Footage captured within Seattle Police precinct shows ‘appalling’ tombstone for Black man killed

Jul 13, 2023, 7:46 AM | Updated: 8:09 am

breakroom footage tombstone...

Fencing outside SPD's East Precinct. (Photo courtesy of SPD Blotter)

(Photo courtesy of SPD Blotter)

The Seattle Police Department (SPD) is coming under scrutiny after body camera footage published by The Seattle Times showed a room within the East Precinct decorated with some problematic items.

The video is from January 2021, several months after the department abandoned the precinct during the 2020 protests on police violence.

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The footage from the room, which contains an area for bike repair and a gathering area with a couch, several chairs and a television, shows various items. The list of items includes a replica tombstone for Damarius Butts, showing the date he was killed by Seattle police, a Trump 2020 flag, a U.S. Flag, a Black Lives Matter logo on a piece of plywood and an Anarcho-Socialist flag.

Butts was involved in an armed robbery of a downtown Seattle 7-Eleven in 2017. When police confronted Butts, he fired at them, and they fired back. Three officers were injured during the incident, and Butts was killed after being shot 11 times. A 2022 inquest into the incident ruled that police were justified in their use of force.

The Times reported the tombstone is no longer in the break room.

The Times also notes the Trump 2020 flag, readily available during Republican former President Donald Trump’s 2020 presidential campaign, was hung “in possible violation of state law and department policy regulating officers’ involvement in partisan politics while on duty.”

Commission reaction

Joel Merkel Jr., co-Chair of the Seattle Community Police Commission — a self-governed civilian group overseeing the department — said in a statement the tombstone being displayed is indicative of a wider culture issue at SPD.

“I was horrified that this was something that would be displayed in a break room of the Seattle Police Department,” Merkel said. “This is a culture that just cannot exist in any police department, much less a police department that’s under a federal consent decree … to have a tombstone for him in their break room, while his inquest into the circumstances of his death had already begun, is just absolutely appalling.”

“We are also extremely disappointed in SPD’s explanation of the video to the community, which clearly does not match what we can all see on the video,” Merkel added.

SPD responds

SPD declined to comment over the phone when contacted initially.

Department Public Affairs Lieutenant John O’Neil released a statement late Wednesday afternoon condemning the items in the video.

“While we do not know the origin or intent behind items observed in the East Precinct Bicycle Repair Room, there is no question that they are inappropriate and have no place in a (Seattle) facility,” O’Neil’s statement reads. “We understand that OPA is investigating, and we pledge our full support to ensure OPA has all it needs for a thorough and complete record.  We are reviewing our policies and procedures with respect to the maintenance and use of our facilities …”

O’Neil acknowledged incidents such as this hurts the SPD, but he also noted age of the footage.

“Much has changed in 2 ½ years since this footage was recorded, including a renewed commitment to relational policing and proactive engagement across all of Seattle’s diverse communities,” O’Neil said. “But we know that it takes time to build trust, that trust is fragile, and that incidents like this are entirely self-inflicted wounds that set us back in those efforts …”

What comes next?

The Seattle Office of Police Accountability opened an investigation into the issue and will update their findings in their report here.

Merkel is now looking to engage with SPD and Police Chief Adrian Diaz on the issue, asking what has been done to prevent such displays in the future.

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“One of the important roles of the community police commission is to advise the City Council on policy and advise the SPD on policy and policy changes. And we want to get to the bottom of what happened that allowed this display to be put up,” Merkel said. “I want to hear from Chief Diaz. What’s different today? What rules and policies apply to the situation? How would he handle the situation if it happened today?”

Contributing: Sam Campbell, KIRO Newsradio; Steve Coogan

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Footage captured within Seattle Police precinct shows ‘appalling’ tombstone for Black man killed