Seattle cops’ serial brutality

May 25, 2011

Johnny Mao and Leela Yellesetty report on a police department's record of racism and abuse.

SEVERAL RECENT high-profile incidents of police brutality have prompted the federal Justice Department to open a formal civil rights investigation into the Seattle Police Department's (SPD) use of force and treatment of minorities.

As part of the investigation, federal attorneys have requested that citizens call, e-mail or take part in an interview about their experiences of abuse by Seattle police. So far, dozens of people have shown up to be interviewed. On May 14, some 30 people gathered at the El Centro de la Raza to tell their stories.

Teenager Jeffrey Dale and his father Rich told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer about an incident of excessive force last year in which a police officer pushed Dale against a car, after mistaking the teen practicing the sport of parkour for a burglar. An elderly woman said that her son had been unlawfully searched for a handgun, after the police labeled him as a gang member.

The investigation couldn't come too soon in the wake of the Seattle police's horrific displays of violence, racism and dishonesty.

Detective Shandy Cobane
Detective Shandy Cobane

In April 2010, detective Shandy Cobane was caught on tape stomping on the head and chest of a Mexican American man, Martin Monetti Jr., while he told him that he was going to "beat the fucking Mexican piss" out of him. As other officers watched, Cobane kicked the unarmed man who it turned out was innocent of any crime.

On May 12, more than a year after the beating, police chief John Diaz announced that Cobane wouldn't be fired, but rather suspended without pay for 30 days and demoted to a desk job. This slap on the wrist was punishment for the officer's use of racial epithets, not the use of force, which was deemed "reasonable."

In response, Monetti has since filed a tort claim against the city, and is seeking a settlement while threatening a lawsuit. "It was pretty obvious that he engaged in misconduct," said Monetti's attorney Lorena Gonzalez. "He used racial slurs, and he used excessive force on a person who wasn't doing anything, just lying on the ground. And he got away with it."

After Diaz's announcement, Cobane came out with a tearful apology, but his behavior in the months since the incident isn't reassuring. A week after beating Monetti, on April 24, 2010, Cobane choked David Rango "just for fun" outside of a downtown Seattle bar, according to Rango. This time, Cobane's dashboard camera was conveniently turned off. Months later, the police officer was caught on video making an obscene gesture at Rango in jail.

In November 2010, footage from a downtown convenience store was released showing undercover officer James Lee kicking a teenager in the leg, chest and face during a roundup of suspects.

Lee is being charged with fourth-degree assault, a gross misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and up to a $5,000 fine.

IN ADDITION, the case with the most egregious display of violence by the SPD came to an abrupt close on April 29 when the city of Seattle and family of John Williams reached a $1.5 million settlement.

In August 2010, Officer Ian Birk took the life of the Native American woodcarver, shooting him four times in the side and back. King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg announced on February 16 that he wouldn't press charges against Birk despite the damning evidence, arguing that state law prohibited him from doing so because the officer considered Williams a threat.

Over the past nine months, Williams' case had become a focus of public outcry, with supporters organizing demonstrations and marches to push for justice. The settlement effectively ends the case, closing the door for any filing of federal charges or appeals.

But while these cases may be settled for now, the examples continue. In June, a video was released of Seattle police officer Ian Walsh punching a 17-year-old African American woman in the face during a stop for jaywalking.

In December, video showed off-duty police officer Garth Haynes kicking a man in the head as the man lay, face down, on the sidewalk with his hands cuffed behind his back. More recently, an officer was captured on camera outside a popular fast-food restaurant, threatening a man, saying, "Do something about it. Just flag me down when we're alone in an alley, man."

Prior to these cases, King County Sheriff's Deputy Matt Paul was caught on videotape brutally slamming Christopher Harris into a wall during a May 2009 altercation, damaging Harris' brain and spinal cord. After a $10 million settlement, Harris remains in a coma in need of 24-hour care, while Paul continues to patrol the streets.

As seems to be a common pattern with SPD officers, Paul has a long record of "striking, tasing, wrestling with suspects; using takedowns, foot sweeps, punches and pepper spray"--all of which are actions deemed appropriate under police department policy, reported KING 5 News.

In fact, police supervisors had warned Paul to "look for alternatives and to avoid arresting people simply because they challenged his authority or weren't respectful."

BUT WARNINGS alone, when sandwiched between inhumane and abuse of force, even have the Justice Department questioning the SPD's judgment.

During its investigation, which only looks into incidences beginning in 2009, the Justice Department will look at patterns and combinations of complaints to determine whether SPD policies are constitutional, and within the scope of the organization.

If a pattern is to be found, the Justice Department will file civil litigation with the aim of changing SPD policies. Essentially, anyone hoping for criminal charges to directly come out of the investigation will be disappointed, as any criminal accusations against individual police officers must be referred to the offices in Washington D.C.

In response to the federal probe, Chief Diaz recently called for the firing of any police officers found to be using racial epithets. This however will not apply retroactively to Shandy Cobane.

During this investigation, the Justice Department is partnering with community organizations such as Chief Seattle Club, American Friends Service Committee, El Centro de la Raza, and Ndns for Justice--many of which have been the location for the Department's citizen interviews.

The mass grassroots organizing that drew attention to these brutality cases in the first place has since turned toward an emphasis on community building, with participatory events that include the John T. Williams Memorial Totem Pole Project and other potential vigils and ceremonies, designed to begin and continue a process of healing.

What will come of the Justice Department review remains to be seen, with any changes to the laws governing the ability to charge police officers will be a welcome change. However, as of now, justice has yet to be served. The true test will come in the not-so-distant future when the next police officer acts outside his or her reasonable bounds.

This officer may utter a hateful racial slur, viciously beat a man or woman, or pull the trigger without thought. At that time, with or without the camera rolling, will the voice of your average citizen still be heard? Or will the occasion once again necessitate protesters to take a collective stand for their rights?

Further Reading

From the archives