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Seattle Police Department

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A formerly homeless man who was punched by a Seattle police officer filed a federal lawsuit on Wednesday against that officer for allegedly violating his civil rights.

Ofc. Clark Dickson was already suspended for one day without pay for punching Christopher Tavai in the face on January 3, 2015. Now, Tavai, who has since moved in with a relative, says Dickson violated his constitutional rights to be free from excessive force and unreasonable search and seizure, according to a complaint filed in US District Court.

“This lawsuit is about getting compensation for being hit when my client hadn’t done anything wrong,” said Harry Williams, the attorney representing Tavai. “He was hit multiple times, which is outside the training and standards we demand or expect from police officers.” 

On the night of the incident, Seattle cops were patrolling a homeless encampment near Safeco Field, checking for outstanding warrants, when they came upon Christopher Tavai, then 22-years-old, sleeping in his car.

The officers asked Tavai to step out of his vehicle. One of officers on the scene, Clark Dickson, began questioning Tavai. According to the lawsuit, Tavai spit on the ground. Dickson admonished Tavai, but the homeless man spit on the ground again. In response, Dickson punched Tavai in the face, took him down with another officer and proceeded to punch him in the face two more times.

Dashboard cam footage shows the moment that Dickson punched Tavai:

The Office of Professional Accountability, a civilian-led investigative body, reviewed Dickson’s actions and ruled that the officer used excessive force. The body recommended that Dickson undergo training and receive two days suspension without pay. As The Stranger reported, Dickson’s bosses ultimately ordered him to just one day off the job.

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Ofc. Dickson’s punch landed amid a rash of similar, high-profile incidents. In 2014, Ofc. Adley Shepherd punched Miyekko Durden-Bosley, breaking her eye socket, after she kicked in his direction. (Investigators declared that it’s unclear from video of the incident whether that kick landed.) Durden-Bosley settled with the city for $195,000. Another officer, David Bauer, last year was suspended for ten days without pay for repeatedly hitting a man in 2010.

Williams tells The Stranger that while he’s glad Dickson faced a measure of accountability, one day without pay simply wasn’t enough. He said that the incidents involving officers Adley and Bauer drive home the point that Dickson’s punch was excessive.

Says Williams: “It’s important that there was a finding here, but we need to do more when an officer knows a tactic is dangerous and they use that tactic anyways when it’s not necessary.”

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