A federal jury on Tuesday found former Seattle police officer Cynthia Whitlatch, the only officer to be fired for racial bias in the department’s modern history, guilty of civil rights violations. The jury awarded $325,000 in damages to William Wingate, the 72-year-old black man she stopped and arrested in 2014.
Whitlatch, who now works as a Starbucks barista, will not be driven into financial ruin by the decision.
Under the Seattle Municipal Code, the city indemnifies its employees against lawsuits of this kind except in circumstances in which behavior is “dishonest, fraudulent, criminal or malicious.” Chief Kathleen O'Toole, who fired Whitlatch last year, determined that the lawsuit’s claims did not fall under that rubric.
By the end of last month, the city had paid about $233,000 to cover the costs of Whitlatch’s legal defense in this case. Since it will also pay the damages, that puts this incident's costs to the city at well over half a million dollars.
“This man was walking on Capitol Hill with absolutely a gentle spirit and was accosted, and assaulted, and molested by a police officer who has horrible racial bias,” said Susan Mindenbergs, one of Wingate’s attorneys, speaking on the steps of the federal courthouse after the verdict announcement.
She had just spoken by phone with Wingate, who was at home.
“He was thrilled” by the jury’s decision, she said.
The lawsuit had sought $750,000 in damages. Vonda Sargent, another of Wingate's attorneys, said the ruling in his favor was more important than the monetary amount. “It was more about them ruling… that we’re not going to stand for it as a society,” she said, calling the decision a “vindication.”
She added: "This was the first time that [Wingate] had an opportunity to tell his story. That was a tremendous amount of relief to him."
The jury did not award punitive damages, the standard for which involves maliciousness or "reckless disregard" for an individual's rights.
The jury’s decision, Mindenbergs said, “tells people they’re going to be held accountable if they continue to have racial bias in their policing.”
Whitlatch was not in the courtroom today and her lead attorney, Robert Christie, could not be reached for comment.
The Seattle police department will consider Whitlatch’s appeal of her firing in January.