The last time a Seattle police chief tried to fire one of the city's 1,300 officers for using excessive force, the officer got his job back through a special tribunal stacked two-to-one with police. That was seven years ago.
The tribunal's ruling is a chilling read. According to the report, officer Donald George approached a colleague's patrol car on April 10, 2007. A 16-year-old Somali American teenager, arrested for breaking into a car, sat handcuffed in the backseat. (The Stranger is not printing the teenager's name because he was a juvenile at the time.)
As George drew closer to the car, the teenager declined to answer police questions and asked for an attorney. That pissed George off, the officer admitted. He responded by placing the teenager in a "hair hold." As the teenager tried to pull away, he told police later, the officer "slammed his head into the back of the driver's seat."
Another cop, Officer David Harrington, was in the driver's seat of the car. He heard the teenager saying, "no, no, no" and the sound of something hitting the partition. The officer heard George call the young man a "piece of shit." It happened so fast that by the time Harrington turned around, George was walking away.
The teenager cried as Harrington drove him to the precinct.
Back at the police station, Harrington began typing up a statement about the incident. The tribunal's ruling, written by arbitrator Janet Gaunt, recounts that while Harrington was typing his statement, George walked up and "said something to the effect that he would never get Harrington in trouble." Harrington came to feel that George wanted to influence his statement, and he told George the situation was making him uncomfortable. George started trying to tell his side of the story, but Harrington stopped him. When George asked to read the finished statement, Harrington declined to show it to him.
Officers who investigated the incident found that George used excessive force on the teenager and, to boot, was untruthful under questioning. "You denied directing demeaning remarks at the suspect, and your explanations for your physical engagement with the suspect are false," wrote then-police chief Gil Kerlikowske. He terminated George's 28-year career with the department.
The Seattle Police Officers' Guild appealed the firing, and it was in the course of this appeal that the case of Officer George came before the three-person tribunal, known as the Discipline Review Board. How each member voted on this case is unclear, but in the end the tribunal overruled Chief Kerlikowske's firing. Gaunt, the arbitrator whose presence on the board had been mutually agreed upon by the SPD and the officers' guild, said that the "hair hold" represented unnecessary force and that George should have simply walked away when the teenager declined to speak with him. But Gaunt decided there wasn't enough evidence to substantiate the other allegations—that George had been dishonest or that he pressured Harrington to change his story. Gaunt ordered a 30-day suspension instead of his termination and directed the SPD to pay the officer $75,000 in back wages and benefits.
It's cases like this that officials at SPD quietly point to when they attempt to explain why more officers haven't been fired over the years. Even in circumstances that seem unambiguous and offensive to the average citizen, officers can appeal their firing through the union and get their jobs back. George had a long and storied disciplinary record beyond the 2007 incident—according to the Seattle Times, he was nicknamed "Diamond Don" for allegedly stealing a ring from a dead body in 1986. (He reportedly denied the allegation.) But even he couldn't be gotten rid of, and is now in his 36th year on the force.
Soon, police chief Kathleen O'Toole will need to decide what to do with Officer Cynthia Whitlatch. The chief placed Whitlatch on paid leave in January pending an investigation after The Stranger reported on her apparent racial profiling of an elderly African American veteran and her racist remarks in a Facebook post in 2014. The results of that investigation are due from the Office of Professional Accountability by July 27 at the latest.
Many believe Whitlatch should have already been fired. "There's no way you're going to give us a remedy short of terminating her from the police department," said Seattle-King County NAACP president Gerald Hankerson in a February interview. "We've seen the evidence of her mind-set, how she feels about people of color... I want the mayor and the city to send a message to all the officers by terminating this officer."
O'Toole, who marked one year with the department in June, says she's more than willing to fire problem officers. "I have no trouble whatsoever making those decisions," she told The Stranger. "If people deserve it, of course." She also pointed out that in every instance during her tenure thus far, she's accepted the recommendations of the Office of Professional Accountability after it has finished investigations of officers alleged to have behaved inappropriately. (In order to fire an officer, the chief is required to have just cause, which can only be determined by an investigation by the OPA.) OPA director Pierce Murphy declined to comment on the chief's approach to disciplining cops. But, as O'Toole noted, "There is a set of serious cases in the pipeline." Presumably, the case of Officer Whitlatch is one of the "serious cases" she's waiting to hear from the OPA about.
When it comes to terminations, O'Toole could go well beyond Whitlatch. Seattle civil rights lawyer Cleveland Stockmeyer has represented clients who've sued the department and won settlements from the city for mistreatment. The officers involved, however, haven't been fired. He's calling on O'Toole to root out and dismiss all officers who've engaged in excessive force. In 2011, Stockmeyer points out, the Department of Justice found that Seattle police officers used excessive force in approximately 20 percent of all cases. The DOJ didn't name the officers who carried out that excessive force, but it did find that just 20 officers accounted for 18 percent of all force incidents in 2010. Three years later, more than 120 officers attempted to block new rules on use of force—Whitlatch and Officer Eugene Schubeck, on whose behalf the city just paid out nearly $2 million to settle an excessive-force lawsuit, among them. Clearly, there are more problem officers to deal with than just Whitlatch.
Real reform at the SPD, Stockmeyer argues, would involve combating the pattern of excessive force by actually identifying the multiple bad apples who've engaged in excessive force over the years, and then firing them. "The thing about bad apples is, you have to remove them from the barrel," he said. "If you don't get rid of them, pretty soon the whole barrel is tainted, from the bottom to the top. And the distinction between good apples and bad apples is lost."
Suppose Chief O'Toole wanted to fire all of the officers, dating back to 2011, who she believes have used excessive force. What about the power of the union to overturn her decisions?
There are two answers to this question: First, O'Toole needs the city to bargain hard with SPOG, the police union, this year, and in doing so, scrap the Discipline Review Board—the body that gave George his job back. Union appeals of decisions she makes should be routed through a single neutral body, rather than a special tribunal stacked two-to-one with police. The Community Police Commission (a civilian review board) and the OPA auditor firmly agree on this point. It's up to the city, and specifically Mayor Ed Murray, to deliver. If he does, that will strengthen O'Toole's hand.
Second, however, is that O'Toole simply needs to fire officers who deserve to be fired, period. Amid all the talk of reforming police departments across the country, vesting civilian boards with the power to fire cops isn't in the cards—not the federal government's cards, at least. That power, ultimately, rests with individual police chiefs.
We don't need to look far for a chief with a track record of fully exercising that power. King County sheriff John Urquhart's office is in downtown Seattle, right down the block from O'Toole's. In the past year alone, according to public records, the sheriff has fired seven of his deputies, out of a force of 684—dismissing about 1 percent of his sworn personnel.
So far, O'Toole has presided over the sudden ends of the careers of three officers, out of a total of about 1,300. One of those officers, Peter Leutz, was fired for hitting on women using information he'd gleaned from investigations. Another officer, Eric Smith, resigned after being indefinitely suspended when he was charged with child molestation. And parking enforcement officer Jamaal Sommer resigned "in lieu of termination" after being charged with incest. If you count all of these cases as "firings," that's a firing rate for O'Toole of 0.2 percent.
Urquhart, who campaigned on a platform of rooting out bad cops and corruption at the sheriff's department, relishes the chance to talk about his disciplinary process. (He's elected, unlike O'Toole, who's appointed.)
"The culture of an organization reflects whoever's at the top," Urquhart said gruffly in an interview. "I want this process to reflect me and what I think is important. Since I was elected, I get to make the rules."
That culture, Urquhart said, is one that doesn't "tolerate BS." He's fired officers for dishonesty, racist and homophobic text messages, and improperly using parking passes. He said he knows the firings tend to piss off the union that represents the rank-and-file officers and may affect morale. But what's worse, in his view, is having a substandard employee get away with stuff and drag down other cops and the department as a whole. Urquhart said when he makes a decision to fire someone, "it doesn't concern me whether I lose or win at arbitration." Many of the officers he's fired throughout his term so far can still appeal—some of them are doing so, in fact—and possibly win their jobs back. But that's a risk he's willing to accept head-on.
I asked Urquhart if he is effectively "cracking the whip" at the sheriff's department. That phrase wasn't mine, though. It comes from SPOG president Ron Smith, who complained last year that Jim Pugel, a former interim Seattle police chief, "was trying to jockey for the permanent job and crack the whip... people have to realize that cops have due process rights just like anyone else." Smith has vowed to fight in labor negotiations against any attempt to abolish the Discipline Review Board, and he declined to answer directly when asked whether O'Toole has fired enough officers given the continuing problems with officer behavior within the SPD. "As you well know," Smith wrote in an e-mail, "discipline must be for just cause. In the instances the chief has terminated officers, there was sufficient just cause."
For his part, Urquhart said yes, he's undoubtedly cracking the whip. Last year, he installed Pugel—pushed out of the SPD after Mayor Ed Murray's election—as his number two in command.
Does O'Toole need to crack the whip at the SPD? "Oh, absolutely," Urquhart said. "You won't have time for 'Seattle nice' when decisive action is required."