It's tempting to think of Seattle police officer Cynthia Whitlatch as one bad apple who simply needs to be tossed from the police department. Certainly, she has a lot to talk about with the investigators currently looking into her on-the-job behavior.
As revealed through a Stranger public records request, Whitlatch, who is white, was caught on dash-cam video last summer arresting William Wingate, who is black, for no apparent reason as he walked through Capitol Hill on a sunny day holding a golf club. (The 70-year-old air force veteran and retired Metro bus driver was using the golf club as a cane.) Whitlatch accused Wingate of swinging the club at her as she drove by him a block away, yelled at him to put it down, and insisted her vehicle's dash-cam video would prove her accusation—but the only thing the video showed, as city council member Bruce Harrell put it, "was [Wingate] minding his own business with the golf club at his side." Still, Wingate spent a night in jail, and two months later, Whitlatch was posting alarming comments to Facebook, ranting about "chronic black racism," saying that it "far exceeds any white racism in this country," and stating: "I am tired of black peoples paranoia that white people are out to get them." On top of all that, an ex-girlfriend of Whitlatch's (herself a former Tukwila police officer with a record of bankruptcy fraud) recently told The Stranger that Whitlatch routinely used the word "nigger" at home and, perhaps most explosively, alleged that Whitlatch stole marijuana from SPD evidence and they smoked it together. (Whitlatch, speaking through the police union, called the allegations from her ex "bullshit" but did not elaborate.)
Seattle King County NAACP head Gerald Hankerson is calling for Whitlatch to be fired, while Wingate, in a legal filing with the City of Seattle, has said he was stopped by police for "walking in Seattle while black." He called the night he spent in jail "the most miserable night I've ever had" and, through an attorney, requested $750,000 in damages.
So: Fire Whitlatch and consider the problem solved?
The leadership of the SPD has signaled that it intends to do something about this. The department quietly apologized to Wingate last year and returned his golf club. Then, after news of the video broke on January 28, police chief Kathleen O'Toole ordered Whitlatch's supervisor, Captain Pierre Davis, to review Whitlatch's conduct. Then, after news of Whitlatch's Facebook postings broke, O'Toole—after a morning meeting with Mayor Ed Murray—ordered a comprehensive investigation of Whitlatch and moved her to desk duty, "where she will have no interaction with the public."
"I was hired because of my track record for reform and my commitment to bias-free policing," O'Toole said. "I knew this would be a difficult job, but days like this make me even more determined."
Okay. But what about the larger issues—including a pattern of biased policing and excessive use of force—that caused the Seattle Police Department to be placed under a consent decree by the US Department of Justice in the first place? (Issues that Mayor Murray says the department "obviously" needs to do more to address.) If the Whitlatch case, and the response to it, come to be seen as one alarming but isolated incident that we're in the process of addressing, then Seattle will have missed an opportunity to look at the larger, pervasive issues that it highlights—issues that, by mayoral admission, still need a lot more work. After all, as Harrell pointed out, the SPD has for a while now been focusing on improving its de-escalation skills in response to justice department concerns, but the video of Whitlatch's behavior suggests that whatever new culture of de-escalation may have taken root at the department, it hasn't reached her—if it's reached anyone at all. "I think the department needs to ask themselves, from the top to the bottom, is this an example of de-escalation?" Harrell said. "Sometimes I feel like I'm beating my head against the wall."
One clue about how best to change the police department's culture comes from looking at who, alone among a sea of critics, jumped to the defense of Whitlatch: the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG), whose president, Ron Smith, told KING 5 that the dash-cam video of her interaction with Wingate "doesn't tell the whole story."
SPOG, which represents about 1,250 officers, including Whitlatch, remains the biggest obstacle to reform. One look at its Facebook page or its monthly newsletter, the Guardian, tells you where the politically conservative, backslapping, circle-the-wagons culture at the department springs from. In the December edition of the newsletter, Smith accused Barack Obama, Eric Holder, and Reverend Al Sharpton of carrying out a "divisive political agenda" in response to Michael Brown's death in Ferguson, as if the three prominent black men hatched a plot together to inflame race relations in a smoky back room somewhere.
But the city has a golden opportunity this year to smack down the union's resistance to reform and significantly improve the department's faltering accountability system: Contract renegotiations are currently under way with SPOG. Negotiations like this happen only once every four years, which is why the cochair of the Community Police Commission (CPC), Lisa Daugaard, called this year's negotiations the Super Bowl of police accountability.
"The stars are really aligned at this moment to make major improvements in our accountability system," Daugaard said. "There's a social movement demanding it, the guild has shown a new pragmatism and openness, there's a consent decree in effect and a federal judge who has expressed a keen interest in seeing accountability improved, and we have nearly unanimous recommendations from public bodies that were charged with reviewing the existing system. All we need to do now is run a running play from the one-yard line. It's there for the taking."
I asked her how the guild has demonstrated new openness, but didn't hear back. The nearly unanimous recommendations she refers to include 55 proposals, made by the CPC last year, on how to reform the SPD's accountability system. There isn't space to summarize all of them here, so let's just look at two of the most important ones, both of which have to be negotiated with SPOG.
The first is abolishing the Discipline Review Board (DRB), a private forum stacked two-to-one with police (one member from police management and one from the union, along with a mutually agreed upon mediator) that considers disciplinary appeals. Anne Levinson, the Office of Professional Accountability auditor, agrees that the board needs to be scrapped. (In October, for example, the DRB threw out an eight-day suspension of Officer Eric Faust for punching a black man who'd spit on him in 2012 while restrained on the hood of a police car by two other officers. Former interim police chief Jim Pugel had ordered the suspension, and said Faust "unnecessarily escalated the confrontation." SPOG, for its part, trumpeted the overturning of Faust's suspension as "vindication.")
Smith vowed in December to fight to maintain the DRB during this year's contract negotiations and, in an interview, called the city's Public Safety Civil Service Commission—a widely used alternative to the DRB—a "kangaroo court" that couldn't be trusted.
The second vital change recommended by the CPC: adding civilian personnel to the Office of Professional Accountability, which investigates misconduct. At present, the OPA is headed by Pierce Murphy, a civilian, but it's staffed by police officers who rotate in and out of the office.
Murphy told me that in Boise, Idaho, where he is credited with reforming the police department, he had both civilian and police investigators at his disposal, and he'd like to have both here in Seattle, too. "I totally get the perception of 'Why should the police be trusted to investigate themselves?'" he said. "Unfortunately, that's the system the elected officials have created. There are union contracts involved and other things." Asked for his position on the notion of introducing more civilians to OPA—which had received multiple complaints over the years about Officer Whitlatch and recommended nothing more than chats between her and her supervisors—SPOG's Smith said he couldn't comment due to confidentiality requirements surrounding the labor negotiations, which started on January 7 and are expected to last for months.
The mayor's office also cited confidentiality concerns when asked to comment on the prospect of heeding the CPC's recommendations during contract negotiations.
But so far, the signs we do have about the negotiations are not promising.
One city hall source close to the process, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the confidentiality requirements, said the mayor's office "wants to keep the Discipline Review Board."
"Look, I don't think he's a fan of any of them," the source said, referring to the CPC recommendations that would have to be negotiated with SPOG. "I don't think they're going to be implemented. That concerns the hell out of me... He [Mayor Ed Murray] is not running with any recommendations."
And, crucially, Murray has openly disregarded the CPC's advice that the city negotiating team include "technical experts" on accountability. Viet Shelton, a mayoral spokesperson, said the legal confidentiality requirements precluded that possibility. Daugaard, the CPC cochair, disagreed and added: "Unless they have someone to touch back to who is knowledgeable, it's going to be very challenging to get accomplished what everyone, from the mayor's special advisor [on police accountability], to the OPA auditor, to the CPC, have recommended."
The mayor's office insists it is "incredibly committed to creating a robust accountability system that ensures public safety and builds the community's trust in our police department." But while we wait to see what actions his administration takes in response to the specifics of the Whitlatch case, we should also be watching closely to see whether his so-called incredible commitment is reflected in the seriousness of his negotiations with the police union. It's time to find out whether the mayor and O'Toole are—to paraphrase Marshawn Lynch, and to keep with Daugaard's Seahawks analogy—"'bout that action."