SPD officer charged with assault in videotaped kicking
In the latest blow to the Seattle Police Department, veteran Officer James J. Lee has been charged with fourth-degree assault after repeatedly kicking a teenage suspect inside a convenience store in October.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Raw video | Surveillance video of SPD officer kicking suspect
In the latest blow to the Seattle Police Department, a veteran officer has been charged with fourth-degree assault after repeatedly kicking a teenage suspect inside a convenience store in October.
James J. Lee, 42, is the first officer to be charged with a crime arising from a series of incidents in the past year that has prompted the U.S. Justice Department to open a formal civil-rights investigation into the Police Department's use of force and its treatment of minorities.
The charge stems from an Oct. 18 incident in Joe's Mart in downtown Seattle, which was captured on surveillance video and widely broadcast on television and Internet sites. In the video, Lee is seen kicking an African-American teen suspected of trying to rob an undercover narcotics officer. The teen, Dvontaveous Hoston, was later exonerated when he was acquitted of first-degree attempted robbery.
The City Attorney's Office filed the charge against Lee on Wednesday after reviewing an independent investigation by the State Patrol, which was brought into the case at the request of Seattle Police Chief John Diaz. The charge is a gross misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and up to a $5,000 fine.
"We understand that our police officers have a dangerous job," City Attorney Pete Holmes said in a prepared statement. "They are thus permitted the legal ability to use reasonable force in apprehending people suspected of having committed a crime. When the force used is not reasonable under the circumstances, the officer must be held accountable."
Lee's attorney, Peter Offenbecher, of Seattle, said his client is innocent.
"We are looking forward to presenting a vigorous defense in court," said Offenbecher, who previously defended former King County sheriff's Deputy Paul Schene, who was accused of assaulting a teenage girl in a holding cell in 2008 and later fired. Two trials ended with hung juries.
The Seattle Police Officers' Guild assailed Holmes' decision, saying it sends a "terrible message" to officers, citizens and those who engage in illegal activities.
Drug buy-bust operation
The encounter between Lee and Hoston, who was 17 at the time and has since turned 18, happened shortly after Seattle police were attacked while conducting a narcotics buy-bust operation.
Police said an undercover officer seeking to buy crack cocaine was taken to a parking lot and surrounded by a small group, where one man demanded money and punched the officer. The undercover officer and a second officer were injured.
Lee, who had watched the buy-bust operation from a short distance away, chased people who ran after the undercover officer was hit.
On the video, Hoston can be seen inside the store with his hands in the air as Lee approaches him. Lee then kicks at the teen's groin area.
After Hoston falls to the floor, Lee kicks him in the torso and then the head before another officer moves in and handcuffs the teen.
Three men charged with attempted robbery in connection with the same incident also were acquitted. One of the men was found guilty of third-degree assault of a police officer, and another defendant earlier pleaded guilty to a drug charge after prosecutors agreed to drop an attempted-robbery charge.
Lee testified during the trial of the three men that he mistakenly wrote in a report that he used force during a "struggle" with Hoston.
But after a video of the incident was played in court, Lee acknowledged it showed no struggle had occurred before he kicked the teen. He said he had issued multiple warnings to Hoston to get on the ground.
"My recollection is that he was not compliant and I probably should have used different words to describe that," Lee said of the report he wrote shortly after the encounter.
Sgt. Rich O'Neill, president of the police guild, has defended Lee, saying he was following accepted training practices.
In a lengthy statement Wednesday, the guild said it "vehemently disagrees" with the decision to charge Lee, asserting he engaged in no unlawful actions.
Lee was combating open-air drug markets when he tried to apprehend a fleeing felony suspect who ignored verbal commands, the statement said. Lee used a takedown tactic taught to him in advanced police classes, the statement said.
Lee, who is to be arraigned April 29, joined the Police Department in 1999 after working as a police officer in Los Angeles.
He was placed on paid leave about a month after the incident when the department learned a television station planned to air the video. He was reassigned to a different position 30 days later.
Claim against city
Lawyers for Hoston have filed a claim against the city of Seattle seeking a jury trial or a $450,000 settlement. Hoston alleges he was the victim of "unjustified and excessive force" inflicted by Lee.
The teen's lawyer, Christopher Carney, commenting on the criminal charge against Lee, said Wednesday his client is "grateful that his rights are being taken seriously."
Carney said that Hoston "was an innocent kid in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was exonerated; this is an important next step in justice for him."
Carney said the claim will be refiled in U.S. District Court as a lawsuit next week.
In a statement Wednesday, Seattle police said the department's Office of Professional Accountability, which put an internal investigation into the incident on hold when Diaz asked the State Patrol to investigate, would continue to monitor the case.
Another criminal investigation of a Seattle officer is pending and is expected to be reviewed by the City Attorney's Office. In that case, an off-duty officer is seen on a police dashboard-camera video stomping on the head of a man handcuffed and lying on the ground after a brawl outside a Ballard nightclub.
The officer, Garth Haynes, has been placed in a nonpatrol job.
The Justice Department's civil-rights investigation stems from a series of incidents involving Seattle officers, including the fatal shooting of a First Nations woodcarver in August and an officer threatening to beat the "Mexican piss" out of a prone Latino man in April.
The Justice Department also is conducting a separate criminal review of the fatal shooting by former Officer Ian Birk, who resigned from the force after prosecutors said they could not build a case against him.
Seattle Times staff reporter Jennifer Sullivan contributed to this story, which contains information from Times archives.
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or email@example.com
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