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Seattle reporter threatened with arrest for taking pictures of police activity

This is an image Stranger reporter Dominic Holden captured of Seattle Police Officer John Marion. (Image courtesy The Stranger/Dominic Holden)

Stranger reporter Dominic Holden says he’s confirmed with authorities he was well within his rights and operating totally legally when officers threatened to arrest him for taking photos of police activity in downtown Seattle on Tuesday.

Holden tells KIRO Radio’s Luke Burbank Show that he was biking home when he came across the scene and observed officers surrounding a young black man. It was when he began taking photos that the police officers took notice of him.

A King County Sheriff’s Sgt. Holden identifies as Sgt. Patrick “K.C.” Saulet was the first to approach him.

“He rushed up to me and he told me that I had to get away,” says Holden. “I was on public property. I said, ‘Well I’m on public property, I can stand here and take pictures.’ He said, ‘Well this is the plaza that is owned by King County.’

“So I moved further back over a line he pointed out, so that there was no question I was on the City of Seattle sidewalk, but he pressed on and said that I actually had to get off the entire block or I would be arrested.”

There were other people around on the plaza as well. Holden says some were even closer to the police activity than he was, but he was the only one singled out.

“I was the one who had to leave. I was the one being threatened with arrest, and that’s because I believe I was the one person observing the police and taking their photo.”

Luke doesn’t think it’s such a preposterous idea that a city resident would snap photos of police. He stresses they’re in a position of immense responsibility and should be accountable to the public.

“They get to carry guns. They get to point them at people. I think we should be documenting how they do their jobs,” says Luke.

Threat of arrest for taking photos wasn’t the only police behavior in the exchange that Holden feels was inappropriate. He says after being intimidated by Saulet, Seattle police officer John Marion also threatened him.

Holden tells Burbank he approached Officer Marion and a few other officers asking who the commanding officer at the scene was. Marion reportedly refused to answer the question and then began questioning Holden.

“He asked what I was doing. I said, ‘Well I’m a reporter,’ and he asked where I worked. I said, ‘The Stranger,’ and he said, quote: ‘I’m going to come into The Stranger and bother you while you’re at work,'” says Holden.

“So in other words I stopped and asked a matter-of-fact question in a normal tone and he chose to escalate that situation without any sort of prompt or any sort of segue by threatening to bother me at my job.”

Holden doesn’t see this as good progress for a department that’s working on improving its standing after a 2011 Department of Justice report found a history of SPD officers using unnecessary force when arresting people for minor offenses.

“If a police officer without any prompt decides to take a normal interaction and turn it into the threat of basically stalking someone at work, if that isn’t escalation, I don’t know what is,” says Holden.

While he wasn’t hurt and he says other people have gone through much worse, where they actually end up getting arrested or injured, he says how the police behaved was not OK and he’s not willing to just let it go.

“It’s unacceptable for police to intimidate people. It’s unacceptable for them to abuse the threat of arrest, and it’s also unacceptable to limit people’s free speech and power of observation in public simply because they don’t like being watched,” says Holden.

“This pattern that they’ve shown is part of the reason that the Seattle Police Department is under a federal consent decree but still some of the cops, they haven’t gotten the message.”

Holden says there is a “stubborn, toxic culture of disrespect and intimidation within the department.”

That is one of the reasons he decided to write up a full account of the events at The Stranger. He also plans to file a complaint.

“Until those bad apples are fired and retired and that culture is eliminated, local police are going to be reviled by some of the very same people who should appreciate and trust them,” says Holden.

Seattle police chief Jim Pugel issued the following statement Thursday in response:

“I am aware of the article by Mr. Holden in the Stranger Slog documenting the allegation of rudeness by one of my police officers.

Once we learned of the incident the department immediately referred the complaint to the Office of Professional Accountability. I have discussed it with OPA Director Pierce Murphy.

While I cannot comment on the specific complaint, the allegation, if true, does not match what the department teaches in our LEED (Listen and Explain with Empathy and Dignity) training, nor with the four cornerstones of my administration which are ‘Excellence, Justice, Humility and Harm Reduction’.

I have known Mr. Holden personally for many years, have regular communications with him and have assured him that we will get to the truth.”

King County Sheriff’s Sgt. Cindi West told Holden she couldn’t comment on the specific incident, but said “It’s a free country, and as long as you have a legal right to be there, you can take a picture.” She also told him in a follow up e-mail that “in general a person cannot be ordered to stop photographing or to leave property if they have a legal right to be there. Additionally, if a group of people are in an area legally we could not order just one person to leave.”

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