Police chief exonerated officers in violent arrest
The office that oversees internal police investigations found two were guilty of excessive force and all three were guilty of serious breaches in conduct.
Seattle Times staff reporters
A federal civil-rights lawsuit over the violent arrest of a young African-American man is drawing new attention to Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske and his record on police discipline.
Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes is suing the city, the chief and several officers, alleging police violated his civil rights during his arrest for allegedly obstructing justice, resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer outside a bar in 2005. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People cited the case last week in calling for Kerlikowske's resignation.
Kerlikowske did not punish any of the officers involved in the incident, even though records show the civilian director of the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA), which oversees internal police investigations, found two were guilty of excessive force and all three were guilty of serious breaches in conduct. She recommended discipline for all three.
Kerlikowske declined to comment on the Alley-Barnes case. Department Human Resource Manager Mark McCarty said Kerlikowske acted appropriately and in keeping with his job as final arbiter of officer disciplinary issues. The case was complicated, he said, because the department let a disciplinary deadline pass for the sergeant whom OPA determined to be responsible for the incident. The other two officers were exonerated by Kerlikowske.
The issue of the chief declining to go along with disciplinary recommendations is the topic of an unreleased report written a year ago by the citizen panel that oversees OPA's operation. Last week, the head of the review board described the report, which has been blocked from release for legal reasons.
The review board also criticized the chief last week, saying he interfered in another internal investigation.
The Alley-Barnes case brings up themes of officer credibility raised by the January arrest of a known drug dealer.
A surveillance video of that arrest revealed inaccuracies in officers' reports that led the OPA's auditor to conclude they lied. Criminal charges against the drug dealer were dropped.
In the Alley-Barnes arrest on Capitol Hill, a patrol-car dashboard camera captured audio but not video. The audio revealed inconsistencies in the officers' accounts, according to court records.
Blows can be heard. A woman can be heard saying, "Oh my God!"
At one point, the 29-year-old Alley-Barnes -- an artist with no criminal record -- pleads with the officers to "please stop kicking me!"
Another voice can be heard saying, "That's way too much!"
The charges against Alley-Barnes were dismissed because the city failed to turn over the video to defense attorneys, according to court and police internal-affairs documents.
In dismissing the case, Municipal Court Judge Jean Rietschel found statements on the tape "impeach the officers' statements" because "there's nothing on the video about the alleged commands that each of the officers said were said to Mr. Alley-Barnes" -- including telling him to put his hands behind his back.
What the tape does reveal, the judge said, are "a number of very inflammatory statements made by police" about "arresting a black" and about Alley-Barnes getting in trouble because of his big mouth.
The judge did not conclude that the city intentionally withheld the evidence -- Rietschel said it was likely inadvertent -- but "the late nature ... gives the court pause."
Scene outside bar
Barnes and a group of friends were leaving the War Room, a bar on Capitol Hill, shortly after midnight on April 13, 2005. Outside was Seattle Police Sgt. Greg Sackman, who was on patrol there. A bouncer said he seemed "agitated" and had positioned himself directly in front of the door so people would have to walk around him as they left.
The bouncer, Tim Rhodes, later said one of Alley-Barnes' friends apparently threw a piece of paper or straw into the gutter. When the officer pointed it out to him, the friend picked it up and apologized, Rhodes said in a court deposition.
Sackman decided to detain the man, according to police reports and other court documents. It was then that Alley-Barnes went up to Sackman and complained that he was harassing his friend because the friend was black, according to several witnesses.
Sackman, in his report, said he felt threatened and called for "fast backup," meaning all officers in the area were to respond to an officer in trouble.
During this dispatch, Alley-Barnes can be heard in the background discussing "the civil rights of colored people," according to dispatch tapes and court documents.
The first officer to arrive was Brian Hunt. Sackman told Hunt to arrest Alley-Barnes, even though Alley-Barnes was walking away, Hunt later testified.
Sam Pailca, then-director of the OPA, concluded in her report that Sackman knew that Alley-Barnes had "made no threatening, hostile or aggressive moves." Pailca stated she "doubted [Alley-Barnes'] verbal challenges amounted to obstruction."
Pailca later explained in a deposition that citizens can misunderstand officer safety issues. "So officers may perceive a risk whereas many average citizens may not and certainly don't see what they're doing as interfering," she said.
Hunt grabbed Alley-Barnes in what the officer described as a wrestling maneuver called a "groin pick," where he hoisted the man by his scrotum onto the hood of a police car. Alley-Barnes later said he struggled because he was in pain. Other officers arrived, including Kevin Jones, who later said he hit Alley-Barnes as hard as he could twice in the face.
In all, reports show four officers took Alley-Barnes to the ground. According to Hunt's testimony at the criminal trial and other witnesses, Hunt kicked him several times in the head and torso while the others were holding him by his arms and legs. Later, when officers were leading the bloodied Alley-Barnes away, one can be heard on the dashboard-camera video telling him "it's because you're all mouth."
After his arrest and while he was in handcuffs at the East Precinct, Alley-Barnes later said, one of the officers smashed his face into a wall. Forensic tests found traces of blood on the wall.
One bystander who was taking photos of the Alley-Barnes arrest with his cellphone was pepper-sprayed and his phone confiscated, according to court documents.
Attempts to reach the sergeant and officers were unsuccessful.
News of incident spreads
By the next morning, the incident had caught the attention of command staff. Assistant Chief Harry Bailey was briefed by the precinct lieutenant. By that evening, the American Civil Liberties Union had been called and Alley-Barnes' mother, angry and tearful, had called the precinct as well. Royal Alley-Barnes is active in the city's civil-rights movement and is an executive in the city's Parks Department.
The OPA spent nearly five months investigating the case. OPA Capt. Neil Low recommended that Sackman be disciplined for failing to perform his duties as a supervisor. He recommended Hunt be counseled by his supervisor for his use of force. Low recommended that the other two officers be exonerated.
But then-OPA Director Pailca took issue with Low's analysis of the incident. She not only found Sackman liable, but recommended to the chief that both Hunt and Jones be disciplined for excessive use of force.
Even though Hunt was directed to arrest Alley-Barnes by Sackman, "I do ... not think he is absolved of responsibility for his part in escalating the incident and his use of force was excessive," she wrote. The so-called "groin pick" was likely to result in "unnecessary pain and injury," she continued.
"In addition, though other officers were present and [Alley-Barnes] was prone, face down and not actively resisting, Hunt kicked ... from a standing position," Pailca wrote.
Likewise, Jones used excessive force when he punched Alley-Barnes "several times in the face," she concluded.
Pailca reserved her most stinging criticism for Sackman, who she said knew Alley-Barnes was not a threat and failed to communicate that to the other officers.
Kerlikowske did not take Pailca's suggestions: He exonerated Jones and Hunt of any wrongdoing. What his plans were for Sackman are not known, because the chief didn't impose discipline on the sergeant within the 180-day deadline outlined in the Seattle Police Officers' Guild contract.
McCarty, the human-resources attorney, said the department miscalculated the date the complaint was made. Instead, a letter was placed in Sackman's file in April 2007 after he returned from a tour of duty in the Army.
One of the attorneys representing the department, Ted Buck, defended the chief's decision and the officers' actions.
Buck said Alley-Barnes refused to stand away from Sackman when he was told to. "We call that against the law," Buck said. "It's hard to discipline somebody when what they are doing is, in fact, in their job description."
The Police Department on Monday reported that the chief and the OPA director differed on the type of discipline in 14 out of 78 cases in 2004 and 2005 in which OPA recommended discipline be imposed -- about 18 percent. In five of those cases, the chief reversed the OPA finding entirely and no discipline was handed out.
The Alley-Barnes case, which occurred in 2005, was not included in those numbers. McCarty said that was because it was not formally closed until last April because Sackman was serving in the Army in Afghanistan.
In 2005, The Seattle Times reported that the chief had reversed about a quarter of all disciplinary cases in the previous three years.
Seattle Police Department spokesman Sean Whitcomb said the chief makes decisions on discipline carefully and has fired a number of officers during his tenure. Although Whitcomb did not elaborate, he said, "There have been sworn officers who were terminated outright and others who were allowed to resign in lieu of termination."