Three years ago, activist Eddie Rye Jr. was so incensed by what he considered Seattle police harassment of businesses with mostly black customers that he filed a civil-rights complaint with the U.S. Justice Department.
The department took him seriously. Attorneys in the Civil Rights Division asked for more information and eventually determined that the evidence "raises serious concerns about the perceptions of racial discrimination" by Seattle police.
Now, police officials say they are preparing to resolve the issue by organizing a closed-door forum in the next few weeks between select officers and civilians. But the focus will not be on the perceived harassment of black clubs. Instead, one topic will be how neighbors and police can better confront dangerous businesses. And the club owners are not invited.
"I'm absolutely appalled," said Rye, northwest vice president of the National Black Chamber of Commerce. "That has nothing to do with the problems we've been facing."
According to Rye, Seattle police target restaurants and nightclubs that play R&B or hip-hop music. He alleges that the police force these businesses to close by selectively enforcing laws and regulations, including drug-abatement laws.
Assistant Chief Clark Kimerer said he spoke with Justice Department officials about the complaint several times in the past few months. He said he told them the perception of racial discrimination was nonsense.
"We respond to serious acts of violence," he said, adding that people have been killed near several of the nightclubs.
A date has not been set yet for the two-day forum, which will teach officers how to relay public-safety concerns to neighbors, and find ways to ease misunderstandings and tensions between police and minorities.
The business owners named in the complaint, however, will not be coming.
"The bottom line is, it's not about them," Kimerer said. "It's not how to appease the interests of the club owners."
Relations between businesses that cater to minorities and Seattle police have been strained in recent years and have resulted in legal actions.
Last year, the state Court of Appeals ruled that the city of Seattle violated the constitutional rights of the owners of Oscar's II after narcotics detectives tried to shut down the Central Area restaurant as a drug nuisance.
The owners, Oscar and Barbara McCoy, have since sued the city. A King County Superior Court judge last month awarded the McCoys $86,000 in legal fees.
Last November, a federal-court jury rejected allegations that the city of Seattle and its Police Department conspired to close Jerseys All American Sports Bar because it played hip-hop music and catered to blacks.
In March, the city of Seattle paid $106,000 to settle a civil-rights lawsuit brought by the former owner of Neko's Restaurant and Nightclub, who claimed she was targeted by police and city officials because the club played hip-hop.
Rye filed his complaint in 1998, and Justice Department officials sent consent forms to the owners of Oscar's II, Deano's Cafe and Lounge, and others, informing them that their identities may become public during the course of the investigation.
Rye said a civil-rights attorney with the Justice Department told him she would come to Seattle in February to hold a public forum. She asked him to invite business owners mentioned in the complaint and anyone else interested in participating.
A few days later, Rye was told the meeting was canceled. Instead, the Justice Department told him that a Seattle-based arm of the department called the Community Relations Service would handle the complaint. The service is a national Justice Department program aimed at resolving and preventing racial conflict.
Rosa Melendez, regional director of Community Relations Service Region 10, which serves Alaska, Oregon, Idaho and Washington, said she has been aware of Rye's complaint since February.
So far, Melendez, a former Seattle police officer, had discussed the complaint with police officials but had not contacted Rye. She said her service prefers to work behind the scenes and would not divulge details about her conversations.
"Right now, we're working with SPD (Seattle Police Department) to figure out what's right for them," she said. "We try to do our job very quietly. The less people who know about it, the better."
Rye and others object to the quiet approach taken by Seattle police and the Community Relations Service, and the fact that the business owners have not been invited to the forum or consulted in devising a criteria for future meetings.
"I'm not sure how you avoid an issue like this from being public," said Chris Clifford, owner of Jersey's All American Sports Bar. "It seems like the antithesis of government."
Alex Fryer can be reached at 206-464-8124 or email@example.com.