At the request of police chief Kathleen O'Toole, the Seattle Police Department's misconduct investigators are looking into an alleged racial slur used by a police officer toward Black Lives Matter protest leader Jorge Torres.
Dashcam video, obtained by The Stranger through a public records request, shows a group of police officers riding behind a December 6 march in a vehicle. When the marchers veer onto Denny Way, an officer says, "They're going to the freeway. Fuck's sake. Just get that, get that fucking wet-ahh. They're going to the freeway, dummies."
Torres, who is Hispanic, and his lawyer allege that the officer stopped short of fully pronouncing the word "wetback" to refer to Torres.
In its May letter to O'Toole raising concerns about how Seattle police have handled the protests, the Community Police Commission referred to Torres' arrest and said the dashcam video "appears to capture an officer using a racial or ethnic slur in reference to the leader who was arrested."
In a separate dashcam video, a commanding officer can be heard saying over the radio, "If we can get him for pedestrian interference or something along those lines, we'll deny them their leader... A small Hispanic male—he's got a megaphone who appears to be the leader of the group at this time."
Both officers appear to be referring to Torres, a 29-year-old who works at a local childcare nonprofit, who repeatedly led unpermitted marches, megaphone in hand, throughout the fall and winter protesting the police killings of unarmed African-American men, including Eric Garner. Torres says that on December 6 he was tackled by a police officer and arrested without warning. He described it as a cop "careening over to me on his bike... he leaped off his bike and tackled me to the ground."
According to SPD Chief Operating Officer Mike Wagers, Chief O'Toole watched dashcam video in which the alleged racial slur is used in early April, after city prosecutors brought it to her attention. On April 5, she referred it to the Office of Professional Accountability for investigation.
A judge granted a motion by prosecutors to drop charges of pedestrian interference and reckless endangerment against Torres on April 22, according to Patricia Sully, who represented Torres in the case.
"Mr. Torres was arrested solely because he was a leader of a protest march, which SPD wanted to shut down," Sully said. "That alone would be very concerning. But he also was derided because of his ethnic identity or perceived national origin... To hear that Mr. Torres is called a 'wetback' by an officer setting out to arrest him is a wake-up call. There will be a focus on the ugly words used, but of course, the problem is the attitude behind the words. SPD must take clear and decisive action to communicate that these attitudes are intolerable for police officers."
I asked Torres about what the officer can be heard saying on the video. "The fact that he didn't vocalize the remaining consonants," he said, "was a realization that he is being recorded. I think this is a clear indication that this is a racist individual who has a lot of power and has zero accountability."
Torres said he participated in a permitted demonstration that morning led by students who marched from Garfield High School to SPD headquarters. "There was still a lot of energy from people, to do civil disobedience," he said, explaining why a group of protesters broke off on an unpermitted march, "to tie up traffic and block intersections, to make this issue known and felt in Seattle."
Police allege that prior to Torres' arrest, as the protest wound through downtown, some marchers threw rocks at police. In the dashcam videos obtained by The Stranger, no protesters can be seen throwing rocks.
"There were no rocks ever thrown," Torres says. "It is so patently false. There was no desire to have a confrontation with the police. We just wanted to march, and they kept attempting to instigate a confrontation with us."
He argues that SPD psychologically antagonized protesters by limiting their movements, acting physically aggressive, and attempting to incite a response to justify arrests.
SPD declined to answer questions about the remarks made by police or whether march leaders were singled out for arrest, except to say that the alleged slur has been referred to the Office of Professional Accountability for investigation.
Earlier on in the dashcam video in which the alleged racial slur is used, the officers in the vehicle can be heard discussing the growing size of the protests. "They're gaining different troops, too. Like that guy in the backpack, there, is new," one says. "Oh yeah, they're calling new people on the phone. They're getting their buddies," another responds. "They're practicing our technique about being bigger than you are."