When Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes ran for office, rumors circulated that he would be tough on cops.
Holmes had served five years as head of the review board for the Seattle Police Department’s Office of Professionally Accountability. It was his job to make sure officers were held to a higher professional standard.
Needless to say, the police guild was none too pleased with his candidacy and feared his time with OPA would put officers at risk of being held to a higher standard under the law.
When Holmes ousted incumbent Tom Carr and took office in Jan. 2010, he agreed to meet with Seattle Police Guild President Rich O’Neill to address those concerns.
“I congratulated him and told him I wanted to see him succeed,” said O’Neill, who has been outspoken in his opposition to Holmes.
“He assured me he had better things to do than go after officers criminally. But I said, ‘You will not have any argument from us if there is a case where an officer engages in criminal behavior,'” said O’Neill. “We put criminals in jail. We don’t want criminals in the police department.”
But in the three years since that conversation, O’Neill said Holmes has ruled with an “anti-police agenda.” He takes issue with every case the City Attorney’s Office has brought against a Seattle police officer during that time, and believes Holmes has charged officers simply because of their occupation.
John Henry Browne, a high-profile Seattle attorney who defended an officer in one such case, said Holmes has filed “stupid cases,” to keep up appearances.
“I think that prosecutors are leery of criticism from the media and the community that they’re protecting the police if they dismiss the case; even if they figure out that the case is worthless,” said Browne.
Since he took office, Holmes has charged four officers criminally and has yet to secure a conviction. In one case, an expert witness changed his testimony. Two other officers were acquitted by a jury of their peers, and a fourth has yet to go to trial. In each instance, concerns have been raised about the strength of the case and the legitimacy of the charges.
Officer James J. Lee was charged with fourth-degree assault after he was caught on video kicking a teen suspected of trying to rob an undercover narcotics officer in Oct. 2010. The case was dismissed in Nov. 2011 after an expert witness for the prosecution said the force used by Lee was within acceptable training tactics. He had previously called the force unreasonable, but changed his opinion after being allowed to read Officer Lee’s official use of force statement.
“In short, and using the additional evidence viewed in the light most favorable to Officer Lee, I now believe that the force in question, the third and final kick used to control (the suspect) was reasonable and within the teachings of the Criminal Justice Training Commission (albeit not the best tactic available).” -Robert Bragg, Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission
Officer Garth Haynes was charged with fourth-degree assault for an off-duty incident that occurred outside a Ballard nightclub in Dec. 2010. Haynes, an African American, was caught on patrol-car video as he pushed his foot against the head of one of three white men who police say brutally beat him. The man was in handcuffs. Haynes was acquitted by a six-member jury in March 2012.
“How could an officer who exhibited such great restraint be charged with a crime? He’s the one who got beat up.” -Reverend Harriet Walden, founder, Mother’s for Police Accountability
Lieutenant Donnie R. Lowe was accused of assaulting his wife during an argument at their home in June 2012. His wife, Nanette Lowe, told prosecutors she lied about the incident and said she would not testify at trial. On Sept. 26, a six-member jury acquitted Lowe of misdemeanor domestic violence after less than 20 minutes of deliberation.
“On the day of trial, the assigned city attorney told us she was seriously considering dismissing the charges. We broke for lunch and her supervisors told her she couldn’t dismiss the case, so we went through this waste of time trial.” – John Henry Browne, defense attorney for Lt. Lowe.
Lowe still awaits trial on charges that he violated a court order to avoid contact with his wife during the domestic violence case.
Sergeant Timothy J. Fountain was pulled over in Feb. 2012 after he hit a street sign with his unmarked patrol car and drove the wrong way down a one-way street. Fountain was arrested for DUI and hit and run, but King County Prosecutors declined to file charges due to a lack of evidence that he was impaired. City prosecutors disagreed with the county’s decision and charged Fountain with misdemeanor reckless driving and hit and run property damage on Sept. 26. The case is pending.
>>>Watch the video of Fountain’s DUI arrest here.
“From time to time, people in their cars strike other cars, strike streets signs, strike objects along the roadway. What should his reaction have been at the time? Should it have been to turn the wrong way down the street? The answer is no. But does that make it criminal? No.” -Ian Goodhew, spokesperson, King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office
Pete Holmes declined to speak with KIRO Radio for this story. In a statement via email, he rejected the notion that he treats officers differently than regular citizens.
“I have only charged – and would only charge – police officers with crimes in cases where civilians engaging in identical conduct would be charged with the same crimes,” he wrote.
It should be noted that Holmes has declined to file charges against several officers.
Detective Shandy Cobane and Officer Mary Woollum were not charged for their role in the now notorious “Mexican piss” incident.
Both were investigated for misdemeanor fourth-degree assault after they were caught on video in April 2010 stepping on an armed robbery suspect while he was on the ground.
“I’m going to beat the (expletive) Mexican piss out of you homey, you feel me,” Cobane told the suspect.
While Holmes said the incident was “marred by an unacceptable and unnecessary racist comment,” he did not believe the actions were criminal under the law. He did, however, have scathing remarks for Seattle police leadership.
A source within the police department, who asked not to be named, said Holmes has had an effect on how officers perform their duties.
“You talk to patrol officers and they say, ‘We’re not being proactive because we’re not going to put our necks on the line. We have no backing,'” said the source, who believes Holmes has caused de-policing. “Peter Holmes just walks all over the administration at the police department.”
O’Neill, who has been with the department for 32 years, said the fervor with which Pete Holmes pursues charges against officers is like nothing he’s ever seen.
Perhaps the most controversial case is that of Officer Haynes, who got the unlikely support of an anti-police brutality activist.
Reverend Harriet Walden, founder of Mother’s for Police Accountability, launched a petition to encourage Pete Holmes to drop the fourth-degree assault charge against Haynes.
During a closed door meeting, Reverend Walden said Holmes asked her to take the petition down.
“So I asked him if he was going to drop the charges and he said ‘No,'” Walden told KIRO Radio. “So I said, ‘Then we’re not going to take it down.'”
Walden said she believed Haynes should have been retrained, but not charged criminally.
“If Garth had been a carpenter or a plumber, especially in Garth’s case, and he had been brutally beaten with racial slurs involved…he really would have been charged with assault?” said O’Neill. “It’s incredulous for anyone to think that that would have happened.”
O’Neill also finds issue with the amount of resources that the city dedicated to the case.
Seven assistant city attorneys, including Criminal Division Chief Craig Simms and City Attorney Pete Holmes himself, worked on Haynes’ prosecution. Eight administrative personnel and one intern also spent time on the case.
Kimberly Mills, a spokesperson for the City Attorney’s Office, said it is fair to say that more attention is paid to cases involving an officer who is accused of excessive force than is paid to cases where the defendant is a civilian.
“For one thing, these cases involving officers are very rare – that’s a good thing – and greatly more complex,” she told KIRO Radio in an email.
Mills said it is protocol for the Criminal Division chief and the sitting city attorney to personally review all cases that involve an on-duty officer.
O’Neill said officers are already held to a high standard through OPA, and should not face increased scrutiny under the law.
“Mr. Holmes looks at the occupation. If it is police officer, he’s going to take a very, very, very strict interpretation and he’s going to charge.”