"Do you ever want to punch anybody in the face?"
Officer Salvatore Ditusa is sitting in his patrol car at Northgate Mall on June 18, 2014. He is on duty, meeting a friend in the parking lot.
"Like that guy?" the friend asks.
"No, fuck him," Ditusa replies. "I mean everybody today... fucking everywhere you turn, someone needs a clout."
"You get yourself in a lot of trouble," the man warns the officer. "But it sure is tempting."
Ditusa didn't know that his patrol car's dashboard camera was recording that conversation—it was a few minutes out of six hours of video showing Ditusa's shift on the second watch at the North Precinct in the summer of 2014. The camera was self-starting, Ditusa later told investigators.
Over six hours, from 1:41 p.m. to 7:41 p.m., Ditusa complains about new training, insults a fellow officer with a homophobic slur, harasses a homeless guy, intimidates a signature gatherer, and suggests his sergeant steal police files from headquarters. But he doesn't punch anybody.
The then-56-year-old officer would receive a written reprimand after the video came to the attention of the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA). It was Ditusa's 12th disciplinary incident in his 24 years on the force, according to police records.
A 30-year veteran former Seattle police officer who spoke to The Stranger on condition of anonymity said officers like Ditusa make up a small clique within the department, they're seen as pariahs by some of their colleagues, and they should be fired.
"They will never get it," he said, referring to Department of Justice–mandated reforms designed to cut down on excessive use of force and prevent racially biased policing.
The video came to light after someone who witnessed the intimidation of the signature gatherer at Ballard Market filed a complaint with the OPA, alleging Ditusa was "aggressive."
It is a clear, warm day. When the camera starts rolling, Ditusa is driving down a street in North Seattle. Minutes later, he answers his cell phone and begins talking about a young boxer he's training.
"I just want to give this kid every chance to succeed," Ditusa says.
Ditusa arrives at the North Precinct, where he picks up Sergeant Ariel Vela, his direct supervisor with more than 20 years of experience on the force. At this point, it's been three weeks since the two men, along with 121 other Seattle police officers, sued the federal and city government in a bid to block new use-of-force policies—policies many now consider to be a national model for police reform. (Their lawsuit would be thrown out by the courts.)
Ditusa: "We're the plaintiffs and we're suing them."
Vela: "They're going to put us on notice."
Ditusa: "Put us on notice for what? They already told us to get on the bus. The train, or the bus, or whatever the fuck mode of transportation it is."
Vela: "The train wreck!" He laughs.
Ditusa says he wants to find a "good fuckin' job" and "then get the fuck outta here. And don't even tell 'em... Call in sick one day and then burn all your fucking time, until your sick time is gone, and then come in and say, 'Fuck you guys, I'm out of here.'"
Vela, Ditusa's supervisor, doesn't discourage this kind of talk. Vela offers that he wants to quit too, and wonders if his personnel file still contains a record of "that assault, when I was back in my younger days."
According to the former Seattle cop, who was on the force at the time, Vela assaulted someone in the 1980s, an assault that was witnessed by a Metro bus driver. Vela resigned, then re-applied and was hired back onto the force after working for a federal agency for a few years. Vela corroborates the general timeline of events in his interview with the OPA.
The Seattle Police Department and Office of Professional Accountability did not respond to requests for comment. The SPD did not respond to a request to interview the two officers.
Ditusa advises Vela: "Ah fuck, you ought to go there now. Go tomorrow, right out of roll call. Just take it out, who gives a fuck if it's in there. Just take it out and put it under your shirt."
Vela: "Yeah, that's why I want to go down there. Look at it. See what's there. See what I can fucking steal."
As they drive down Highway 99, Ditusa brings up their new court-mandated training. "Man, I hate having to go to training tomorrow with these assholes. Ugh." Vela advises him that he can just go through the motions.
The conversation turns to a fellow officer. "I hate his guts... I don't like that kid. Never did. Never will," Ditusa says.
Vela asks why. Ditusa claims the officer is a swinger who "whored" his wife around the department. He calls him a "fruitcake."
The officers arrive in downtown Seattle at 2:30 p.m. They get a shoeshine. They drive to a building on Fifth Avenue and Olive Way, idly chatting, and get out for a 20-minute stop not captured by the camera. At 3 p.m., Ditusa drops Vela off at the Paramount Theatre. Vela is there for an off-duty job.
Ditusa heads back to the precinct. Someone calls, and Ditusa says, "I gotta get those deals from you, though." He arrives at the precinct at 3:12 p.m., goes inside, and comes out 50 minutes later.
Around 4 p.m., Ditusa receives another call on his cell and then hangs a U-turn. He drives east to the Northgate parking lot. Ditusa greets a man, tells him what a horrible day he's having—and adds how he'd like to punch everyone in the face.
On the way into the parking lot, Ditusa stops to tell a young homeless man with a dog that he is panhandling in an "unsafe spot." "I sit here all the time," the man protests. Ditusa says he received a call about it. There's no evidence of a call on the video. On Ditusa's way out, the young man can be seen putting his things in a backpack.
From Northgate, Ditusa drives to Ballard Market. He arrives at 4:24 p.m and drives slowly near the entrance to the store, calling out to people. He's looking for a guy with a table set up, "protesting or something."
The man is gathering signatures for a referendum on the $15 minimum wage. Still in his car, Ditusa politely notifies him that store managers want him to move to the other entrance. The man argues that he has a right to be there, citing "the Supreme Court of Seattle."
"I don't care about the Supreme Court of Seattle," Ditusa says. "I'm the law right here."
"You're supposed to enforce the law," the signature gatherer says.
Ditusa gets out of his car.
"Look... They can ask you to leave the whole parking lot," Ditusa says. "Then if you don't, I can show you how I enforce the law. Or you can do simply what they ask... You got three seconds. Move this table, or go."
"I don't want to get beat down or nothing," the man says.
"You're not going to get beat down... All right. That's a good idea, especially since I don't carry a Taser."
The implication seems to be that Ditusa is willing to use a kind of force more serious than a Taser if the man doesn't comply. The man moves.
Ditusa leaves Ballard at 4:30 p.m. and drives back to the precinct. The camera stays on for the next three hours as the car sits in the parking lot, capturing the scene as police cars pull in and out. It's not clear what caused the camera to stop recording.
After the complaint regarding Ditusa came in, OPA investigators discovered the video. Almost two months later, in August 2014, Ditusa and Vela told the OPA they were only joking about stealing personnel files. The OPA didn't find any evidence that either man attempted to take anything. The officers said they respected the officer they had insulted. They both said they were embarrassed by their conversation—had they known it was being recorded, they wouldn't have said what they said. And they said the contents of the video represent an isolated incident.
People are allowed to blow off steam about their jobs on the clock. But the public invests extraordinary powers in police officers. And when police are caught bitching about their workplace in a way that demeans their colleagues and their bosses, and gives the public cause to doubt their fairness, serious discipline should be imposed—particularly at the SPD, which is trying to turn itself around. In a recent forum, Chief Kathleen O'Toole claimed she tells everyone at the department they need to "get on board or consider other options."
"If a lawyer talked about taking a file from a court, he would be disbarred," said civil-rights attorney Cleve Stockmeyer, who has won settlements from the SPD over alleged police brutality. "The whole system is designed to give them a pass." Officer Walt Hayden, a member of the Seattle Police Officers' Guild (SPOG) board, accompanied both men to their OPA interviews. In both instances, Hayden warns that the OPA can question the men only about "serious misconduct" recorded by a dashcam video. He cites a 2012 agreement between SPOG and the SPD that restricts how the department can use dashcam video in disciplinary proceedings. Any acts of minor misconduct uncovered in a dashcam video unrelated to the original reason for viewing the tape cannot result in discipline, he says.
"The reason I read this into the record is that simply SPOG believes that this was a fishing expedition," Hayden says. The OPA doesn't question Ditusa about what he was up to at Northgate Mall, his productivity during the six hours, or his interactions with the homeless man. The OPA directed his interaction with the signature gatherer to be dealt with through "supervisor action."
The OPA found that Ditusa and Vela violated the SPD's policy requiring professionalism, but it was inconclusive on whether the officers violated the most basic policy standards requiring them to fulfill their duties and act with integrity.
In disciplinary documents signed by Chief O'Toole, Ditusa received a written reprimand (a draft disciplinary report had suggested a one-day suspension). Vela received a one-day suspension without pay.
The Ditusa case raises questions about department staffing. SPOG claims the city needs hundreds of new officers. "I would love to have the same number of officers per capita as other cities," said Stockmeyer, the attorney. "But what we mainly need are officers who do their job—who don't violate the Constitution and don't have this attitude of being lazy and just milking the public for the paycheck." The former Seattle police officer I spoke to said officers like Ditusa and Vela don't belong on the force. He believes the department missed an opportunity to uphold its stated progressive values and to impose real consequences for officers who are not "on board" with new training and use-of-force policies that require officers to de-escalate wherever possible
"You just can't behave that way," he said. "That's why we're in so much trouble and there's so much doubt now... there are so many stories of infidelity to the oaths that we swore."
This story has been updated since it was first published. It originally misstated the circumstances of Ariel Vela’s departure from the SPD during the 1980s.