Seattle officer punched a handcuffed man, says witness
Seattle police have opened an internal investigation into the arrest last week of a man who a witness said was struck by an officer after he was handcuffed and on the ground, according to a department spokesman.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Seattle police have opened an internal investigation into the arrest last week of a man who a witness said was punched by an officer after he was handcuffed and on the ground, according to a department spokesman.
The arrest was witnessed by a freelance radio reporter, who called her boyfriend, a KIRO radio talk-show host, to the scene. They claim they were met with denial, belligerence and anger by a sergeant when they asked how the reporter, Vanessa Romo, could file a statement about what she had seen.
Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, a department spokesman, said Tuesday that Romo's version of events appears "pretty consistent with what happened" — punches apparently were thrown after the suspect was in custody and handcuffed.
The man was arrested after he wandered into traffic on Rainier Avenue South Thursday night.
The officers reported that the man had spit on them, and one of them was taken to Harborview Medical Center to be screened for exposure to pathogens, Whitcomb said.
Officers also placed a protective hood, called a "spit sock," over the man's face, Whitcomb said.
"She's right. That's what she saw," Whitcomb said. "Force was used. What we are going to be looking at is whether that use of force was within policy and within the law."
The department is also looking into actions of the sergeant at the scene, Whitcomb said.
"We have to wonder whether a reasonable explanation at the time, in a calm manner, would have defused this situation," he said.
Reports on the incident, as well as any video from the officers' patrol car dash camera, have been gathered and will be reviewed by the Office of Professional Accountability, Whitcomb said. Until that investigation is completed, the department is limited in what it can say about the incident, Whitcomb said.
The incident has been discussed on the morning radio show co-hosted by Romo's boyfriend, KIRO's Luke Burbank, who responded to the scene on Rainier Avenue after Romo called him. Later, Burbank recorded Romo's version of events, and broadcast that tape and discussed the arrest on his show with co-host Dave Ross.
Burbank said Romo was driving south on Rainier Avenue South and was stopped, preparing to turn left near the Lowe's hardware store at about 10:30 p.m. when "a kind of down-and-out guy" crossed against the light in front of her car. A police cruiser that was behind her lit its emergency lights and spotlight, pulled around her and pursued the man, she said.
Two officers got out of the cruiser and ran after the man, telling him to stop. The man quickened his pace, "but he was at no time running," Romo said in the recording made by Burbank.
In an interview with The Times on Tuesday, Romo said it was clear the man was not obeying the officers, but he wasn't running and he didn't resist when they caught up with him. Romo said she was upset by what she saw next.
"They tackle him, and his face hits the pavement and sort of bounces off the pavement, and they're both on top of him and the other guy whips out plastic cuffs and cuffs him," Romo said in the taped statement.
At that point, she told The Times, she watched the man turn and look up at the officer, "and that's when the officer punched him at least two times, and maybe three" hard in the face.
"The officer sort of jumped up and I could hear him yelling, 'Oh [expletive], and he starts wiping at his face," she said.
Romo and Burbank waited at the scene and asked to talk to a sergeant. When he showed up, Burbank said the man was "spittin' mad" and belligerent. Romo said the officer started yelling at them and never stopped.
At first, Romo said the sergeant denied the officer had hit the man. When Romo insisted she had seen it, and that she wanted to file a witness statement, Burbank said the sergeant responded, "I would have punched him, too, because he spit on them."
"As a person, I have to question the need to punch someone in the face after he's been restrained," Romo said. "But that's only part of it. He was old and not trying to fight."
In December, the American Civil Liberties Union and 34 community groups called on U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan to open a broad civil-rights investigation into the "patterns and practices" of the Seattle Police Department after a string of disturbing and highly publicized instances of violent confrontations involving police, many involving people of color. One of the incidents cited by the ACLU, the fatal shooting of John T. Williams by Officer Ian Birk, is the subject of an ongoing inquest at the King County Courthouse.
Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or email@example.com
Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.
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