This morning, the Office of Police Accountability released its first set of “closed case” summaries for five cases lodged against SPD officers related to misconduct during this past summer’s protests — including two incidents from May 30 that went viral on social media.
Also: here is my in-depth Q&A with OPA Director Andrew Myerberg, where we touch on the issues raised by these cases, the status of OPA investigations into police misconduct at the protests, and many other topics related to police accountabilty.
The five incidents occurred in the earliest days of protests in Seattle following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. They represent a mix of outcomes, with some of the complaints sustained in whole or part, and others found to be either unfounded, inconclusive, or within SPD’s policy.
Two of the cases are high-profile incidents from the protest on Saturday May 30th, in which there was significant property damage, looting, and arson downtown as well as significant use of force by SPD and other law enforcement agencies. Videos of both were disseminated widely on social media, generating thousands of complaint reports to OPA.
One of the high-profile cases involves an officer placing his knee on the neck of a suspect while he and another officer are placing him under arrest. A Minneapolis officer killed George Floyd by restricting his ability to breathe via a knee to the neck for over eight minutes. According to the OPA, it is against SPD’s use-of-force policy to restrain a suspect by placing a knee to the neck; officers are trained to restrict movement when “prone handcuffing” a suspect by placing a knee to the shoulders or back just below the neck. OPA interviewed the officer, who testified that he thought he had placed his knee below the neck; however, it was clear on video that his knee was actually on the neck. It was also clear to protesters standing nearby, several of whom shouted at the officer to remove his knee from the suspect’s neck. The other officer saw and heard what was happening, reached over, and moved his partner’s knee off the neck. The OPA investigators’ finding is complex: they determined that the officer had violated SPD’s use of force policy by placing his knee on the suspect’s neck, but they did not find that he had intended to restrict the suspect’s airflow. They also sustained a related complaint of unprofessional conduct by the officer for comments that he had made protesters and other offices.
The other high-profile case is an iconic moment from May 30: the pepper-spraying of a young boy. In a decision bound to be controversial, the OPA investigators did not sustain the complaint, finding the officer’s action to be lawful and proper. Shortly after the incident, a twenty-second video went viral on social media showing the boy — after the incident, and after someone applied milk to his eyes to counteract the pepper spray — crying with milk running down his face. The viral video did not show any footage of the pepper spraying itself. To make matters worse, soon after the video began circulating a protester named an officer as the one who had pepper sprayed the boy; the information turned out to be wrong, though it didn’t spare the officer threats and harassment from the false accusation. In total, OPA received 13,000 separate complaints about this one incident, nearly all of which were from people who had seen the post-incident viral video of the boy and had not witnessed the incident themselves.
This morning OPA released a compilation of body-worn-video camera footage from several officers — including the one falsely accused and the officer who actually fired the pepper spray — that presents a clearer picture of the incident. In the video, the boy and his father approach the line right behind where a woman (in a white shirt) is loudly confronting officers. When the protesters are ordered to move back, the woman instead pushes forward, grabs an officer’s baton, and starts a tug-of-war with him for control of it. Another officer approaches the line and pepper-sprays the woman, but by this time the father and son are standing directly behind her — and the boy is completely obscured. As the pepper spray is fired, the woman turns and some of the spray splashes off her and onto the father and son. The OPA investigators concluded that under the circumstances the use of pepper spray on the woman was reasonable, necessary and proportional, that the officer did not know the boy was behind her, and that he did not target the boy.
Nevertheless, the incident raises some difficult questions for how to handle this sort of situation. On one hand, the officers had ordered the crowd to move back, and several protesters in fact moved up when the confrontation between the woman and the officer began — some, like the boy and his father, standing right behind the woman. But the use of pepper spray on an individual in a crowd is controversial, as it is nearly impossible to target it closely and avoid splashing others. Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County argued in court that SPD officers should only be authorized to use pepper spray on a targeted individual when there is no one else in the splash zone, which effectively renders it unusable in crowd-control situations. Both the OPA and the OIG have rejected that idea, as did Judge Richard Jones when he wrote an injunction placing restrictions on SPD’s indiscriminate use of crowd-control weapons, including pepper spray, because the number of alternative tools or weapons for disrupting an act of violence are limited and those are likely to lead to even greater numbers of injuries if pepper spray is prohibited.
To-date, OPA has 118 separate complaint investigations underway related to SPD officers’ potential misconduct at protests over the summer. As per city ordinance and the SPOG contract, OPA has 180 days to investigate a case and recommend discipline for any sustained complaints. The five cases today were released at day 120. In an interview, OPA Director Andrew Myerberg expressed confidence that his team would be able to complete all investigations within the 180 days allotted (keeping in mind that the 180 days starts when the complaint is filed, so incidents from later in the summer can be completed after ones from the beginning of the summer). Myerberg expects that his office will release batches of 5-10 completed cases every two weeks. OPA maintains a web page with up-to-date information about the protest-related complain investigations.
The cases with “sustained” findings have been reviewed and approved by the Inspector General for Public Safety, who certifies that OPA’s investigation was “thorough, objective, and timely.” They have also been routed through SPD’s discipline board, which consists of Myerberg, the supervisors in the direct chain of command above the officer, and an attorney from the City Attorney’s Office. The discipline board makes a recommendation for disciplinary measures, which then goes to the Chief of Police for a final decision and imposition of discipline. The finding and disciplinary measures may be appealed by the officer, either through the Public Safety Civil Service Commission or through arbitration.
Yesterday Myerberg sat down for an extensive interview with SCC Insight; you can read the full interview here.
Materials released by OPA today:
- Case 2020OPA-350 (not sustained)
- Case 2020OPA-375 (not sustained)
- Case 2020OPA-348 (sustained)
- Case 2020OPA-324 — officer used a neck restraint (part sustained)
- Case 2020OPA-322 — young boy pepper sprayed (not sustained)
- Video compilation of the pepper spray incident
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