Three incidents last week confirm the city’s inability to address problems at the Seattle Police Department. In spite of a Department of Justice report that Seattle has a problem with excessive force and biased policing, the city is in deep denial and is doing its best to cover up the problems.
The first incident last week was the arrest of SPD Lt. Donnie Lowe on domestic violence charges. Lowe, whom the Seattle Times described as having “a checkered history with the department,” was given a leadership role in the city’s 20/20 Plan (the city’s response to the DOJ finding, which has been described by the DOJ as a joke). The 20/20 Plan is mostly a PR exercise, but with Lowe’s arrest, even the PR value of the plan is now in question.
Lowe himself has an ongoing problem with alcohol, and possibly anger issues. He was arrested last week at a party in his home. He’d been drinking with friends, got into an argument with his wife, then pushed her against a wall and smacked her. This is not his first alcohol related arrest: in 2008 Lowe was brought in on a DUI charge and his blood alcohol level registered at 0.113%, above the legal intoxication limit of 0.08%. Lowe, however, was allowed to plead guilty to an “amended” charge of reckless driving. His sentence was deferred, then the charge dismissed after he finished an alcohol information class and some community service. It’s hard to believe that if Lowe was not a Seattle police offer, he would have received such lenient treatment.
This week’s arrest is also not the first time Lowe has been in trouble for assaulting a family member. In June 2006, he punched and pushed his 13-year-old son against a wall in an SPD jail cell. The city chose not to bring legal charges against him, and then-Chief Gil Kerlikowski reduced his disciplinary finding from “misuse of authority and violation of rules, regulations, and laws” to “conduct unbecoming an officer”—one of many such disciplinary reductions that Kerlikowski was criticized for during his tenure.
This leniency has produced the current culture of invulnerability and exceptionalism at the SPD. By definition, an SPD officer can’t be guilty of excessive force or biased policing, since SPD officers can do no wrong.
This is the city’s official legal stance, as we can see with its filing of court documents last week challenging the veracity of the DOJ report. City attorneys filed the documents in the lawsuit against SPD officer Shandy Cobane. Cobane is the officer who was caught on video uttering a racial slur (“I’m going to beat the Mexican piss out of you, Homey; you feel me?”) to a suspect, then allegedly kicking the suspect in the face and stomping on him as he lay prone on the ground. Immediately after the video came to light, both Officer Cobane and SPD Chief Diaz apologized to the public. Diaz demoted Cobane and promised that any officer caught doing the same thing risked being fired.
Now city attorneys are trying to argue that the DOJ report should not be introduced into evidence in Cobane’s case, and they’re asking the judge to dismiss the lawsuit. This, in spite of both Cobane’s and Chief Diaz’s public admissions that Cobane had erred. Cobane recently testified in a deposition that, two years after the event, he still doesn’t know what the SPD policy is regarding unbiased policing.
Cobane’s case is not the only one wending its way through the courts. John Kita won a ruling last week in his case against the SPD. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Kita can pursue a civil rights lawsuit against the SPD, after he was roughed up during his arrest in February 2008. A dashboard camera captured SPD Officer Kevin Oshikawa-Clay hitting the back of Kita’s head and slamming his face into the hood of a patrol car. He then dragged Kita to the ground where he kneeled on Kita’s back, hit him twice more, and cranked his arm into a pain-compliance hold. While the hood of the car blocked the view of Kita on the ground, the angle of the blows suggest Oshikawa-Clay hit Kita twice more in the back of the head.
At the time of Kita’s arrest, SPD commanders and a lieutenant in the SPD training division viewed the dash-cam video and concluded that Oshikawa-Clay had correctly followed department policy. They concluded that the suspect, Kita, was violent and a safety risk to Oshikawa-Clay, even though Kita was never charged with resisting arrest or assaulting an officer. Kita was eventually acquitted of the assault charge for which he was arrested.
After viewing the dash-cam video, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court disagreed with the SPD commanders. They ruled that Kita was not a safety risk to Officer Oshikawa-Clay, and that the officer’s actions were “objectively unreasonable and therefore constitutionally excessive.” This is twice now that an outside agency—first the DOJ and now a circuit court—has ruled that SPD departmental policy, procedures, and training are flawed.
The city needs to step up and take responsibility for the problems at the SPD. As the DOJ and the local US Attorney have said, the 20/20 Plan doesn’t begin to address the deeper cultural problems and lack of accountability within the Seattle Police Department. Unfortunately, it may take another court decision—this time in a lawsuit filed by the DOJ—to force changes within the city and the police department.