A white Seattle police officer was suspended for 15 days without pay after using racially-charged language while pursuing a black domestic violence suspect downtown.
The police union will appeal the punishment, calling it “too severe.” Meanwhile, the department said the incident demonstrates that it is committed to holding officers accountable for their actions.
In-car video obtained by KIRO Radio shows Officer Jennifer Hunt pursuing a black male near Fourth Avenue and Union Street on October 7, 2013. The suspect, 32-year-old Kimo M. Warren, was being sought for a domestic violence incident.
Several minutes into the pursuit, Warren is seen crossing in front of Officer Hunt’s patrol car on foot. Hunt can then be heard yelling, “You’re gunna get your ass shot, boy.”
The department launched an internal investigation into Officer Hunt’s conduct after her superiors heard the comment while watching the dash cam video as part of a use-of-force review. Details of the investigation were released to KIRO Radio last month under a public disclosure request. A second request was made for the in-car video, which the department provided on Friday.
Especially problematic for the department was Officer Hunt’s use of the word “boy,” which can be a derogatory way to refer to black men.
“I expressed deep concern about her word choice,” Seattle PD Sgt. George Davisson wrote in an internal memo. “I explained that regardless how she intended the comment to be taken or what she meant to say, this comment would undoubtedly be viewed in a negative context with police chasing a black male in the streets of Seattle.”
While being interviewed by investigators with the Seattle Police Department’s Office of Professional Accountability, Officer Hunt expressed regret over her word choice.
“She’s chasing somebody who just committed a domestic violence assault a couple blocks away, and I’m quite sure she wishes she would have chosen her words differently,” said Ron Smith, president of the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild. “In fact, I have spoken to this officer and she is quite alarmed as to what she said at that time.”
But both the union and Officer Hunt maintain that her comments had nothing to do with the suspect’s race.
“Officer (Hunt) is over 40 years old … to her, he looked significantly younger than her,” Smith told KIRO Radio. “I believe that she actually was trying to communicate with a fleeing suspect that she thought was much younger than her.”
“It should be noted that the suspect being chased by the officer did not complain about any language, did not complain about any of this incident to the department,” he said.
Smith acknowledged that others could have perceived her word choice much differently.
“I could see where they may perceive something other than what she intended,” he said. “If somebody had been filming this, it could have been spun several different ways by whatever media outlet would want to do it and it could have the same effect as the (Shandy Cobane) case in 2010.”
On April 17, 2010, Seattle Police Det. Shandy Cobane was filmed telling a Hispanic man he would beat the “Mexican piss” out of him.
The incident sparked outrage among communities of color and is one of several events that ultimately led the U.S. Department of Justice to investigative the Seattle Police Department for discriminatory policing and use of excessive force.
The DOJ investigation led to widespread reforms within the
department, which continues to operate under the watchful eye of the federal government.
“I think anyone who sees the video is going to find that the language is completely unacceptable,” said Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, the department’s lead spokesperson. “When we’re talking about this type of behavior, what it does is it erodes public trust and confidence in our police departments.”
While “regrettable,” Whitcomb said the incident demonstrates that the department is committed to holding officers accountable for their actions.
“We investigated it ourselves. We drove the complaint process forward ourselves without any prodding or prompting,” he said. “This is what we would consider serious misconduct. A 15-day suspension is one of the more serious penalties that can be imposed.”
Whitcomb noted that the department has instituted a new bias-free policing policy and training as part of its agreement with the Department of Justice. He said the department has made significant changes since the Shandy Cobane incident.
“There’s progress being made and the department is changing,” he said. “We have new training in place, new policies in place, and are working very hard to restore confidence in the police department.”
Concerns about Hunt’s conduct during the October 2013 incident extended beyond her language.
In the same video, she could be seen driving onto curbs and sidewalks. At several points, Hunt appeared to taunt the suspect, yelling “Go ahead, fool. Keep going!” and laughing after nearly hitting him with her patrol car.
Hunt received sustained findings of misconduct for violating department policies on professionalism and emergency vehicle operation.
Smith said the police union is in the process of appealing Hunt’s 15-day suspension. Asked what the union believes an appropriate punishment would be, Smith said a five-day suspension would be more commensurate to her actions.
A representative of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) viewed the video on Monday, but declined to offer an immediate comment.