George Patterson, a young, wheelchair-bound African-American man who was arrested by police on suspicion of selling drugs at Second Avenue and Pike Street this past January, has accused two Seattle Police Department officers of planting evidence and physically assaulting him while he was in custody. After bending him over his wheelchair in a choke hold, Patterson says, officers transported him to SPD's West Precinct in downtown Seattle, where Officer Greg Neubert beat him while his partner Michael Tietjen looked on.
Unlike most arrests, Patterson's was captured by a security camera at a nearby Walgreens. Grant Fredericks, a former Vancouver police officer and an expert in forensic video analysis, examined the tape and pointed out several glaring differences between the officer's accounts and the tape. (To see the footage, which The Stranger obtained from SPD, go to www.thestranger.com.)
In their reports, Neubert and Tietjen both state that Tietjen handcuffed Patterson. In fact, it was Neubert who did the handcuffing. Neubert's timeline for Patterson's arrest does not match with the time code on the videotape. Additionally, Neubert's statement that Patterson had crumbs of crack cocaine in his lap seems unlikely, as there is video evidence that a strong wind was blowing in the area that night. Finally, Neubert's report states that he found drugs in Patterson's waistband; however, the tape does not clearly show the officers removing anything.
When I watched the video, I noticed one incredibly strange moment on the tape: Neubert rides out of view on his bicycle. When he returns, he appears to place something in the hood of Patterson's jacket. Patterson says he doesn't know what the item was.
Although Patterson's arrest and subsequent accusations received substantial coverage in local papers, Patterson himself has remained an enigma. Last week, I contacted Patterson to talk about his case. He agreed to let me interview him in his sister's Burien apartment, where he has been staying, off and on, for the last few weeks.
As planes arriving at and departing from nearby Sea-Tac International Airport roared overhead, the soft-spoken Patterson was barely audible. The bare apartment was scattered with toys belonging to Patterson's 17-month-old niece. Leaning back in his wheelchair, Patterson rolled a cigarette while he talked about his January encounter with Neubert and Tietjen. He said he was downtown, visiting friends after completing a drug-treatment class mandated by the Washington State Department of Corrections. When he passed Neubert and Tietjen on Second Avenue, Patterson said, the officers grabbed him, claiming they had seen him selling drugs earlier that night. "They did me dirty," Patterson growled.
Patterson, who was confined to a wheelchair after his lower body was paralyzed in a car accident five years ago, said he did not have any drugs on him that night—much less a lap covered in crumbs of crack cocaine, as Neubert's police report states. He angrily wheeled backward across his sister's kitchen floor, pointing out pieces of tobacco that had worked their way into the folds of his baggy jeans. "I've always got something on my lap," he said. Although Patterson has several drug-possession convictions on his record, he insisted that he is not a dealer. "Why would they put me out there as something like that? I'm not trying to gangbang or nothing like that. I know that lifestyle and I'm not going to try that in a wheelchair. I had a problem with drugs, but I didn't sell crack." Patterson's mother walked into the room and jumped into the conversation. She said her son called in tears that night. "I told him to file a complaint," she said, which is exactly what Patterson did.
Months later, SPD's Office of Professional Accountability—the division of SPD that investigates citizens' claims against the department—deemed Patterson's claims of excessive force and evidence planting unsubstantiated. Throughout its investigation, OPA was dogged by rumors of interference from the police department. In April, more than a month before the investigation had been finalized, SPD Chief Gil Kerlikowske publicly exonerated the officers in a press release, stating that SPD had "reviewed every individual case that Neubert and Tietjen have been involved in since the beginning of the year, including cases pending prosecution. We have found nothing in our review that would lead to further investigation." In response, Seattle City Council President Nick Licata sent a letter to Kerlikowske demanding to know how the chief could have cleared the officers before OPA had completed its investigation. Interim OPA director Neil Low wrote back to Licata, saying, "The public statements made by the department, seemingly in advance of [OPA closing the investigation], were actually made after I spoke with the chief... verbally certifying the findings."
The Seattle chapter of the NAACP has called for Neubert, Tietjen, and Kerlikowske's resignations—and OPA's findings in the Neubert investigation have repeatedly been second-guessed. Former U.S. attorney Kate Pflaumer, the civilian auditor who reviewed Patterson's OPA complaint, says she believes the officers lied about some of the details in their report.
In May, the FBI began its own investigation of Neubert. Meanwhile, the city's Office of Professional Accountability Review Board (OPARB), which oversees OPA, is also looking into how OPA handled Patterson's case. Peter Holmes, the chair of OPARB, says that regardless of what OPARB's review reveals, "we've got a proBlem when the chief of the police department doesn't have a problem with [that kind of] conduct."
Controversy has followed Neubert throughout his career. In 1995, Neubert shot a man inside a downtown McDonald's when he mistook a gun-shaped cigarette lighter in the man's hand for a real gun. That same year, Arzelia and William Jones—an African-American couple from Seattle—testified in Washington State Superior Court that Neubert chased down and beat their 15-year-old son and stuffed his mouth full of dirt after the boy ran from Neubert's approaching patrol car ["Through the Past Darkly," Amy Jenniges, June 28, 2001]. In 2001, Neubert was also involved in the shooting death of Aaron Roberts, a 37-year-old African-American man he'd stopped for an alleged traffic violation in the Central District. Roberts sped off from the stop, dragging Neubert with the car. Neubert's then-partner, Officer Craig Price, shot and killed Roberts. Roberts's death sparked community outrage and was one of several incidents that led to the creation of OPA. In all of these cases, Neubert was cleared of all wrongdoing.
Neubert and Tietjen, who were partners when they received "officers of the year" awards in 2006, are not currently working together, according to SPD spokesman Sean Whitcomb.
Back in his sister's kitchen, Patterson read over a copy of Neubert's police report. A wry smile crawled across his face. "It's exactly what they told me: 'You think anybody's going to believe you?' I just told them, God sees everything."