Cops Jumping the Gun

Four Seattle police officers last year discharged or brandished firearms without sufficient cause. People could have been hurt or killed.

When a Seattle police officer held his gun an inch from a man's temple one night last summer in a Seattle park and said something about blowing the man's brains out, who was the cop arresting — a murderer, rapist, child molester?

Try dope smoker. And just one joint at that. As the man said to the cop, "It's only marijuana." But after the man swallowed the weed, the officer grabbed him by the throat or jaw, jabbed a gun at his head, and threatened to knock him out with a punch.

The officer didn't shoot. But he was brought up on disciplinary charges that were sustained. The department concluded he threatened to kill the man while also lecturing him on the dangers of using marijuana.

That was one of four notable cases of sustained complaints against Seattle Police Department officers involving potentially deadly gun-related violations last year, according to newly obtained SPD internal-investigation documents. In the other cases, an off-duty cop apparently instigated a tussle with a panhandler and then fired her weapon at him as he ran away; another officer used his gun just after Kent police stopped the driver of his girlfriend's stolen car, though he was unauthorized to have a gun; and a uniformed officer fired three shots at an unarmed thief who had stolen the officer's police car.

They are disciplinary incidents that escaped public notice last year as the media focused on other inner turmoil at SPD. One officer, John Powers, was fired for drug use and other departmental violations, and two supervisors were disciplined as part of an FBI probe of some West Precinct officers accepting gifts from Belltown club owners.

But to the dope smoker, being threatened with execution by cop was likely a much bigger story. He and other complainants, as well as police officers, are unidentified in the redacted SPD internal documents obtained through an Open Records Act request.

"It is difficult to speak generally about these cases because they each present very different fact patterns," says Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) Director Sam Pailca, speaking also for Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske. "In two of the cases, officers were off duty and not acting in an official capacity. In one, of course, the individual had separated [on administrative leave] from the department and had his badge and department-issued weapon removed. In the other, an officer was out socializing with her significant other." The department, she notes, "has very few" officer-involved shootings — eight fatal shootings and five other "intentional discharges" in 2004-05. Approximately one in five of approximately 1,200 officers will receive a complaint in any 12-month period, Pailca says.

The department is unable to say what punishment was handed down to the officer who held a gun to the head of a man who, it turned out, was never arrested or cited. According to documents, the man and a female friend were passing a joint when a patrol car threw a spotlight on them at an unnamed Seattle park last June 16. The two were called over and told by one officer to leave. As he turned to go, the man put the joint in his mouth and began chewing and swallowing it.

He told internal investigators that the other officer got out and grabbed him by the throat or jaw and put a finger inside his mouth. The officer then pulled his weapon and held it next to the man's head while also threatening to punch the man with a fist. The cop subsequently holstered his gun and said, according to the man, "I should have went ahead and blown your brains out."

The officer, confronted with the allegation, claimed he drew his pistol because the man "reached into the vicinity of his waistband" and may have had a gun. He angled the weapon close to the man's head because, he insisted, if he had to shoot he was less likely to hit his partner or the woman. He also denied making threats to the man. He allowed that he couldn't prove the man had used or possessed marijuana and couldn't recall if he patted the man down for weapons. His partner backed his story, but neither filed a report or notified a supervisor. Pailca first told Seattle Weekly the two officers received written reprimands, then said that was incorrect, but because the department's legal advisor was out of town, she was unable to say what the final disposition is.

Another unjustified weapons-use case unfolded March 17, 2005, last year at 12th Avenue East and East Pike Street as an off-duty female officer and her female companion, also a law enforcement officer, encountered a man who asked them for change. They declined and a scuffle broke out, with one of the officers apparently hit on the head with a juice bottle; they also claimed the suspect called them "fucking dyke bitches." As the panhandler ran off, the officer gave chase. She pulled her personal weapon, a .38 revolver, from her purse, then fired the gun either intentionally or by accidentally dropping it. A nearby uniformed officer was flagged down and the panhandler was stopped and later booked into jail. He told police the women attacked him and then one chased him, shouting, "I'm going to kill you" — followed by a "loud boom" and another threat to kill.

At the scene, the off-duty officer denied having a gun and later said she was upset at her department's internal probe of the case, "implying that it is because she and her partner are lesbians," documents state. She told investigators that because of the stress of the moment she forgot she was carrying a gun. (She had put the revolver in her pocket when police arrived.) Investigators ultimately concluded she never identified herself as an officer, lied about details of the shooting (the bullet was never found), and might have initiated contact with the suspect, leading ultimately to his wrongful arrest. What's more, states OPA Capt. Neil Low in the documents, "evidence supports that [the shooting] was not accidental." In essence, police indicated, the officer intentionally shot at and could have killed the panhandler.

Police considered the case serious enough to present to the King County Prosecutor's Office and the Seattle City Attorney's Office for prosecution, though both declined. In December, the officer was given a 15-day suspension without pay, the department says.

In the other cases:

An SPD officer who was already on administrative leave and relieved of his badge and gun reported sighting his girlfriend's stolen Jeep. He called Kent police on a cell phone, then arrived as a Kent officer made the felony stop. The SPD officer jumped out, flashed a police ID (but no badge), and, to the concern of the confused Kent officer, pointed his gun at the driver — who, it turned out, was the girlfriend. She had just recovered her own stolen vehicle but hadn't notified anyone yet. Police investigators said the officer created a "dangerous situation for himself and others with an unauthorized weapon." The department says a decision on disciplinary action has been "held in abeyance in light of the employee's disability retirement."

After two cops got out of their patrol car near Harborview Medical Center, leaving the keys behind, a woman who had earlier asked for a ride jumped in the vehicle and decided to drive home. Alerted by construction workers, an officer ran after the car and fired three shots into the driver's door. The woman, unhurt, was stopped a few blocks later by other officers. The officer claimed the woman smiled at him as he ran alongside the "fishtailing" car; fearing he might be run over, he said, he opened fire. A firearms review board decided he was never in danger of being struck and he was found to have violated a rule on firing at moving cars. He received a five-day suspension that won't be imposed unless he has another violation within three years.

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