- William Wingate, arrested last summer for "walking in Seattle while black."
On July 9, 2014, a brilliant summer day, William Wingate was walking through Capitol Hill.
The 70-year-old Air Force veteran and retired King County Metro bus driver had a daily habit of walking and using a golf club like a cane, according to his attorney, Susan Mindenbergs. He typically walked from Northgate to the Central District, where he would pick up copies of the Facts newspaper.
But at about 1 p.m., shortly after Seattle police officer Cynthia Whitlatch turned the corner past The Stranger's offices, she pulled over her patrol car, got out, and yelled at Wingate to drop his golf club.
The incident was caught on her vehicle's dash-cam video recording system and obtained by The Stranger through a public records request. Their interaction begins at the 1:40 mark:
On the video, Officer Whitlatch can be heard insisting that the recording would show Wingate swinging his golf club at her and hitting a stop sign with it. According to the SPD, there exists no video to back up this claim. (SPD did not make Whitlatch available for comment.)
"The allegation that he swung at the police car," said city council member Bruce Harrell, who subsequently got involved in the case, "wasn't corroborated by any other facts and was not caught on any video. What was caught on video was him minding his own business with the golf club at his side."
Whitlatch, standing behind her car, shouts at Wingate to drop his golf club 17 times, and claims that "it is a weapon."
"You just swung that golf club at me," Whitlatch yells.
"No, I did not!" exclaims Wingate.
"Right back there," Whitlatch says back. "It was on audio and video tape."
Eventually, she tells him he's going to be arrested and charged with obstruction. She calls for backup.
When Officer Chris Coles arrives on the scene, he approaches Wingate and addresses him as "sir," and Wingate promptly hands over the golf club. Wingate has no criminal record.
But the officers went on to handcuff him. Police walked him down the street to the East Precinct, where Sergeant Joe Lam approved of the decision to book Wingate into jail on harassment and obstruction charges.
While still handcuffed, Wingate had difficulty stepping up and into the back of the paddywagon. On video, an officer can be seen sliding a stool toward the back of the vehicle, using his foot.
Wingate spent the night in King County Jail.
That moment from the video, when Wingate had trouble getting into the paddywagon on his own, said former Democratic Washington State representative Dawn Mason, "was awful. That one touched my soul." She took an interest in the case after a neighbor told her what happened.
"The man is 69 years old," she said, speaking with me on Tuesday by phone. "Seventy years of beating the odds of never having been arrested—a black man. Served in the military for 20 years. Worked with the police, because you do that as a bus driver." (Wingate turned 70 in September of last year.)
"And here he is standing on the corner," she continued. "He ends up handcuffed and put in a police wagon and put in jail overnight... The system failed this man. He never should have been stopped. Once he got to the precinct, reason should have prevailed."
But the system kept on churning.
The next day, prosecutors at the city attorney's office decided to file a misdemeanor charge of unlawful use of a weapon against him, "based on the SPD incident report," according to spokesperson Kimberly Mills.
"On that day," she writes, "Mr. Wingate, who was represented by an attorney, agreed to enter into an agreement under which the case would be dismissed after two years if he complied with all conditions ordered by the Seattle Municipal Court judge."
What the city attorney's account of events leaves out, according to Mindenbergs, Wingate's current attorney, is that the elderly man was told, "If you sign this stipulated order of continuance, it will all be over, basically." She said her client followed a public defender's instructions.
On September 19, however, municipal judge Fred Bonner dismissed the case following an outcry led by Mason.
"Instead of doing the usual," Mason said, "[where you] have a demonstration and you go and storm the precinct... I just took some white women into the precinct with me."
They were two women, she said, who'd been active in social justice circles, "who know they have privilege and know they can make a difference."
At the East Precinct, Mason said, they watched the video with Assistant Chief Nick Metz and East Precinct captain Pierre Davis.
- Cynthia Whitlatch is one of 123 Seattle police officers who sued to block the department's new federally-mandated use of force policies.
"Because Wingate was still in possession of the golf club," Coles wrote in the report, "and she was fearful of being assaulted by him, she said that she kept her distance from him upon exiting her patrol car."
"It's like, c'mon lady. You were lying," Mason told me. "She wasn't afraid of him at all."
But the police commanders, including Metz and Davis, didn't see it that way. Mason said they "tried to convince me nothing was wrong."
Metz, in particular, "kept trying to convince us nothing was wrong here. He defended the officer."
Nothing came out of that meeting, Mason said. But weeks later, she received a call from Deputy Chief Carmen Best, who, like Wingate, is black.
"The solution we came up with," she said, "was actually good on the part of the [police] chief"—who'd assigned Best to look into the case. "It became African American and white women coming together to work on a solution."
City prosecutors, after conferring with Best, recommended dismissing both the case against Wingate and the two-year stipulation.
"They know that had this been a white man," said Mason, "we wouldn't be here."
But, in fact, it appears they don't know that. The Seattle Police Department insists racial bias played no role in the incident.
"If this person had been white," said SPD spokesman Sean Whitcomb, speaking by phone on Tuesday, "I would imagine it would have been the same outcome. We don’t believe this was a biased policing incident. We don’t believe the officer acted out of malice or targeted this man because of his race."
Officer Whitlatch is one of 123 police officers who sued the government last year, at both the federal and city level, to block the Department of Justice–ordered use of force policies. The SPD is under a federal consent decree and is being forced to address the DOJ's concerns over racial bias and its finding that Seattle police routinely use excessive force.
Council Member Harrell, who chairs the body's Public Safety Committee, said he finds it "personally hard to believe" Whitlatch's version of what happened with Wingate.
"I think the department needs to ask themselves from the top to the bottom, is this an example of de-escalation? Sometimes I feel like I'm beating my head against the wall."
Whitlatch has not been disciplined. "This did not go through the OPA process," said SPD's Whitcomb. "Basically, she was talked to by her supervisor."
In November, Wingate filed a claim with the city for damages. "Family members and friends," the complaint reads, "will attest to the emotional distress caused by the racial profiling, arrest, and incarceration of this man whose only crime was 'walking in Seattle while black.'"
UPDATE: SPD responds on its Blotter, "Deputy Chief Best personally met with the man, returned his golf club, and offered an apology for his arrest. The officer who made the arrest received counseling from her supervisor, a course of action that the department believes to be an appropriate resolution."
UPDATE 3:40 p.m.: Whitlatch has been accused of writing Facebook posts, including a "Ferguson screed," that reveal a "dangerous racial bias."