Summary: A pattern of police killings of people of color in Seattle has led to persistent community protests, but no real change — Editors
On June 18th, 2017, two Seattle police officers shot Black, pregnant mother Charleena Lyles, killing her and her unborn child and leaving her four children orphaned. The encounter was initiated when Lyles called 911 to request that officers respond to an attempted burglary at her house. As they responded to the call, officers Jason Anderson and Steven McNew discussed their knowledge of Lyles’s ongoing mental health issues, describing her behavior as “crazy.”[i] Both officers had left their department-issued Tasers at the precinct and no-less-than-lethal means were attempted to subdue Lyles. The officers shot Lyles’s petite, 97-lb body seven times, twice in the back.[ii] After witnessing her killing, Lyles’s 11-year-old son was forced to step over his mother’s lifeless body as he left his home where the shooting took place.[iii]
Lyles’s killing immediately sparked a local outcry that garnered national media attention. Two days after the shooting, hundreds rallied outside Lyles’s apartment, then marched three miles to the University of Washington calling for an investigation into the shooting and for charges to be brought against the officers involved. The local and national media reported the details of the killing and the public’s response, but true to form, the media did little to contextualize the killing. When context was offered, it was often from a national perspective, with reference to recent police shootings of Black men such Philando Castille in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Louisiana.[iv]
While this national context is salient, even more important for understanding the local response to Lyles’s killing is the history of police abuses in Seattle itself. After all, the protests and marches in the wake of Lyles’s killing and others are organized and attended almost entirely by local residents and organizations whose historical memory of prior incidents informs their response to uses of force by Seattle police. It is not just opinions about police in general, but direct knowledge of the prior actions of the department that inform these responses.
What follows is an account of a few of the most salient moments in the history of police use of force and the movements in response since 2010; The shootings of John T Williams and Che Taylor, and the arrest of William Wingate. This account aims to illuminate for the reader incidents that informed those who responded to Lyles’s killing, and who are also likely to respond to the likely continuation of unjustified uses of force by police. This account also reveals important patterns that these incidents exhibit; 1) police abuse being directed against minority communities, 2) SPD making statements favorable abusive officers in the immediate aftermath of their transgressions that are later called into question or proved false, 3) a consistent response of protest and marching by Seattle residents in response to incidents of police abuse, 4) a lack of accountability for Seattle police officers.
John T Williams
The August 2010 shooting of Nuu-chah-nulth tribal member[v] and professional wood carver John T Williams in downtown Seattle began a new era in the city’s relationship with its police department; the era of the consent decree. Dashboard video of Williams’ killing records Seattle Police Officer Ian Birk firing five shots at Williams less than 20 seconds after seeing him cross the street, while holding a cedar board.[vi] SPD spokesperson Sean Whitcomb initially claimed that Williams “lunged” or “advanced” on Officer Birk with a folding knife Williams used for wood carving. These claims were quickly retracted by SPD in the face of witness testimony and physical evidence to the contrary: the knife was found in the closed position and witness who viewed the daylight shooting said Williams, “Did not look threatening at all.”[vii] Later, SPD’s Firearms Review Board would find that the shooting was “unjustified.” Despite this, the only repercussion faced by Officer Birk would be his resignation from the police force: the county prosecutor, ignoring the pleas of Williams’s family, tribal leaders, and community groups, refused to press charges.
It’s important to remember that Williams’s shooting was only one of numerous incidents of shocking, and sometimes deadly, uses of force by the Seattle Police Department in the first eight months of 2010.[viii] Yet it was Williams’s shooting that would lead to a massive public outcry including protest marches with hundreds of participants,[ix] and a letter from the ACLU of Washington to the Department of Justice requesting a federal investigation into the Seattle Police Department.
A nine-month Department of Justice investigation in 2011 found that the Seattle Police Department systematically engaged in illegal uses of force, and also raised, “Serious concerns about biased policing.”[x] After attempting to fight these findings, the city of Seattle entered into a settlement with the DOJ to eliminate unconstitutional policing resulting in a consent decree that remains in effect to this day. Under the consent decree, SPD has submitted to numerous changes in policies and training overseen by a federal monitor. However, this did not eliminate incidents of biased policing and illegal uses of force.
In July 2014, Seattle Police Officer Cynthia Whitlach arrested 69-year-old, Black Air Force Veteran and retired bus driver William Wingate. Wingate was on his daily walk through Seattle’s Central District, using a golf club as a cane. Dashcam video shows Whitlach yelling at Wingate to put his golf club down, and claiming he had swung the club at her, though the video clearly shows this did not occur. After being arrested, Wingate was refused water by police for eight hours and spent the night in King County Jail.[xi] The next day, city prosecutors charged him with unlawful use of a weapon. Wingate agreed to an order of continuance, essentially “admitting guilt and pledging not to commit any crimes for the next two years.”[xii]
If not for an unusual set of circumstances, the injustice suffered by Wingate might never have come to light. It took two months and the intervention of Washington State Representative Dawn Mason for the city prosecutors to drop Wingate’s charges. Still, the incident remained unreported and largely unknown until another four months later, in January 2015, when dashcam video was obtained and published by a local weekly magazine, The Stranger. What remains unknown is how many similar cases exist in which charges were upheld instead of dropped, which did not capture the public’s attention, or how many Seattleites have had to live with the legal consequences of an illegal arrest.
In Wingate’s case, the press attention created a very different outcome. SPD spokesperson Sean Whitcomb initially responded to the publication of the dashcam video saying “We don’t believe this was a biased policing incident.”[xiii] This statement was seriously undermined later that same day when The Stranger published a Facebook post by Officer Whitlach.
It read, in part: “If you believe that blacks are NOT[sic] accusing white America for their problems then you are missing the point of the riots in Ferguson and the chronic black racism that far exceeds any white racism in this country. I am tired of black peoples[sic] paranoia that white people are out to get them.”
The day after the post’s publication, January 29th 2015, Officer Whitlatch was placed on desk duty. However, it was unclear why SPD did not take this action earlier since the department was aware of the post for months before it was published. In August, 2014, a citizen complaint about the post was sent to the SPD’s Office of Police Accountability, which in turn advised SPD to take action to address and correct Whitlatch’s behavior. According to SPD, the entirety of this action was a discussion between Whitlach and her supervisor.[xiv]
On February 7th, 2015, Wingate lead more than 100 supporters on a march through Seattle. The marchers carried golf clubs and called for Whitlatch’s firing and criminal justice reform.[xv] In September 2015, 14 months after Wingate’s arrest, Officer Whitlatch was fired from SPD. However, in August 2017, the city of Seattle reached a settlement with Whitlatch that reversed her termination and allowed her to collect $105,000 in back pay.[xvi]
On February 21st, 2016 SPD officers Scott Miller and Michael Spaulding shot and killed Che Taylor, a 42-year-old Black man. Police dash camera video shows Taylor standing on the sidewalk inside the open, passenger-side door of a parked, white Ford Taurus sedan, with his hands on the roof of the car. Two officers carrying long guns approach Taylor from the rear of the car and tell Taylor to, “Get down!” Taylor raises his hands briefly, then begins to crouch down between the car door and the open passengers side. As he disappears from view behind the car door, police seemingly contradict their first command, yelling, “Hands up.” Less than two seconds later they shoot Che Taylor six times in his back left side; once in his buttocks, two times in his triceps, and three times in the back. One of the three bullets that entered his back pierced his heart, according to the medical examiner that conducted his autopsy.[xvii]
SPD’s justification for Taylor’s killing was outlined by police the day after the shooting on their online police blotter: “[Taylor] did not follow officers’ commands, and instead leaned into the Taurus. According to officers, as well as a civilian witness interviewed by investigators, Taylor reached for his handgun, leading officers to fire.”[xviii]Â The two major assertions of this statement – 1) that Taylor did not follow police commands and, 2) that Taylor was in possession of a handgun – were immediately called into question by members of the public, including NAACP chapter president Gerald Hankerson and Taylor Family attorney James Bible. Ultimately, an inquest jury would determine that Che Taylor did in fact follow police commands.[xix] As for whether Taylor had a gun, attorney James Bible described the shifting accounts of SPD in the shootings immediate aftermath: “First, he’s got a gun on him; second, he has a gun within reach; next, he was reaching into the car — oh no, he wasn’t reaching in to the car, the gun was on him. The message is ever-shifting, but ultimately we can’t trust the police department.”[xx]
Revelations about the recovery and origins of the gun in question lent credence to Bible’s statements of mistrust. Ultimately the officers testified that they did not see the gun they thought Che Taylor was drawing when they shot him.[xxi] In fact, the gun the police claimed was Taylor’s wasn’t recovered until over 12 hours later, after the Ford Taurus had been towed to an impound lot. Only then did that the police execute a search warrant for the vehicle and find a “loaded Springfield pistol on the floorboard of the car.”[xxii] It is unclear why the gun was not recovered by police at the scene considering that if the gun was in fact drawn from a holster, it would have been likely that it landed in plain view. Also unclear is why the police allowed the car to be towed for miles if they had reason to believe a loaded gun might be inside.
Then it was revealed that the gun in question was registered to King County Sheriff’s deputy Daniel Murphy.[xxiii] Murphy purchased the gun in 2013 while a sheriff, but had been recently fired from the Sheriff’s department for an unrelated issue. Although his claims that he had sold the gun long before the shooting were apparently investigated by the ATF, the outcome of these investigations have not been reported.
On February 25, 2017, early one hundred people marched through downtown Seattle protesting Taylor’s killing, blocking intersections, and calling for the justice for Taylor and the resignation of Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole.[xxiv] After an inquest into the incident, prosecutors declined to file charges against officers Spaulding and Miller who remain on the force to this day.
Four months after the end of the inquest into Che Taylor’s shooting, Charleena Lyles was killed by Seattle police, reopening the unhealed wounds wrought by Taylor’s killing and cutting deeper. Claims by police that Lyles was holding a knife recalled the killing of John T Williams, and caused many to question the ultimate effectiveness of the consent decree, now in its fifth year. Memories of Officer Whitlatch’s interpretation of a golf-club-cane as a weapon likely informed doubts about SPD’s assertion that Lyles was wielding a kitchen knife as a weapon while in her kitchen.
Sadly, these salient incidents all share certain characteristics. In each case, the victims of SPD’s use of force were minorities. In each case, SPD made initial statements about the incidents that were later shown to be false. In each case, the Seattle community mobilized in protest against these shootings. However, in no case did these actions lead the prosecution of the police officers who committed the acts in question.
SPD Faces New Oversight Scrutiny of Use Of Force Seattle Times. July 27th 2012
“John T Williams: Dashboard Video of SPD Shooting,” The Stranger Youtube Channel. Dec 17th, 2010
Madrid, Cienna and Holden, Dominic. “The Buck Stops With Nobody,” The Stranger. Sept 9th, 2010
Leonard N Moore, Black Rage In New Orleans: Police Brutality and African American Activism from WWII to Katrina Louisiana State University Press. 2010
Katie Nodjimbadem, “The Long, painful history of police brutality in the US” Smithsonian.com. July 27th, 2017
Renville, Fern. “The Shooting Death of John T Williams,” Indian Country Today. Feb 21 2011
Neal Thompson. “The Carver’s Life,” Seattle Met Magazine. May 2011
McNerthny, Casey. Protesters March In Seattle for John T Williams. Seattle Pi Blog. Feb 16th 2011
Holden, Dominic. “Sept. 16, 2:00 p.m.: Protest Against Police Killing of John T. Williams” The Stranger, Sept 10th 2010
Taylor, Kathleen. “Re: Request to Investigate Pattern or Practice of Misconduct by Seattle Police Department” ACLU of Washington. Dec 3rd 2010
Smith and Durkan. “Investigation of the Seattle Police Department” Sept. 16th 2011
Herz, Ansel. “Video: Seattle Police Jail Elderly Military Veteran for ‘Walking in Seattle While Black’” The Stranger. Jan 28th 2015
Groover, Heidi. “Marchers Carry Golf Clubs to Protest the Arrest of William Wingate and Racial Profiling” The Stranger. Feb 9th, 2015
Herz Ansel. “How the Firing of Officer Cynthia Whitlatch Happened: A Timeline” The Stranger. Sept 16th 2015
Herz, Ansel. “Family Says Che Taylor Was Shot Six Times on the Left Side of His Body” The Stranger. Mar 6th 2016.
“Officer Involved Shooting After Confrontation in Wedgewood Neighborhood” SPD Blotter. Feb 21 2016
Clancy, Amy. “SPD Shooting Witness: Suspect Reached for Handgun in Waistband” KIRO 7 News. Mar 8 2016
“Report: Gun Seized In Che Taylor Shooting Traced To Former Sherrif’s Deputy” KIRO 7 News. May 25th 2016
Herz, Ansel. “Seattle-King County NAACP Identifies Victim of Yesterday’s Police Shooting as Che Taylor” The Stranger. Feb 22nd 2016
Miletich, Steve. “Gun seized in Che Taylor shooting traced to former sheriff’s deputy, officials say,” Seattle Times. May 24th 2016
Miletich, Steve. “Gun found near Che Taylor, who was shot by police, may have had several past owners” Seattle Times. June 8th 2016
Lane, Sharaya. “After killing, family and friends mourn the loss of Charleena Lyles,” June 19th, 2017
Levin, Sam. “Seattle insists it’s a model for progressive policing — so why was Charleena Lyles Killed?” The Guardian. July 17th, 2017
Levin, Sam. “Seattle police shot Charleena Lyles seven times, autopsy finds” The Guardian. Aug 30th 2017
Grover, Heidi, Steven Hesai and Sophia Knauf. “Hundreds of supporters march in rally for Charleena Lyles” The Stranger. Jun 21 2017
Mcnerthney, Casey. “Fatal SPD shooting of Che Taylor: Prosecutor explains why no charges filed” KIRO 7 News. March 14 , 2017
Black, Lester. “Forty Five Minutes Passed Between When a Seattle Police Officer Saw Che Taylor’s Handgun and When Taylor Was Killed” The Stranger. Feb 8th 2017
Garland, Alex. “Almost 100 Protesters Gathered Outside SPD Headquarters Today Demanding Answers About the Death of Che Taylor” The Stranger. Feb 25th, 2017
[i]Â Â Â Â Levin, Sam. “Seattle insists it’s a model for progressive policing — so why was Charleena Lyles Killed?” The Guardian. July 17th, 2017
[ii]Â Â Â Levin, Sam. “Seattle police shot Charleena Lyles seven times, autopsy finds” The Guardian. Aug 30th 2017
[iii]Â Â Lane, Sharaya. “After killing, family and friends mourn the loss of Charleena Lyles,” June 19th, 2017
[iv]Â Â Levin, Sam. “Seattle insists it’s a model for progressive policing — so why was Charleena Lyles Killed?” The Guardian. July 17th, 2017
[v]Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â The Nuu-chah-nulth tribe is a First Nations (Native American) tribe based in British Columbia, Canada. Woodcarving is an occupation passed down through John T Williams’ family. Thompson, 2011; Renville, 2011
[vi]Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â “John T Williams: Dashboard Video of SPD Shooting,” The Stranger Youtube Channel. Dec 17th, 2010
[vii]Â Madrid and Holden, “The Buck Stops With Nobody” 2010
[viii] “On September 4 , officers using a Taser on a man who later died; an officer punching a 17-year-old girl in the face after a routine jaywalking stop in June; Officer Shandy Cobane apparently stomping the head of a Latino suspect in April while shouting, ‘I’m going to beat the fucking Mexican piss out of you, homie’ as the man lay face down on the pavement (King County prosecutors declined to charge Cobane with a felony hate crime); a mentally disabled teenager allegedly beaten by three officers for jaywalking in July 2009 (exonerated of wrongdoing by SPD’s Office of Professional Accountability; the teen has filed a lawsuit against SPD and the City of Seattle).”
[ix]Â Â Holden, Sept 10th 2010; McNertheny, Feb 16th 2011
[x]Â Â Â Smith and Durkan. “Investigation of the Seattle Police Department” Sept. 16th 2011 <https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/crt/legacy/2011/12/16/spd_findletter_12-16-11.pdf>
[xi]Â Â Herz, Ansel. “Video: Seattle Police Jail Elderly Military Veteran for ‘Walking in Seattle While Black’” The Stranger. Jan 28th 2015
[xii]Â Herz Ansel. “How the Firing of Officer Cynthia Whitlatch Happened: A Timeline” The Stranger. Sept 16th 2015
[xiii] Herz, Ansel. “Video: Seattle Police Jail Elderly Military Veteran for ‘Walking in Seattle While Black’” The Stranger. Jan 28th 2015
[xiv] Herz Ansel. “How the Firing of Officer Cynthia Whitlatch Happened: A Timeline” The Stranger. Sept 16th 2015
[xv]Â Groover, Heidi. “Marchers Carry Golf Clubs to Protest the Arrest of William Wingate and Racial Profiling” The Stranger. Feb 9th, 2015
[xvii] Herz, Ansel. “Family Says Che Taylor Was Shot Six Times on the Left Side of His Body” The Stranger. Mar 6th 2016.
[xviii]Â Â Â Â Â “Officer Involved Shooting After Confrontation in Wedgewood Neighborhood” SPD Blotter. Feb 21 2016
[xix] Mcnerthney, Casey. “Fatal SPD shooting of Che Taylor: Prosecutor explains why no charges filed” KIRO 7 News. March 14 , 2017
[xx]Â Mcnerthney, Casey. “Fatal SPD shooting of Che Taylor: Prosecutor explains why no charges filed” KIRO 7 News. March 14 , 2017
[xxi] Black, Lester. “Forty Five Minutes Passed Between When a Seattle Police Officer Saw Che Taylor’s Handgun and When Taylor Was Killed” The Stranger. Feb 8th 2017
[xxii] Miletich, Steve. “Gun found near Che Taylor, who was shot by police, may have had several past owners” Seattle Times. June 8th 2016
[xxiii]Â Â Â Â Â Miletich, Steve. “Gun seized in Che Taylor shooting traced to former sheriff’s deputy, officials say,” Seattle Times. May 24th 2016
[xxiv]Â Â Â Â Â Garland, Alex. “Almost 100 Protesters Gathered Outside SPD Headquarters Today Demanding Answers About the Death of Che Taylor” The Stranger. Feb 25th, 2017