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Thursday, February 28, 2008 - Page updated at 09:36 PM

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Obstruction arrests higher among black men in Seattle

Black men in Seattle are considerably more likely to be arrested for obstructing a police officer than white men, a Seattle Post-Intelligencer investigation has found.

Blacks are arrested for the sole crime of obstructing justice eight times more often than whites, when population differences are taken into account, the P-I found by analyzing six years of Seattle Municipal Court records and data.

During the six years since January 2002, the city attorney's office dropped nearly half of all Seattle stand-alone police obstruction charges, the newspaper's study of state police records found.

"What this says to me is that it is an abuse of police power," said defense lawyer Sunil Abraham. "You should not be arresting people unless you can make a case against them."

While also voicing concern, city officials defended police and advised against jumping to conclusions.

"It's terribly unfortunate that African-Americans are being arrested (for obstruction) at a higher rate," said City Attorney Tom Carr. "But be careful what you conclude. To jump to the next step and say Seattle police are targeting African-Americans, that's a huge jump. I haven't seen that, absolutely not."

Deputy Police Chief Clark Kimerer said Seattle Police don't look at race when making arrest; they focus on whether there's probable cause to believe the person committed a crime.

Some Seattle attorneys say the obstruction charge is used as a cover up for police misconduct.

"If they are going to beat the crap out of someone, they have to level a charge," said Seattle attorney Frank Shoichet.

Criminal defense attorney John Henry Browne said he always asks any client who brings him an obstruction charge, "How badly were you beaten?

"They always say, 'How did you know?'," Browne said. Other attorneys say they've had similar experiences.

"Every time we've done a case involving an injury to a citizen, there is a charge of obstructing or resisting," said attorney Allen Ressler, who represents people in civil cases against police officers.

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Officers said the connection is logical, because they must go "hands-on" when someone impedes or resists them, but Deputy Police Chief Kimerer points out that Seattle has a much lower use-of-force rate compared to other large police forces, even though it has a higher rate of assaults on police officers.

Raymond Hall, a 34-year-old black electrician who grew up in Rainier Beach, says his obstruction arrest in 2006 is part of the black experience in Seattle.

"It's just a common thing," Hall said. "You see it all the time in the neighborhood. They pull you over, ask you a lot of questions. Sometimes they let you go, sometimes they don't."

Hall said he was returning home from the gas station one evening in August 2006 when two officers ordered him out of his car. When he asked why, he said, the officers arrested him at gunpoint.

"They took me downtown, stripped me down, fingerprinted me, made me change clothes, put me in a holding cell," Hall recalled. He was there four or five hours and then released with no explanation. The next day, prosecutors declined to press charges, records show.

In his report, Officer Steve Kaffer said he stopped Hall for a missing front license plate and driver's side mirror and arrested him for failing to turn off his cell phone. The officer wrote in his report that he was concerned Hall would use the phone to call someone to come to his aid or that it could be a "cell phone look-alike stun gun" or a cell phone altered to shoot a bullet.

The Rev. Samuel B. McKinney, pastor of Seattle's Mount Zion Baptist Church, expressed concern that the pattern of arrests for obstruction shows "a fear of black men who raise questions or challenge the police."

___

Information from: Seattle Post-Intelligencer, http://www.seattle-pi.com/

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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