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Frustrations grow as ‘heroic’ Seattle officer cleared in ax-man case

Seattle police move in on an ax-wielding man in August 2017. (Seattle Police Department bodycam footage)

Officer Nick Guzley will not face disciplinary action after subduing an ax-wielding man in Seattle, despite the recommendation from the Office of Professional Accountability that the officer be punished for failure to de-escalate.

Related: ‘Mass exodus’ of Seattle officers over disgust with city leadership

The decision was made by Interim Chief Carmen Best in a letter to the Mayor’s office and city council members, obtained by the Jason Rantz Show heard on AM 770. The letter is dated June 20, 2018, has not been released publicly.

“Officers had repeatedly attempted to de-escalate the situation and bring it to a safe
resolution without any use of force,” Chief Best wrote to the mayor and council. “Based on the [suspect’s] refusal or inability to engage to this point, I have no reason to believe that he would have responded to further de-escalation.”

Guzley was called to an incident at the REI flagship store in South Lake Union in August 2017. The store reported a man stole an ice ax.

Officers followed the man for blocks, repeatedly asking him to drop the ax. But the suspect wouldn’t listen, instead waving the ax at officers. Officers were concerned the man could hurt passers-by as Guzley yelled at pedestrians to get out of the way. Fearing for their safety and seeing the suspect in a tight space that offered “tactical advantage,” Guzley rushed the man from behind, placed him in a bear hug, and then officers were able to disarm him. Guzley’s actions have been called “heroic” and no one was injured at the scene.

The Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) reviewed the incident after an internal complaint. The video was flagged by a sergeant, concerned it showed a violation of the Department’s de-escalation policy. After review, Guzley’s lieutenant referred it to the OPA, which found the officer failed to properly de-escalate.

From the start, sources believed Interim Chief Carmen Best was standing with Guzley, though at the time, they initially thought he may have rushed to act. In the video, you can hear a colleague say “Nick, hold up, no.” But they didn’t view this as reason to discipline. Instead, they argued OPA was “getting bogged down with the minutia.”

Those close to Guzley were worried OPA would be able to convince the department to make an example out of him.

A drawn out, unusual process

“I was 100 percent positive had it not made the news, he would have gotten the suspensions,” a source close to Guzley explained to me. I’ve granted the source anonymity as they had not been cleared to discuss this case.

The hearing itself didn’t last long but involved more people present than would normally attend, according to one source. And Guzley waited weeks to find out that he had been cleared.

The media attention is why, perhaps, some believe the process to clear Guzley has taken so long. Indeed, the SPD still hasn’t publicly announced the findings of the Loudermill hearing. But the process itself varies, with one police source calling it “arbitrary.”

“If it’s political, they drag their feet,” he told me.

In the end, Chief Best stood by Guzley, concluding:

“I find that the officer’s actions were consistent with the de-escalation policy for three primary reasons. First, under these facts, the law enforcement priorities of protecting the public and taking take an armed robbery subject into custody justified the discontinuation of de-escalation efforts and intervening before the subject reached a high-pedestrian area. Second, the physical environment at the time the officer used force presented tactical advantages. Third, when balanced against these tactical and public safety priorities in flux, there was little reason to believe that further de-escalation would be anything other than futile.”

Best ended the letter: “I find that the officer’s actions were consistent with the Department’s De-
escalation policy. I am therefore changing the recommended Sustained finding for violation of the Department’s De-escalation policy to Not Sustained (Lawful and Proper).”

Officer frustrations reach a boiling point

Guzley, a veteran officer and former Marine reservist, has been said to be frustrated through this ordeal, even though he was cleared. There’s a growing frustration of Monday-morning quarterbacking by OPA on what is so subjective.

“He’s happy that he got cleared of the wrongdoing but it’s frustrating because so many of the other guys are going through this,” the source close to Guzley said. “It’s rare that you don’t find someone that’s been written up for something. It’s not even the people complaining. It’s the department itself, going through the videos. That’s the frustrating part for the guys. It’s not even coming from the general public.”

Officers have repeatedly complained that their superiors are constantly reviewing body-cam footage, looking for any problems to report. It’s created strained relationships internally. Civilian-lead, the OPA end up reviewing incidents where they may lack context to fully understand why what happened actually occurred. Chief Best, in this case, personally met with OPA Director Andrew Myerberg to discuss his concerns. Her experience can help provide context that Myerberg may not have.

“[Best is] just like the rest of the guys,” my source said. “She’s been there from the get-go. She knows what it means to be a patrol officer all the way up. You can’t ask for anyone better than that.”

For now, Guzley is moving on from this, with supportive colleagues who are happy to have him back. But, with more and more officers being hit with what they believe to be petty complaints, there are no signs the tensions between cops and the OPA will die down.

The Jason Rantz Show heard weekday mornings 6-9 a.m. on KTTH 770 AM and 94.5 FM on the greater Eastside. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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