"This whole thing is an unfortunate misunderstanding," says Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, spokesman for the Seattle Police Department. "We have absolutely no authority to influence what art stays or goes—especially private art on private property." The unfortunate misunderstanding Whitcomb is referring to involves a year-old art project called "The Corner" located on the vacant corner of 23rd Avenue and Union Street. The Corner, which features portraits of residents, was removed after an officer contacted the project's creator and the property owner on behalf of residents about removing one particular portrait. Instead, the whole art project was dismantled.
Whitcomb says that certain residents were offended by the portrait of "Savior Knowledge" aka Anthony Knowles, a convicted felon who was arrested for allegedly selling crack across the street from his portrait just last month.
"They contacted a [Community Police Team] officer about that particular portrait," explains Whitcomb. "He was simply relaying their concerns. We shared information. We talked to both the property owner and the artist, through none of that correspondence was there the request that the entire thing be removed."
But "that's not the role of the police," says ACLU Communications Director Doug Honig. "It's improper of them to relay such concerns. If laws aren’t being broken, if people are complaining about public art or stories in the news, what the police should do is tell people who have issues to communicate with each other. They shouldn’t insert themselves in the situation."
Honig, who has seen the email exchange between SPD and the property owner and art project creator, says that the inclusion of the SPD logo on the emails, along with the officer's rank and signature, make it uncomfortable for citizens to assert their rights. "The typical person hearing from a police officer acting officially are going to feel a bit of pressure to do what they say," explains Honig.
Whitcomb disagrees. "It’s definitely not our place to judge art but if someone has a concern or information that they want passed on, we would hope they’d contact us. That's part of our job."