Garfield High School teacher Jesse Hagopian spoke out this morning at City Hall to ask Chief Kathleen O'Toole about accountability for officers under her command—specifically, why she lessened the discipline for Officer Sandra Delafuente, who pepper-sprayed Hagopian on Martin Luther King Day. The discipline was changed, I reported on Monday, from a one-day suspension, as initially recommended by the Office of Professional Accountability and an internal disciplinary panel, to a mere oral reprimand.
"My question for the council today is why police Chief O'Toole downgraded the discipline for the officer who assaulted me," Hagopian said. "Why weren't you all informed about her decision?
He added: "The larger question is: If our citizens who have definitive proof of police misconduct on video can't get justice, then who can?"
Under questioning by Council Members Kshama Sawant, Nick Licata, and Bruce Harrell, O'Toole's explanation for the decision was threefold:
1) Delafuente grew emotional and apologized during a closed-door hearing with the disciplinary panel;
2) "Command let her down" by asking her and other officers to hold a line blocking a peaceful protest march which they apparently couldn't hold;
3) Another officer behind her had fallen down and injured himself.
"She admitted her adrenaline was pumping," O'Toole said. "She thought they needed to clear the street to make way for the ambulance."
"She's been stellar," O'Toole added. "She is not a bad cop."
O'Toole said the Center for Policing Equity is engaged in a review of Martin Luther King Day and how Seattle police handle demonstrations in general. "We will get some findings from this group," she said, "and certainly, it's a lesson learned for us."
One thing they might want to look into: The officer who needed an ambulance, Ronald Hylton, tripped over himself while chasing after someone and sprained his ankle. Police arrested Mohawk Kuzma and Michael O'Dell, accused them of assaulting Hylton, and referred them to prosecutors for charges. Video evidence from a bystander clearly exonerated both of them and prosecutors declined to file charges. During the arrest process, the police lost Kuzma's wallet, leaving him stranded without ID and his credit cards for over a week. O'Toole eventually tracked it down and returned it to him.
The police chief said she isn't aware of any investigations into the officers who made false accusations against protesters. Nor did she indicate that any of the command staff would be investigated or held accountable for the orders they gave officers like Delafuente.
"Mistakes were made on Martin Luther King Day by both Officer Delafuente and the Seattle Police Department on a command level," said the Public Defender Association, in a statement issued this afternoon. Because those mistakes harmed Hagopian and relationships with community leaders, the PDA said, "it is therefore vitally important that our police misconduct investigation system validate that this should not have happened and should not happen again."
Questioned by Seattle Weekly's Casey Jaywork and I, the police chief made a few more important points:
- The police chief supports the ordinance developed by the Community Police Commission, currently being considered by the federal judge who oversees the consent decree, which would close the loophole that allowed her to make the Delafuente disciplinary decision without being required to notify elected officials. Hooray!
- She believes there's another flaw in the disciplinary system: the OPA, as part of an internal committee, makes a disciplinary recommendation and transmits it to the officer before he or she has an opportunity to plead his or her case. "We're making these ballpark guesses as to what the discipline should be," she said, before allowing the officer to, as in this case, express contrition or bring up mitigating circumstances.
- Do black lives matter? Last time I asked the police chief about this, O'Toole said, "Everybody's life matters, as far as I'm concerned," and said she couldn't take a political position by holding a sign bearing the slogan. This time, she said, "Of course. Of course, black lives matter." You won't hold a sign saying so, though the mayor did, I interjected. "Well, I don't go to demonstrations in that capacity. I mean, black lives matter. I think I've demonstrated my whole career that I care deeply about race and social justice."
Downgrading the discipline for Delafuente, she added, "sends a conflicting message that you can have an officer who loses her cool and actually harms a citizen and isn't fired and dealt with the way [Cynthia] Whitlatch was. I already don't trust the police, but it makes me more fearful, not just for myself and folks like Jesse, but for our teenagers and young people who might not have the capacity that I do."