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Opinion: OPA reports show Seattle cops get away with despicable behavior

Police take down a protester, Saturday, July 25, 2020, near Seattle Central Community College in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

The Seattle Police Department insists that it is a nationwide leader in oversight, accountability, and progressive policies. Meanwhile, activists and protesters claim the department protects its so-called “bad apples” from real consequences, and based on a widely documented history of recent abuse, it’s hard to argue with that conclusion.

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In face of cuts to SPD, we’ve heard a common refrain from the department’s leaders: “If you call for help at 3 a.m., who’s going to respond?” And in a way, they’re right: We really should be asking ourselves about the kind of officer we want responding to us when we dial 911.

In scores of rulings from the city’s Office of Police Accountability (OPA) dating back to 2016, there’s a clear pattern of abuse, criminal acts, and inappropriate behavior, tolerated enough to allow many offending officers to remain with the department. In far too many of those cases, offenders have received little more than a slap on the wrist. In others, they were only removed from the department after multiple incidents. The sum total is evidence of a police department reluctant to hold itself fully accountable for repeated abuses of power.

An officer, an EMT, and a brief suspension

One 2016 ruling from the OPA details an incident brought on by an unnamed officer, who allegedly took suspects into involuntary emergency custody as part of a ploy to ask an EMT out on a date.

The EMT would regularly be tasked with responding to those calls from that officer, and reported to the OPA that his repeated advances were unwanted and anxiety-inducing. At one point, the situation became so problematic, that on a call for service involving the officer, she didn’t feel comfortable leaving her ambulance, and “was unable to fully perform her duties.”

While this was happening, a “preponderance of evidence” showed that the officer used police resources to pull her phone number off of an incident report, and proceeded to repeatedly harass her with text messages. She reported messaging the officer back to indicate “his messages were unwanted and should stop immediately.”

Eventually, she requested a transfer to a different assignment, “in order to reduce the possibility she might encounter (the officer) at a call,” before filing a complaint with her superior and the OPA.

After all that, the officer’s “punishment” was an 8-day suspension; to this day, he continues to work for the Seattle Police Department.

A “fun” ruse leads to a suicide

In a more recent and highly publicized case from 2018, a Seattle police officer used a ruse that the OPA ruled lead to the eventual suicide of a suspect.

This occurred after a fender bender hit-and-run where no one was injured. In an attempt to lure in a suspect, an officer told the driver’s friend that a woman was in critical condition from the crash, and “might not survive.”

The officer described the scheme to a fellow cop in glib terms.

“It’s a lie, but it’s fun,” he said, according to a statement from that cop in the OPA’s report.

The friend relayed that story on to the driver, who recalled the accident as the minor fender bender that it was, and didn’t remember hitting anyone. The driver was also a recovering heroin addict of 20 years, who had “gotten a new job and was saving money.”

The driver reportedly became “increasingly worried about the hit and run and that he believed he might have killed someone,” based on the officer’s fake recounting of the incident to his friend. He later told his friend that he was feeling suicidal, and that it “was related to his concern regarding the hit and run.”

In June of 2018, the driver committed suicide, found by his roommate next to money and a note that read, “you keep this.”

A different officer leading the investigation for the case “did not recall telling (the officer who instituted the ruse) that it was important to locate the driver or that he instructed them to make an arrest,” given that the hit-and-run was little more than a misdemeanor.

The offending officer was suspended for six days, and was allowed to remain with SPD.

An assault and a series of chokeholds

In an incident detailed by a 2019 OPA report, an officer responded to a “disturbance” call for a man “yelling and pacing around” outside a church.

Two officers made contact with the man. After a brief exchange that lasted exactly one minute and six seconds, one of the officers “grabbed hold of him,” using neck holds on “three distinct occasions during the struggle.” The officer took the man to the ground, and then punched him twice in the face with a closed fist. This all occurred despite the OPA describing it as “implausible to suggest (the man) presented a threat of imminent death or serious physical injury to officers.”

The man was handcuffed and placed in the officer’s patrol car. The officer then walked to the rear door of the car while the man was inside, reached in, and appeared to strangle him for over 11 seconds. A Seattle Fire Department medic identified petechial hemorrhaging in the man’s eyes, a condition where blood leaks from capillaries as a result of strangulation.

In a use of force report filed by a fellow officer on the scene, there was no mention of the man being choked, and “he did not identify that there was apparent neck holds and did not deem any aspect of the force to be potentially inconsistent with policy.” The officer similarly denied using chokeholds on the man.

After the OPA interviewed the man and reviewed body camera footage, it determined that the officer “may have engaged in criminal conduct during this incident.” SPD’s homicide unit later found that there was probable cause to believe the officer assaulted the suspect. The Seattle City Attorney’s Office charged the officer with assault, only to see the case dismissed thanks to difficulties in locating the subject for further testimony in court. A lack of proof was also cited, despite body camera footage from the scene clearly demonstrating how events unfolded.

In the OPA’s own investigation, it pointed to a “preponderance of evidence” indicating an assault took place.

“I have no difficulty establishing that (the officer’s) acts were criminal and that he violated the law when he engaged in this conduct,” the OPA investigator’s report reads.

For conduct deemed criminal by the city’s own police accountability body, the officer was suspended for a month without pay and allowed to remain with SPD.

An off-duty fight with a teenager

A report filed in 2018 tells the story of an off-duty officer at a party, where he “on several occasions” gave a fellow officer’s 20-year-old daughter alcohol,” made “sexually suggestive comments” to the daughter, told her 17-year-old brother that he “would enjoy watching (the officer) and the daughter have sex,” and punched the fellow officer in the face.

The incident was brought on when the son agreed to wrestle the officer. It wasn’t long before the officer became “increasingly aggressive towards the son,” at which point the fellow officer put his hand on the offending officer’s shoulder and told him to stop. The offending officer punched his fellow officer in the face and began strangling the son, before eventually getting wrested away and kicked out of the party.

“The daughter recalled seeing (the offending officer) violently twisting the son’s arm and smashing the son’s head into the ground,” the OPA’s report reads.

During the wrestling match, the son claimed the offending officer “began yelling at him and accused him of having sex with his then-girlfriend.” The officer also reportedly told the 20-year-old daughter, “if I were a hot lesbian, we would be together right now,” before turning to the son and saying “I bet [he] wishes I was a hot lesbian right now so he could watch.”

This led the Seattle City Attorney’s office charging the officer with two counts of assault. It later agreed to dismiss the charges after the officer agreed “not to commit any other criminal offenses for 24 months.” The agreement was described by the OPA as “a functional plea bargain,” and a tacit admission of his guilt.

“OPA concludes that (the officer) engaged in assaultive behavior that was in violation of law,” the OPA’s report concluded.

The officer was suspended for 30 days without pay, and was allowed to remain with SPD.

Plenty more where these reports came from

These incidents are illustrative of a larger pattern of tolerance within SPD for poor — and sometimes criminal — behavior among officers.

That includes an officer in 2017, who defrauded the city to the tune of almost $24,000 in overtime hours he was found to never have worked. He was sentenced to 10 days in prison after pleading guilty to theft in the first degree. He was allowed to resign rather than be terminated, a punishment commonly used to give officers a better chance of being hired in a different police department.

In a trio of other complaints filed between 2016 and 2019, the OPA paints a picture of officers bungling domestic violence investigations, and frequently failing to arrest abusers despite having probable cause.

Another 2019 report describes the latest in a series of 15 separate complaints against a single officer for unprofessional behavior, outlining numerous failures to interact appropriately with civilians.

In another also filed in 2019, an officer who got into an off-duty fender bender tried to coerce a young boy into altering his report to his insurance company, and threatened to issue him a citation if he didn’t comply. For that incident, the officer received an oral reprimand.

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An officer in a separate 2017 OPA investigation was even found to have committed insurance fraud to cover up a nephew’s DUI, violating “multiple Washington State laws, as well as Department and City policies.” He was suspended for 28 days.

That’s all without mentioning the numerous instances where SPD terminated multiple-time offenders of the department’s social media policy, including one in 2019 where an officer frequently used crude language to attack political leaders on Twitter. In one Tweet, he said that the religion of Muslim Congresswoman Ilhan Omar “wasn’t one of peace.” That marked the third time in two years that the officer’s social media accounts had been referred for an OPA investigation. That officer was allowed to retire in lieu of termination, preserving his taxpayer-funded pension in the process.

With all this in mind, the next time someone asks you who you want responding to your 911 call at 3 a.m., ask yourself whether you’d want one of these officers there to help. And if the department truly views itself as a leader in training and accountability, why does this behavior continue to take place?

SPD claims that it’s led the way in the realm of police accountability. But based on the many, many instances of Seattle officers abusing their power only to remain with the department, it’s clear that the system of accountability currently in place is not only failing to root out the bad apples — it’s allowing their seeds to take root and grow.

Questions, comments, or feedback? Follow Nick Bowman on Twitter at @NickNorthwest to weigh in, or reach him by email at [email protected]

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