Just after 1:00 a.m., following a late-night game of basketball in August 2006, Aaron Claxton and his cousin, Leroy Gibbs, now both 22, drove to Claxton's house in North Seattle. As they drove through the backstreets of Claxton's quiet Lake City neighborhood, a black Chevy Suburban followed close behind. According to court documents, as Claxton pulled into his garage, the Suburban sped up and pulled in front of the house. The two young men ran inside, followed by four men with guns, court documents say. Moments later, Claxton shook uncontrollably and fell to the ground as he was repeatedly Tasered. "Police! Roll over or I will Taser you again!" Claxton heard one of the men say.
According to police reports, Claxton drew the attention of one of the Seattle Police Department's undercover Anti-Crime Teams (ACT)—undercover units that handle street-level crime—as it patrolled North Seattle. According to the report, Claxton sped through the neighborhood and failed to stop at a stop sign. Minutes after officers allegedly witnessed Claxton's erratic driving, the young man found himself on the receiving end of an officer's Taser. He would also later be charged with obstruction, as well as cited for speeding and running a stop sign.
Now, more than a year later, all charges against Claxton—who is black—have been dropped because, court records say, of a "lack of proof." He has filed suit in federal court for false arrest, malicious prosecution, violation of constitutional rights, and assault.
This isn't the first time the SPD has been to court over alleged misconduct. Ever since a wheelchair-bound man accused two officers of roughing him up and planting evidence last January, the SPD has been besieged by very public and frequent accusations of misconduct. The wrongful arrest of a young photographer, and the multiple Taserings of Carl Sandidge ["Gil's Boys," Jonah Spangenthal-Lee, July 5] are just a few of the cases—typically involving young black men—that have captured headlines and the attention of local attorneys, civil-rights groups, and even the FBI.
Perhaps one of the most widely known cases is that of Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes, who was beaten by police in front of a Capitol Hill nightclub in 2005 ["Face Off," Darrin Burgess, April 21, 2005]. Alley-Barnes filed a lawsuit against the city, and in November the SPD paid him a settlement of $180,000.
According to data from SPD's Office of Professional Accountability (OPA)—which investigates citizen complaints against officers—there hasn't been a surge in reports of misconduct. However, those with grievances may be looking elsewhere for help. James Bible, president of the Seattle-King County chapter of the NAACP and a vocal critic of the Seattle Police Department, says his organization receives complaints about officer misconduct every week, and the number of complaints it receives is growing.
"We're not addressing the culture of the police department," Bible says. [The NAACP is] concerned about the OPA and we remain concerned about the chief and [the police department's] inability to protect people's rights." A number of the complaints the NAACP receives, Bible says, are directed at the SPD's Anti-Crime Teams, plainclothes officers in unmarked vehicles, which were involved in Sandidge's Tasering, a University District jaywalking-turned-beatdown incident, and now Claxton's Tasering case. "We think [ACT is] an organization that focuses on profiling and getting its job done, no matter what." However, Bible says, the NAACP is concerned with how many times ACT is actually wrong.
In Claxton's case, what supposedly began as a traffic infraction ended with the young man being Tasered by an ACT officer. In court documents, Claxton claims an officer told him he was stopped because he lived in a "drug-related neighborhood with drug activity." During his arrest, Claxton was offended by the officer's remark and informed him that he was a longtime employee of a Seattle Boys & Girls Club, rather than a drug dealer. Claxton has worked for the King County Boys & Girls Clubs for the last five years—most recently as an athletic director—and was recently named employee of the year.
Despite Claxton's do-gooder credentials—and lack of criminal history—he was handcuffed and made to stand in his driveway for another 20 minutes after he was Tasered. According to Claxton's court complaint, when the young man asked officers what was taking so long, one officer told Claxton they were "trying to figure out what to charge [him] with."
If the police report is to be believed, Claxton gave officers plenty of cause to stop him (although hardly reason to Taser him). The report claims Claxton was speeding and failed to stop at a stop sign, and that the two men ignored officers' orders to "put their hands on the car." The police report also notes a "strong odor of marijuana" in Claxton's car, but officers were unable to find any drugs on the two men. But again, all of the charges against Claxton—including the traffic citations—were tossed for a lack of proof. Still, the SPD stands by its officers.
SPD does not comment on cases in litigation, but Deputy Chief Clark Kimerer says he does not believe there is a widespread issue with misconduct in the department.
Claxton's case goes to trial in April.