- Officer Cynthia Whitlatch arresting an elderly black man for no apparent reason in the summer of 2014. New records show multiple complaints about Whitlatch's conduct dating back to 1997, shortly after she was hired by the SPD.
New records obtained by The Stranger show that Seattle police officer Cynthia Whitlatch was disciplined during her first year on the force after the department concluded she'd caused a disturbance at a Petco store after getting angry about the amount of change handed over in a run-of-the-mill transaction. The records, which date back more than 17 years, raise new questions about whether the SPD does enough to enforce standards of professional conduct. In the Petco incident, which occurred in November of 1997, Whitlatch was found to have "brought discredit" on herself and the SPD. Four years later, in 2002, Whitlatch was again reprimanded by the department for "unprofessional conduct" and "rudeness" in connection with a ticketing incident before a Seahawks game. One year after that, in another ticketing incident, a Seattle resident complained Whitlatch grew angry with him and "threw" multiple tickets out of her patrol car window at him; those tickets were all dismissed.
Chief Kathleen O'Toole placed Whitlatch on leave and ordered an investigation after The Stranger reported on a number of other recent events: Whitlatch's arrest (without apparent cause) of an elderly black man last July, her racist remarks on Facebook the following month, and her alleged bullying of a bus driver in 2011.
But the existence of incidents dating back to the start of Whitlatch's SPD career had not been public knowledge until now.
The 1997 incident occurred on November 12 of that year, eight months after Whitlatch joined the force. She was off-duty and wearing civilian clothes at a Petco store in Federal Way, where she'd grown up. In a disciplinary report addressed to Whitlatch after the incident, the department wrote:
You were completing a complicated transaction which involved the purchase of new merchandise and the application of an in-store credit towards that purchase. During this transaction, you concluded that one dollar and four cents ($1.04) was owed you and the on-duty manager was refusing to refund it to you.' In the verbal exchange that followed, you created a disturbance in the store such that the in-store manager asked you to leave or he would call the police. You then identified yourself as a Seattle Police Offìcer and continued the argument with the manager. Three other customers and two additional store employees described your yelling and inappropriate language during the course of this dispute over the one dollar and four cent ($1.04) credit.
Your actions in this incident brought discredit on yourself and the Seattle Police Department and are in violation of SPD Manual Section 1.029 (Rules of Conduct - Philosophy).
Whitlatch waived her right to a hearing on those findings, and a later report proposed she receive a nine-hour suspension without pay as penalty for her behavior. But that section of the document is crossed out, and in its place is a handwritten alternative: "Written reprimand to be placed in officer's personnel file." An assistant chief—I can't make out his name from his handwritten signature—signed the report on March 3, 1998, two days before the one-year mark from her hiring. Whitlatch was also ordered to attend a "Managing Job Stress" workshop.
Four years later, in 2002, Whitlatch was verbally reprimanded for "unprofessional conduct" and "rudeness" when she wrote a ticket to someone near Safeco Field before a baseball game. Available records do not add more detail about the incident, but the department's Office of Professional Accountability—established in 1999—investigated the allegations against her. In response, then-chief Gil Kerlikowske approved the verbal reprimand.
The following year, according to legal records, Whitlatch wrote a driver three tickets at a Seahawks game. She cited truck driver James Burdette for "excessive use of horn" and a violation involving "fender splash aprons." In a separate ticket, she cited him for "no proof of insurance." Burdette hired a lawyer to contest the tickets, and two months later, all the citations were thrown out by a municipal judge.
Reached by phone, Burdette told me he was sitting in traffic after the game when cars started honking in celebration. Whitlatch grew angry when he told her that everyone else was honking just like him, he said. She wrote the tickets, drove off, then circled back and "threw them out the window of her police car," he recalled.
Burdette said his attorney complained about Whitlatch's conduct while contesting the tickets in court.
"A week later, she wrote me another ticket but never filed a copy of it," he added. As a result, he said, he got a collections notice for a fourth violation that he'd never been aware of. "What made me really mad," Burdette continued, "was when I called her supervisor—I was really calm and wanted to tell the story of what had happened—he wanted none of it. All he wanted to do was to get back at the attorney who said something about one of his officers." He said he couldn't recall the supervisor's name, but noted that the fourth ticket, too, was thrown out.
By this point, it's worth noting, Whitlatch had become a field training officer (FTO). She had taken on the responsibility in 2000, three years after joining the force. That means over the past 14 years, even as concerns about Whitlatch's on-the-job behavior were registered, some new officers were assigned to work with her in order to learn the ropes. As a new recruit, "you do three rotations with different FTOs in different parts of the city," explained department spokesman Sean Whitcomb. He couldn't tell me how many officers Whitlatch had trained, but the job earned her more money and would have come about because someone in the chain of command picked her for it.
In 2011, when the OPA learned of the allegations that Whitlatch had bullied a bus driver, its response was to recommend a chat with her supervisor. In 2014, after the complaint about her Facebook postings came in, OPA's response was to make the same recommendation—nothing more than a chat with her supervisor.
By February 4, 2015—after video of Whitlatch's arrest of an elderly black man was posted here on Slog, and after her Facebook rants were posted, too—Whitlatch was placed on residential, paid leave and had her badge and gun taken from her. Seattle-King County NAACP president Gerald Hankerson is now calling for her immediate termination from the force.
The Stranger reached out to Whitlatch through her police union president, Ron Smith, to ask about all the incidents recounted in these new records. We have not heard from her.
Update: The assistant chief who signed off on Whitlatch's 1997 disciplinary finding is Jim Deschane, a police department source confirms.