When Officer Cynthia Whitlatch arrested elderly black veteran William Wingate last year as he walked through Capitol Hill with his golf club, three officers assisted her. Records from the Office of Professional Accountability's investigation into the arrest, obtained by The Stranger, show that these officers raised no objections to Whitlatch's alarming conduct and, furthermore, two officers subsequently bolstered Whitlatch's story of what happened by claiming that Wingate was "upset," "confrontational," and "hostile" toward Whitlatch. (They also downplayed any hostility from Whitlatch toward Wingate.) A third said he couldn't remember anything of note about the incident. Despite the officers' statements about Whitlach's behavior that day, the OPA has recommended that Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O'Toole fire Whitlatch for biased policing and a failure to de-escalate her encounter with Wingate.
Officials have called the practice of not saying anything negative about a fellow officer the "blue wall of silence."
During its investigation, the OPA interviewed Officer Christopher Coles, who, at the end of the dashcam video of Wingate's arrest, can be heard approaching Wingate from the right. Wingate willingly hands over the golf club. Whitlatch had called for backup, and Coles and Officer Ben Archer—both nine-year veterans of SPD—had walked down the block from the East Precinct office.
In an interview with OPA investigator Krista Bair, here's how Coles described Wingate and Whitlatch's respective demeanors:
Coles: He, he definitely appeared upset. He, his voice was elevated. He was verbally confrontational with Officer Whitlatch, so.
Bair: When you say verbally confrontational, how does that look?
Coles: Well, he was just, he was strongly disagreeing with her requests.
Coles: His voice was elevated. It wasn’t a calm voice. It was excited.
Bair: And what was the demeanor of Officer Whitlatch?
Coles: She was very direct, clear and concise in what she wanted him to do...nothing out of the ordinary.
Bair asks Coles whether Whitlatch's voice was elevated, too. "No," he responds, "it was just, it was at a volume so as he could hear her 'cause they were on a city street and there’s bustling and hustling going on around the area." Whitlatch, for her part, told the OPA she was yelling so she could be heard over the sound of nearby construction.
Bair, the OPA investigator, pressed Coles on the discrepancy between his descriptions of Wingate and Whitlatch. Why did he make an excuse for Whitlach's yelling (the street noise) but not Wingate's yelling? How could he tell that Wingate wasn't using an elevated voice in order to be heard over street noise, too? "Yeah, his voice was cracking," Coles explained. "He was, he was going to higher, higher pitches and his voice, you know, when people often do when they get upset. His, he was tense, he was clenching the golf club. He was sort of physically animated when he was speaking or yelling, if that makes sense."
Coles said the elderly man handed over the golf club to him and did not resist arrest. Wingate complained that Whitlatch had treated him unfairly, but made no accusations of racial bias, according to Coles. (Higher-ranking officers have also claimed that community activists who subsequently complained about the arrest to them never raised racial bias concerns. The activists say that's not true.)
Officer Archer said that as he first approached the scene, Wingate was "definitely agitated and I guess, verbally hostile."
The video of the incident shows Wingate stating loudly that he hasn't done anything wrong, and that Whitlatch should "call somebody" in order to get another pair of eyes on the situation. It also shows that Whitlatch kept on yelling at Wingate as she waited for Coles and Archer to arrive. When Wingate sees the officers, he immediately turns and calmly walks toward them. As Whitlatch crosses in front of her patrol car, baton in hand, she continues yelling. "Set your golf club down. SET IT DOWN! SET IT DOWN!"
Coles, like Whitlatch herself, is one of the 123 police officers who sued to block Department of Justice reforms of SPD's use-of-force policy in 2014.
Sergeant Joe Lam screened the arrest. Here's what he told the OPA:
Lam: I, I don’t really have independent recollection of this incident. And the, I wasn’t even aware I was the screening sergeant until the media event came out, and I just, out of curiosity, wondered who is the individual who actually screened the arrest. And I looked up on the Internet and my name pops up and that’s when I realized I, I was the screening sergeant. And I subsequently read the report as well as my supplemental of the arrest screening.
Bair: Okay, the Supervisor’s Screening report?
Bair: And does that help jog your memory at all?
Bair concludes the interview by summarizing:
Bair: And I, I just wanna make sure I understand. You don’t have independent memory of how that conversation went, whether if you screened it with Officer Coles or Officer Whitlatch—you’re not sure which one—you’re not sure what was exactly said other than looking at your report, and the same with Mr. Wingate not...you don’t know what he answered you on your list of questions, but if it was something of note, you believe you would’ve written it down. Is that accurate?
According to Coles, it was Whitlatch's decision to arrest Wingate. Lam told the OPA he didn't discuss any alternatives to booking the 69-year-old into jail for the night with the other officers. Wingate has described it as "the most miserable night I've ever had."
In its 1998 report on police accountability, Human Rights Watch noted, citing an official commission's report on corruption within LAPD, that "perhaps the greatest single barrier to the effective investigation and adjudication of complaints is the officers' unwritten 'code of silence'....[the principle that] an officer does not provide adverse information against a fellow officer."
Another commission concluded there was a pervasive "code of silence" at the New York Police Department:
One policeman who admits to corrupt and brutal practices, former NYPD officer Bernard Cawley, testified that he never feared another officer would turn him in because there was a "Blue Wall of Silence." Cops don't tell on cops....[I]f a cop decided to tell on me, his career's ruined....[H]e's going to be labeled as a rat." Other officers who testified concurred with Cawley, including one who kept his identity hidden during the Mollen Commission hearings precisely because of the code, and who stated that officers first learn of the code in the Police Academy, with instructors telling them never to be a "rat." He explained, "[S]ee, we're all blue... we have to protect each other no matter what."
U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson called this code the "thin blue line," and former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper has written that the peer pressure among cops is "is childish and churlish, but it's real. Few cops can stand up to it."
Here are the OPA's interviews with Officers Coles, Archer, and Lam, if you want to read them for yourself. This is the third in a series of posts based on files from the OPA investigation into the arrest of William Wingate—the first showed that Whitlatch believes she is under scrutiny because she is white; the second showed that her supervisor claimed no one complained to him about racial bias after the incident.
Stamper, after looking at the transcripts, said he couldn't be sure whether a blue wall was in effect in this case without reviewing the entire investigatory file. "But I do believe you've responsibly raised the prospect of the blue wall of silence operating here," he said.
In a statement, department spokesperson Sean Whitcomb didn't respond to questions about the officers' comments and the "blue wall." But he said the recent reforms have produced "one of the most robust accountability systems in the country" at the SPD, including "addressing whether anyone is not forthcoming or dishonest during an internal investigation." He did not respond to a request to make Officers Cole, Archer, and Lam available for interviews.