If there's a "blue wall of silence" at the Seattle Police Department—a code of not speaking up about misconduct by fellow officers—Captain David Proudfoot doesn't appear to be abiding by it.
On the evening of January 3, 2015, a veteran Seattle police department officer named Clark Dickson punched a homeless 21-year-old in the head. Dickson later said he'd been spit upon and that his "reactionary" punch was justified. He went on to say he'd learned in a training session to punch a suspect who spits. A patrol car's dashcam video captured the punch:
Over one month later, after Captain Proudfoot watched the video, the captain came to believe Officer Dickson had used excessive force and reported Dickson to the department's civilian-led accountability arm for an investigation. That investigation, including a detailed analysis of the video, couldn't definitively prove that the homeless man, Christopher Tavai, ever spit in the first place.
The Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) investigation took months and wrapped up this fall with a recommendation that Dickson—an 11-year veteran of the department—be suspended for two days without pay and undergo retraining. The department brass downgraded the discipline to a one day suspension without pay, which Dickson served on November 1.
"It was completely uncalled for him to beat the guy up," said Timothy Harris, an advocate for the homeless and Executive Director of the newspaper Real Change. But, he said, "I'm pleasantly surprised that anything happened at all. This is the SPD acting without it being something that they're pressured on... How often does this happen when it's not recorded, or when there's no action taken?"
Here's what happened, according to the police: Dickson was dispatched that night as a backup officer to a homeless encampment near Safeco Field, where officers were checking for men with outstanding warrants. It's not clear why they decided to search in this particular camp.
They found Tavai, identified as an Asian/Pacific Islander in their reports, inside a van they believed didn't belong to him.
Dashboard videos from three different patrol cars show how officers handled their interactions with the campers. One officer calls one of the men, who they eventually arrested for an outstanding theft warrant, over to a patrol car and talks with him affably about how to find a job. Their interaction is friendly.
But as officers walk Tavai over to another patrol car and ask him for ID, he doesn't speak up and keeps his hands in his pockets. This puts the officers on edge, and Dickson, a barrel-chested 11 year veteran of the force, squares up opposite from him. The audio is hard to make out, but according to an analysis of the car's dashcam video, Dickson tells Tavai not to spit, and Tavai responds, "Yes, I will."
Then Dickson, without warning, punches him in the head, and they go to ground. Dickson told the OPA he delivered a few more punches to Tavai's chest area while restraining and arresting him.
Dickson argued in his interview with investigators that punching Tavai in the head represented the opposite of excessive force—less than the force used against him—because if Tavai's spit had landed in his mouth, "it could have been a death sentence."
"That's such crap," said Real Change's Harris. He recalled participating in an anti-homelessness protest last year and pleading with officers escorting them to do something about a belligerent bystander who started spitting at a homeless man in the march.
"I think it's interesting that in one case, spitting at somebody is something that doesn't rise to the level of police attention," Harris said. "And in the other, it's something that justifies decking a guy and that being seen as a tempered response."
Tavai, who Dickson said seemed intoxicated, was booked into jail on charges of assault, but King County prosecutors declined to file charges against him.
The OPA didn't buy Dickson's explanations. It found that Dickson escalated the situation, to begin with, with his posture and tone:
"Stare down" behavior combined with the body posturing, tone and tenor of the words exchanged between the Named Employee [Dickson] and subject escalated the interaction. While not rising to the level of a taunt, the conduct lead to the Named Employee being close enough to the subject to be spat on. The resulting punch was immediate and occurred even before the partner officer began reacting to the spit. Timing of his reaction suggests that the Named Employee's actions were pre-meditated.
The punch to the face was not proportionate to the level of assault even accounting for the biohazard concerns legitimately created by spitting. A partner officer immediately available provided the opportunity to employ other, more proportionate tactics to accomplish the task of protecting himself from further assault and controlling the subject's assaultive actions.
It also found that while Dickson did attend "Street Skills" training sessions in 2014, there wasn't any official instruction given to officers to punch spitting suspects. Dickson clarified that the idea came from a teacher in a "side discussion in the classroom."
This isn't the first time that training sessions—a big piece of Department of Justice-mandated reforms at SPD—haven't made the right impression on officers. Earlier this year, the New York Times filmed a session in which the instructor feebly argued against a storm of criticism by officers in his own class—including criticism from an officer who said he would deescalate a situation by shoving a gun in someone's face. "This is what the DOJ is saying, not me," the trainer said weakly.
The SeattlePI.com reported recently that Proudfoot, the captain who reported the punch to the OPA, was demoted and transferred out of the South Precinct to West Seattle in 2015. He said the demotion and transfer represented retaliation by chief Kathleen O'Toole, after Proudfoot stood up for an officer described as a whistleblower.
The OPA records related to this case were obtained through a public records request by accountability activist Michael O'Dell and shared with The Stranger.
This post has been updated since its original publication.