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Originally published September 6, 2013 at 9:17 PM | Page modified September 6, 2013 at 10:18 PM

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SPD officer avoids firing over serious misconduct

The 2012 incident also led to a rare examination of top department commanders, including an assistant chief who was ordered to undergo training for failing to assure that use of force was documented.

Seattle Times staff reporter

(Uploaded to YouTube by Loud Money)
The video above was used as evidence that was reviewed by SPD as it investigated Officer Powell.

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In a case that drew widespread attention, a Seattle police officer who pulled the hair of a man and later physically threatened him in a holding cell has avoided being fired after agreeing to a lengthy suspension, reassignment and additional training.

In all, the department found that Officer Clayton Powell, 52, engaged in multiple acts of misconduct arising from an Aug. 2, 2012, incident in South Seattle.

The discipline is similar to that meted out in 2011 to then-gang Detective Shandy Cobane, who had threatened during a robbery call to beat the “Mexican piss” out of a prone Latino man.

But Powell’s case included an unusual twist: At the direction of a civilian watchdog who scrutinizes internal investigations, the department expanded the review to examine why top commanders failed to make sure that a timely use-of-force report was completed.

As a result, Assistant Chief Nick Metz was ordered to undergo additional training regarding the lapse — a highly unusual action for a top-ranking commander.

All of the actions, detailed in internal-investigation documents disclosed Friday under a public-disclosure request by The Seattle Times, come at a time when the department is continuing to respond to a federal mandate to curtail excessive force found by the Department of Justice.

As part of a settlement that runs until August 2016, Powell’s union, the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, agreed not to appeal his discipline.

In turn, Interim Police Chief Jim Pugel set aside an initial determination that Powell be fired and instead suspended Powell for 30 days without pay — the most severe discipline short of termination. However, 10 days were held in abeyance.

Powell will be subject to termination if he engages in serious misconduct of a similar nature in the future.

In addition, the 20-year veteran was reassigned to the department’s Community Outreach unit under the supervision of an assistant chief. Among other things, Powell is to undergo training in that unit, perform outreach duties, meet with community leaders and participate in the production of a department training video on “fair and respectful” policing.

On a more personal level, Powell is to continue counseling sessions.

Powell came under scrutiny after he and other officers were called to a possible assault of a 9-year-old victim with an air-soft pellet gun.

While surrounded by a hostile crowd, Powell and a young man in the crowd began arguing.

After the man made a statement about wanting to face Powell again when he wasn’t on duty, Powell threw down his badge and police baseball cap and challenged the man.

In the exchange, captured on a YouTube video, Powell pushed the man at times, including one time when the man advanced on him, according to the internal-investigation documents. One push occurred after the man purportedly spit on Powell, an allegation the man has denied.

While another officer attempted to handcuff the man, Powell grabbed the man’s hair and hat and pulled him down toward the hood of a patrol car, according to patrol-car video cited in the documents.

At a South Precinct holding cell, where the man was taken, Powell appeared to display a middle finger to the man and make a threatening gesture with his fist, surveillance video showed.

The man, Ismail Abdella, has filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit against the city.

Pugel, in an interview Friday, noted that Powell, like Cobane, had been “straightforward and honest” about serious misconduct. Cobane, who was nearly fired, was suspended for 30 days without pay, demoted and required to mend fences.

Pugel called Powell’s actions “unacceptable behavior.”

In the official findings, the department found Powell violated the law, used unnecessary force and profanity, and acted in an unprofessional and discourteous fashion.

Powell’s case was reviewed by the City Attorney’s Office for a possible criminal-assault charge. But an outside expert advised it would be difficult to prove criminal conduct, although the expert said Powell’s actions should be evaluated “regarding his fitness to continue in police service.”

The Police Department’s Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) then conducted the internal investigation that initially focused on Powell’s conduct. But the review was broadened when the OPA’s civilian auditor, Anne Levinson, requested that the assistant chief and captain in Powell’s chain of command be interviewed, according to Levinson’s Aug. 9 semiannual report.

Levinson wrote that she would have sustained allegations against both commanders of failure to properly document use of force, while acknowledging there was “some confusion” on what was required because of the potential criminal and policy violations by Powell.

In an interview, Levinson said that in order for the review system to have integrity, all officers need to be held to the same standard no matter their rank.

Levinson did not identify the commanders in her report, but Metz, the assistant chief, and Capt. Mike Nolan have both told The Seattle Times that they were interviewed.

Metz was found to be responsible for assuring that a use-of-force report was produced at the time of the incident.

While Metz was ordered to undergo additional training, no misconduct was found. OPA Director Pierce Murphy said he concluded the failure resulted from a misunderstanding.

In an interview, Metz said he directed Nolan on the night of the incident to make sure the report was done, but only learned a year later that it didn’t get to the OPA. Still, Metz said, he was willing to accept responsibility for the omission.

“It is what it is. It’s behind me. I’m glad it’s done,” Metz said.

On the night of the incident, he said, there was confusion and possible miscommunication about what should be done, in part because of the potential criminal aspects of the matter.

Nolan, in an interview, took responsibility, saying that amid running discussions on what to do he probably misunderstood Metz’s directive and “dropped the ball.”

But the incident was thoroughly documented, Nolan said. “It just didn’t get documented in the format.”

Seattle police originally touted the incident as an example of officers coming forward to report suspected misconduct, just days after the Police Department and Justice Department signed a landmark agreement to address the findings of excessive force. But the department revised that account about a month later, saying it was Powell who had brought the incident to the attention of supervisors.

Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this story.

Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or smiletich@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @stevemiletich.

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