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Originally published April 3, 2013 at 9:04 PM | Page modified April 4, 2013 at 4:55 PM

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No assault charge against cop; expert says SPD botched case

Police didn’t obtain a use-of-force report from the officer or take a statement from him despite his decision to push a man four times and pull his hair during a pellet-gun shooting investigation last August, the outside expert wrote.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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City prosecutors announced Wednesday they will not file an assault charge against a Seattle police officer in a high-profile incident last summer, citing an outside expert’s report that found police botched the case due to the department’s culture and investigative failures.

Police didn’t obtain a use-of-force report from the veteran officer, Clayton Powell, or take a statement from him despite his decision to push a man four times and pull his hair during a pellet-gun shooting investigation Aug. 2 in South Seattle, the expert wrote in an eight-page report that recommended prosecutors not bring a misdemeanor assault charge.

The expert, Gregory Yacoubian, a former Los Angeles Police Department lieutenant and a California attorney, said prosecution of Powell had been hampered by the department’s “apparent acceptance” of Powell’s conduct, “failures regarding supervision and management” of officers, and a “lack of objectivity” in reviewing what occurred.

Seattle police originally touted the incident as an example of other officers coming forward to report suspected misconduct , just days after the Police Department and U.S. Department of Justice signed a landmark settlement agreement in U.S. District Court intended to address a pattern of an unconstitutional use of force within the department.

But the department revised that account about a month later, saying it was Powell who had brought the incident to the attention of his supervisors.

The video-recorded confrontation began after police, including Powell, responded to a report that a young boy had been shot with a pellet gun as he rode his bike down a city street.

During the investigation of the shooting, a hostile crowd surrounded Powell and other officers, leading to what Yacoubian described as a “face-to-face, one-on-one, heated verbal exchange” between Powell and a man named Ismail Abdella, then 18 years old.

At one point, Powell removed his badge and hat, apparently indicating his willingness to physically engage Abdella as an “ordinary person” and not as a police officer, Yacoubian wrote in his report.

“Notably, other officers present did nothing to intervene in the emotionally escalating situation between Powell and Abdella,” the report added.

Powell pushed Abdella three times before Abdella spat in the officer’s face, “understandably angering” Powell and prompting him to push Abdella a fourth time, the report said.

While another officer, Dave Ellithorpe, handcuffed Abdella, Powell grabbed Abdella’s hair, pulling it back, Yacoubian found.

“Ellithorpe took no action to stop Powell,” his report said.

Yacoubian said no statement from Powell was provided to explain his justification, nor was Ellithorpe asked to explain what he had observed.

While Powell’s pushes appear justifiable, Yacoubian concluded, “the material provided to me does not include an explanation” for the hair pulling after Abdella was “handcuffed and apparently not resisting.”

Other officers at the scene did nothing to separate Powell from the situation, even though it was obvious he was acting irrationally, the report said.

“This fact seems to reveal a deeper, systematic issue regarding the Seattle Police Department’s organizational culture, specifically, that Powell’s conduct here was, at least implicitly, acceptable, or perhaps even encouraged,” Yacoubian wrote.

In a subsequent video-recorded confrontation, Powell twice entered a South Precinct holding cell and taunted the handcuffed Abdella, at one point rushing toward Abdella and clenching his fist, the report said.

Powell also was allowed to remain within likely hearing distance while Abdella was interviewed by Sgt. Eric Zerr, giving Powell an opportunity to shape his story and calling into question the department’s objectivity, Yacoubian found.

In light of all the circumstances, including Abdella’s conduct, which may have included racial epithets, Powell could raise defenses that his physical acts were justified, the report said.

Powell’s actions in the holding cell amounted to threatening conduct without physical contact, Yacoubian wrote.

While saying he doesn’t believe a conviction could be obtained, Yacoubian urged that Powell’s conduct “be evaluated regarding his fitness to continue in police service.”

Seattle police spokesman Sgt. Sean Whitcomb said with the criminal review concluded, Powell will be subject to an internal investigation. Whitcomb declined further comment.

Yacoubian said Powell’s conduct may rise to a federal criminal violation of Abdella’s civil rights, and likely could result in a successful lawsuit by Abdella.

Abdella, who was never charged and is now 19, has filed a $500,000 claim against the city, a prelude to a potential lawsuit. His attorney has denied Abdella intentionally spit on Powell.

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

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