In 2002, after numerous complaints about racial profiling by the Seattle Police Department, the city council began looking for a way to settle the debate over accusations of unfair policing. Council Member Richard McIver came up with a plan to monitor how officers were conducting stops: install video cameras in cop cars to protect citizens, as well as officers, from complaints of biased policing. "For about three years, there was a group that was working with the police department and the councils about how to get information fairly from arrests," McIver says. "I suggested putting a camera in the car [as] an impartial third party." To this day, Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) President Rich O'Neill claims racial profiling was a myth. But, he says the guild went along with McIver's plan anyway.
According to McIver, getting the cameras into patrol cars was problematic, and the process of negotiating with the police guild and installing the cameras took longer than it should have. However, since the program began, officers have benefited from having an objective "witness" just as much as the public. "Two years ago, [a woman claimed] an officer groped her and spoke inappropriately [during an arrest]," O'Neill says. "She [even] signed an OPA complaint." But, because of in-car video, O'Neill says the officer was exonerated and the woman was charged with making a false complaint.
When The Stranger heard that there was videotape of an incident we first reported in November—a University District arrest where witnesses claimed the officers used an extreme amount of force to subdue two men following a jaywalking incident ["Head Banger," Jonah Spangenthal-Lee, Nov 29, 2007]—it seemed like the perfect opportunity to test McIver's program out. However, rather than hand over a tape, which could exonerate the officers, the Seattle Police Department refused a public disclosure request for the in-car video—filmed on a public street—because of "privacy issues."
The council's legislation makes it clear that the push for cameras was to respond to citizen complaints of racial profiling. "Whereas the city is committed to policing procedures that are fair, equitable, and constitutional," the ordinance says. However, the legislation gives SPD quite a bit of leeway in determining who gets access to videotapes. People involved in an incident are allowed to see tapes, but beyond that, SPD was only required to "develop procedures for responding to public requests that are in accordance with Washington State's public disclosure laws." Indeed, SPD has set up a procedure, in the form of denial letters.
The department says they aren't releasing the tape to protect the two men, Mark Hays and Michael Lujan. "I don't think the officers would have a problem [with releasing the tape]," says SPD attorney Leo Poort. According to Poort, state statutes prohibit the department from releasing videotapes "until the criminal and civil matters are finished."
Maybe, but according to Theresa Allman—Lujan's attorney— the tape is fairly damning. When the video begins, Allman says Lujan and Hays are already on the ground. Three officers are on top of Hays, hitting him, kicking him, and banging his head into the ground. Another officer, she says, perches over Lujan with his knee in his back. Both Hays and Lujan, Allman says, appear passive and are not resisting.
The Stranger has not viewed the tape, so we don't know whether this is all just legal bluster. However, this certainly wouldn't be the first time SPD was burned by videotape.
In 2007, a police car video of a 2005 arrest outside of a Capitol Hill nightclub went public. On the tape, the man being arrested can repeatedly be heard pleading with officers to stop kicking him, as he lay handcuffed in the street. The man filed suit against SPD, and the case was settled for $185,000. Earlier in 2007, a drugstore security camera captured a downtown drug arrest of a wheelchair-bound man, who complained officers had planted drugs and assaulted him.
SPD's ensuing internal investigation drew attention and criticism from local attorneys, civil rights groups, and the city council's own police oversight panel, and there were even calls for Chief Gil Kerlikowske's resignation.
Eventually, the tape of the University District incident may be submitted as evidence and become publicly accessible. It too could prove to be quite damning for the officers involved.