SPD Chief: Command Staff Share Blame, But Not Discipline, With Violent Cop

Chief O’Toole says that the pepper spraying of a teacher on MLK day was wrong, but has little action to show for it.

This morning, Seattle police Chief Kathleen O’Toole explained to the city council why she lowered the discipline for an officer who, against department policy, pepper sprayed a teacher during a peaceful march on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. O’Toole says that part of the responsibility for the spraying belongs to SPD command staff, who put that officer into a bad situation. But when asked whether anyone in command is being held accountable, O’Toole said only that the department is taking steps to do better in the future.

The pepper spraying occurred on January 19th, as Garfield High School teacher Jesse Hagopian (whose previous involvement with the #BlackLivesMatter movement you can read about here) was returning home after addressing thousands of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day marchers outside the federal courthouse in South Lake Union. He was walking along the sidewalk amid a smaller group of protesters when officer Sandra Delafuente pepper sprayed him and several others while shouting, “Get back! Get back!”

Hagopian described the experience in The Nation:

While I was on the sidewalk a few blocks away from where I had delivered my speech, a Seattle police officer pepper-sprayed me in the face. I was on the phone with my mom to arrange my pick-up when a searing pain shot through my ears, nostril and eyes, and spread across my face.

Here’s the video:

And here’s more video from a different angle:

Hagopian wants to know why Chief O’Toole downgraded the discipline for Delafuente. The Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) recommended a one-day suspension; O’Toole lowered that to an oral reprimand and some training. (Here’s a link to the OPA’s summary of its findings.)

This morning, Hagopian held a press conference with councilmembers Nick Licata and Kshama Sawant, as well as #BlackLivesMatter organizer and attorney Nikkita Oliver. Sawant said that average citizens probably have an even harder time pushing complaints than Hagopian, who is a well-connected union organizer and activist. “If somebody as well known and well respected as Jesse Hagopian received this kind of treatment at the hands of police and is still waiting for justice,” she said, “then I want us to think about the kind of chilling effect that this would have on other community members.”

“Any other employee who acted in such a matter,” said Oliver later, “would probably face much [more] dire consequences. Personally, I would like to see our police officers held to a much higher standard than just your everyday average employee.

“Accountability looks like a lot more than just a verbal reprimand,” she said.

During O’Toole’s police budget presentation to the council (immediately after Hagopian’s press conference), councilmember Bruce Harrell asked O’Toole to explain why she downgraded Delafuente’s discipline. O’Toole gave two reasons: that Delafuente had acknowledged her mistake, and that police command staff had failed to support Delafuente in a difficult situation.

According to O’Toole, Delafuente and other officers were ordered to “hold the line” against protesters to keep them from reaching Highway 99, where another group of protesters had created a “Sleeping Dragon”---a disruption tactic in which they secured their arms together using tape and tubes in order to block the highway for longer while police cut through their bonds. But Delafuente and her cohort was too small to effect that order, O’Toole says. Moreover, she adds, there was no Lieutenant on site to issue clear orders on whether or not to use pepper spray. Perhaps the biggest mitigating factor for Delafuente was the fact that another officer had been hurt (not by protesters) nearby.

In short, Delafuente panicked. O’Toole says that the officer’s acknowledgment of this fact, in addition to the failure of command staff to support her, justifies the downgraded discipline. (Her emphasis on Delafuente’s acknowledgment of responsibility is consistent with O’Toole’s recent decision to fire officer Cynthia Whitlatch, who by contrast denied any responsibility for a similar incident.)

But when asked whether those command staff had themselves been disciplined or held accountable, O’Toole said only that the department has “commissioned [a] national study of independent experts to come in and see how we’re handling these [crowd control] situations, so we don’t put officers in a situation where there are too few of them to perform according to the orders.” There is no OPA investigation of the command staff responsible for Delafuente’s behavior, she said.

In other words, O’Toole says she downgraded Delafuente’s discipline because command staff are also at fault---but there’s no discipline for those command staff. It’s a neat accounting trick: while getting shifted from Delafuente to her superiors, part of the consequence for the incident seems to have evaporated into thin air.

“Policing is a messy business,” said O’Toole. “I think the commanders on the day were trying to do the right thing, but these officers ended up in a situation where they didn’t have the appropriate supervision.”

President Ron Smith of the Seattle Police Officer's Guild (SPOG), which represents rank-and-file officers, responded by phone to O'Toole's explanation, saying that command officers were responsible for putting Delafuente into an impossible situation. "If we're going to hold my [union] members accountable---and rightly so---then commanders need to be held accountable" also, he said.

Asked for his response to O’Toole’s explanation, Hagopian was unimpressed. “Right now I don’t have much to say,” he said. “I feel like the facts of the case speak for themselves very clearly.”

Updates: You can see video of the entire hearing, including comments from Hagopian and O'Toole's explanation, here.

It's also worth noting that Delafuente was one of the SPD officers who stood by when, in 2010, Detective Shandy Cobane threatened to "beat the Mexican piss out of" a suspect who was handcuffed and prone on the ground, according to KOMO news.

The Public Defender Association has released a statement in general agreement with Hagopian's criticisms. From the statement:

If the responsibility for what happened to Jesse Hagopian lies in large part with supervisory decisions, it’s imperative that those command choices now be addressed promptly and in a transparent way that assures the community that they will not be repeated.

Update: Bruce Harrell--who chairs the council's public safety committee and refereed questioning of the Chief during yesterday's hearing--had a different take on the hearing. Here's a lightly edited transcript of our phone interview with Harrell:

SW: What was your response to Chief O'Toole's explanation for what happened to Hagopian and, later, Delafuente?

BH: I was very pleased with [O'Toole's] openness, that she admitted even in the face of a lawsuit that the city violated its policy and she tried to describe the sentiments of the officer, Delafuente. And I think that's the kind of transparency we want. She had also said that she made some attempts to contact Mr. Hagopian to try to let him know...that she was concerned about how pepper spray was used and that it was against city policy. She also made it clear that there was a breakdown in command staff's role, in that there was not a Lieutenant on-site [when pepper spray was deployed]. The policy is generally that a person in command should authorize use of pepper spray and that wasn't done in this situation. So I think she also took some responsibility for the problem as well, which is quite candidly a whole--you don't see that type of concessions or admissions in command staff. I haven't seen it in the eight years I've been on council.

So you felt like she and command staff were taking accountability for their role?

Yes. That's how I interpreted her role.

Anything you want to add?

I know that Jesse Hagopian and a lot of educators are really embracing the concept of restorative justice, and in a restorative justice context, the victim and oftentimes the aggressor or the person that's alleged to have committed misconduct, we all get in a room and we all try to learn from what we've done and prevent it from happening again. What I want to accomplish is--and again, I understand there's a lawsuit pending and we're in an adversarial position, the city is at least with Mr. Hagopian--I understand that, but that should not prevent us from being able to sit down so that the officer can learn from what she did, so the community can understand that the police department are trying to embrace restorative justice so that we can move forward. So I'm going to be working on facilitating that in the very near future. I [am in the process of getting] coffee set up with Mr. Hagopian next week so we can start down that path.

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