal Archives

Other Resources: