Last year, Jorge Torres led a series of Black Lives Matter protests in Seattle. The local activist, whose day job is at a childcare nonprofit, was outraged by the cases of Mike Brown and Eric Garner, two unarmed African-American men who were killed by police officers, and that police were never charged in their deaths. On the evening of December 6, Torres led a march through the Denny Triangle.
According to Torres, an officer suddenly tackled him to the ground. In a dashcam video, a commanding officer can be heard issuing radio commands to "get him for pedestrian interference or something along those lines" in order to "deny [protesters] their leader...A small Hispanic male—he's got a megaphone who appears to be the leader of the group at this time." The police arrested Torres and charged him with pedestrian interference and reckless endangerment. Police hauled him off to jail that night, where he was held in a cell until posting bail.
Later, a city prosecutor quietly moved to dismiss the charges, writing by hand in the comment section of the filing, "Interests of justice."
In other words, the police appeared to have no legal grounds to arrest Torres. This is the kind of incident that the Seattle-King County NAACP and other civil rights advocates were talking about, this week, when they called on the SPD not to curb the speech of protesters and to "refrain from violent attacks" on them.
But that's not the end of the story.
In May, after prosecutors declined to file charges, the Community Police Commission raised concerns about a police dashcam video of the December protest that apparently showed an officer, who was trailing the protest in a van, using a "racial or ethnic slur" in reference to Torres. After watching the video, Chief Kathleen O'Toole asked the department's Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) to investigate.
The video, obtained by The Stranger through a public records request, is below. At the 1:42:00 mark, 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 and the CPC believe the officer stopped one syllable short of vocalizing the word "wetback."
The OPA recently finished its investigation and released an abbreviated summary on its website. As one might expect, given its record of exonerating most police officers, OPA did not sustain allegations of biased policing or lack of professionalism. The investigation concluded the officer didn't use a racial slur. But at the same time, OPA recommended the officer undergo training on "the importance of speaking and acting while on-duty in a manner that is professional and a credit to himself and the Department."
Reached by phone, OPA Director Pierce Murphy said he hired a forensic expert to analyze the dashcam video and interviewed the officers in the van. "It was four guys in a car trying to figure out how to keep up with a group of protesters and he started to say 'westbound,'" he said. "I don’t believe that what was said was a racial slur and I don’t think it was directed at [Torres]."
That explanation doesn't quite add up, however. "Just get that, get that fucking westbound" isn't a coherent sentence, nor does it make much sense in the context of the video. At the time of the comment, the protesters had just turned north after traveling east. The freeway was also east of the march at the time. I've put in a public records request for the full OPA investigation.
Torres also isn't buying it. "There’s a clear contradiction here," he said. "They claim that the officer did nothing wrong. But at the same time, they’re giving this officer training. They just don’t want to put it on his file."
"SPD is a workplace that allows for and protects bigots," he added. "This officer should be fired and barred from being a police officer. You can’t have individuals who are largely unaccountable wielding weapons and using force among people of color who hold these racist ideas. This is totally unacceptable for an institution that claims to protect and serve. I don’t think you need to be a forensic analyzer to know what the officer said."
"When I think about it, it’s a very disempowering experience to see the OPA not stand for accountability."