In the trial of former Seattle police officer Cynthia Whitlatch, who is being sued for civil rights damages, 72-year-old William Wingate came close to tears as he testified on Thursday about his experience at the hands of Seattle police on July 9, 2014.
“I just thought they were going to kill me,” Wingate said. “I hadn’t done nothing. I felt like my heart was going to come out of my chest.”
Wearing hearing aids and often asking for questions to be repeated, Wingate described his background. He was born in the Jim Crow South, in South Carolina, in 1944. At age 18, he joined the Air Force. He was on active duty for four years. Later, he joined the reserves and served another 16 years, including a tour as a security officer on a base in Alaska.
He lives in Northgate in Seattle. After retiring from his career as a King County Metro bus driver in 2004—he had driven for 35 years—he began walking on a weekly basis to downtown and then to the Central District. He wore combat boots and used a golf club gifted to him instead of a cane, because it was durable and “sporty.”
“I walk over to The Facts newspaper,” Wingate explained. “It’s a black community newspaper. I take ‘em over to a friend of mine’s house. I take a batch to him, to take to Chicken Express… that’s where a lot of retired bus drivers go.”
And he delivered the newspapers to people he knows in nursing homes. “They can’t get out. They’re isolated,” he said. “People really appreciate that. I made that my duty.”
Two blocks away from his church on Capitol Hill, First African Methodist Episcopal Church, his weekly walk was interrupted by then-Officer Whitlatch on July 9, 2014. Watch the encounter here.
When his attorney asked whether Wingate was using hearing aids that day, he began to break down. “When I walk, everybody know me,” he said. “I had a radio!” He meant that he had an earbud in his ear to listen to a sports radio station.
When Whitlatch first stopped him, he said, he thought she was looking for a shoplifter. Wingate testified that he didn’t see her or her patrol car on the corner of 11th and Pike and that he never swung his golf club at her, nor did he hit a stop sign.
When Whitlatch said his golf club was a weapon and demanded he put it down, “I was shocked,” Wingate said. “I really thought this was going to be the end of me.”
“I knew for a fact I hadn’t done anything,” he said. “I’m standing on the corner minding my own business.”
Whitlatch testified on Tuesday that because he’d swung the golf club and glared at her, she considered him a hostile threat and had considered using lethal force against him.
Wingate wanted a witness at the scene before he did anything else. “At some point in time, I realized that she was setting me up,” he said. Wingate handed the golf club to the next officer who arrived on the scene.
Wingate grew animated when he described being walked to the precinct in handcuffs. “I felt humiliated. I was two blocks away [from church] and I’m walking with my hands behind my back, like a criminal,” he said.
“I was dehydrated,” he said. At the precinct, “they wouldn’t give me no water. Not a drop!” His eyes watered.
Wingate spent the night in a jail cell with several other men, including one who "snored like a 747 taking off." He said he got no sleep.