Seeing Seattle Police Sgt. Rich O'Neill, president of the Seattle Police Officer's Guild (and overseer of their inflammatory newspaper), actually open his mustachioed mouth within earshot of a Stranger reporter is a rare pleasure, like hearing a nightingale sing spit obscenities.
Which is how I was lured to the Seattle Municipal Court for a few hours today to watch O'Neill testify in SPD officer Garth Haynes's assault trial.
"This is a politically-motivated prosecution," O'Neill told the court at one point.
To refresh your memory, Haynes is the officer made infamous for allegedly kicking a prone, handcuffed suspect in the head outside a Ballard bar in 2010. He is also the first SPD officer in roughly a decade since 2005 to be tried for assault in Seattle, according to the City Attorney's office. (Jurors are expected to hear closing arguments today or tomorrow morning before reaching their verdict.)
And thank Christ in a Kevlar™ vest, O'Neill didn't disappoint. In an hour's worth of testimony, the SPOG president argued that Haynes would've been justified in taking out his weapon and shooting the men he brawled with and he accused Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes of lying. (I'm currently waiting for City Attorney's office response to that.) It was quite the show!
The goods after the jump:
But first, a caveat: I was trying my best to preserve the integrity of O'Neill's quotes and sometimes that came at the expense of the questions posed by defense attorney Oscar Desper and City Prosecutor Craig Sims—the Criminal Division Chief at the City Attorney's office. Meaning, their questions are not always direct quotes. They've been paraphrased or shortened by me. And sometimes O'Neill's quotes were shortened by me because he's a rambler. Enjoy!
Desper: Did Hague relay to you what happened that night? O'Neill: He was relaying to me what the incident was. Knocked down by a drunk white male who knocked him down, kicked him, punched him... I remember him distinctly telling me, “Rich, I was about ready to pull out my weapon.” And then he heard the sirens and knew he could hold on a little while longer.
That is an incredibly dangerous situation. As an officer, you’re required to be armed within city limits, whether you’re on or off duty. When someone gets ahold of your firearm, training and experience tells you it doesn’t end well... The officer is trained to protect their firearm. It isn’t just a bar fight, it isn’t just a brawl, it turns into a life or death situation.
Desper: Do you think deadly force would've been justified? O'Neill: As the case has been described to me, and with all the racial overtones [Hague is black, the three other men are white], I say absolutely it would’ve been justified.
Sims: As part of your role as union prez, you consider yourself to be a deal maker? O'Neill: Part of my job is to negotiate, if that’s what you’re getting at.
Sims: You attempted to work out a deal with Mr. Holmes, is that correct? O'Neill: That is not true, sir.
Sims: If he dropped the case, you agreed not to speak against him as union president? O'Neill: That is an outright lie, sir. There was no attempt to work out a deal when I had a conversation with Mr. Holmes.
Sims: So there was no attempt to work out a deal? O'Neill: Not as you described it… I’ve always offered Mr. Holmes the opportunity to meet and speak.
This is a politically-motivated prosecution. I believe that this officer is the victim in this case… and he’s getting charged because he pushes his foot and comes in contact with a guy who’s on the ground? And we just want to make the point in the paper that we’re going after officers for political gain? That gets me riled up.
Sims: You said a shooting would’ve been justified in this case, is that correct? O'Neill: Three people beating up on one, if an officer has identified himself and is fearing for his life, yes it would’ve been.
Sims: Are you aware that this whole deal started because a woman mistakenly took his coat? O'Neill: It started because of a theft of his coat.
Sims: Are you aware that off Haynes retrieved his coat before this melee started? O'Neill: I am not aware… the woman initially wasn’t going to give his coat back.
Sims: So you're saying a shooting would’ve been justified over a coat. O'Neill: Absolutely not. For Garth Haynes to show restraint… it could’ve ended that way but it didn’t.
Sims: You’re aware that three individuals were charged with a crime—in KC Superior court. O'Neill: That’s correct.
Sims: Charged with felonies. O'Neill: Felony assault as I understand.
Sims: So they were, in fact, charged for their role in this incident. O'Neill: They were initially charged, that’s correct.
Sims: And [the case] was dismissed because the defendant exercised his 5th Amendment right not to testify. O'Neill: That is not true. I know what was put out, sir. [Haynes] put out a three-page victim’s statement, he was willing to go to court… but they wanted to question him about what happened to after the police got there which had nothing to do with him as a victim.
Sims: Because they wanted to discuss that with him, he asserted his 5th Amendment right not to testify and they dismissed. O'Neill: ... I think the city attorney was waiting to see what he would do, so they could use that against him.
Sims: Have you seen the order? O'Neill: I probably have.
Sims: Then you’re aware that the reason the case was dismissed, was because he exercised his 5th Amendment right. O'Neill: I’m sure it probably says that but like what’s been played out in the press, it’s pieces of information that doesn’t tell the whole story.
Sims: The video shows that officer Haynes foot made contact with [Jake Baijot-Clary]. Do you think that looks like a reasonable thing to do? O'Neill: The first thing I see when I see that portion of the video is him being helped up, steadied on his feet. That leads me to believe he’s had his bell rung, is maybe a bit dizzy.
Sims: So what you’re saying is it was an accident? O'Neill: No, I’m not saying it was an accident… if someone gets up after undergoing an attack, where they were contemplating using lethal force… you might not be thinking clearly when you use your foot to push one of them aside… you have to look at the totality of what he went through.
Sims: So what police tactic or use of force was that? O'Neill: I didn’t say it was a police tactic or a police use of force. I said you have to look at the totality of what he was going through. [Says something like, “We don’t know his mental state.”]
Sims: So he could’ve been angry. O'Neill: Sure, he could’ve been. Anything’s possible.
[Sims has O'Neill read from the SPD code of ethics—the entire first paragraph, including: I will keep my private life unsullied as an example to all…I will maintain courageous calm… develop self restraint… I will be exemplary in obeying the law.]
Sims: Do you think he lived up to that code? O'Neill: I believe that officer Haynes, like all of us, is a human being, and as long as we recruit from the human race [HAR HAR HAR goes the officer-packed audience] we will have people at times who make a mistake, who wish they could rewind the tape and take it back. And I believe he’s strived to keep his professional and personal life unsullied. I think he tried, like we all do, to live up to that.
Sims: Did he try and succeed or try and fail? O'Neill, after dodging the question a few times: I know, from talking to Garth, he wishes he could take back that whole evening. But hindsight is always 20-20. But until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes and had your bell rung, you don’t know how you would’ve reacted.
Sims: So did he try and succeed or try and fail? O'Neill: I think he tried to succeed. But I think, because of what’s been made of this, he’d like to take back the last portion of that video. Who wouldn’t?