By Paul Kiefer
On Friday morning, the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) released the first set of five completed investigations into alleged misconduct by Seattle Police Department officers during the protests that followed the murder of George Floyd in May. These investigations amount to only a tiny fraction of the OPA’s remaining protest-related caseload. The office consolidated more than 30,000 complaints it has received about SPD’s response to demonstrations into more than 100 separate investigations.
The documents released Friday included two investigations stemming from high-profile incidents during the first days of the protests: One in which an officer was accused of kneeling on two demonstrators’ necks during an arrest downtown on the night of May 30; and a widely-publicized incident in which an officer pepper-sprayed an seven-year-old child earlier the same day.
OPA Director Andrew Myerberg only found evidence to sustain two of the four complaints that stemmed from the nighttime arrests. Based on video of the incident, Myerberg concluded that the officer had only kneeled on the neck of one of the demonstrators and instead kneeled on the other demonstrator’s head.
In an interview on Thursday, Myerberg said that “a knee on the head is not against [SPD] policy,” but added that “it’s not encouraged, and [officers] aren’t trained to do it.” Kneeling on a demonstrator’s neck, however, is now against department policy; at the time of the arrest, those restraints were only “strongly discouraged.”
If the OPA had been able to conclude that the officer had intentionally used a neck restraint to restrict the protester’s breathing, the office would have been able to recommend more serious disciplinary action. Myerberg said the SPD policy manual defines a prohibited neck restraint as the intentional application of pressure to a subject’s neck for the purpose of “controlling a subject’s movement or rendering a subject unconscious.” Myerberg said he couldn’t disprove the officer’s claim that he had unintentionally placed his knee on the man’s neck, but he did determine that “what the officer did was not proportional or necessary, because even if inadvertent, the risk of harm is pretty substantial.”
Therefore, the OPA concluded that the officer had unintentionally violated the department’s use of force policy. The OPA also sustained a complaint that the same officer had inappropriately cursed at and threatened demonstrators, calling one woman a “bitch” and telling a fellow officer that he would “fuck up” another demonstrator.
Interim Chief Adrian Diaz will now be responsible for determining how to discipline the officer for both offenses. ”
The OPA also sustained a professionalism complaint against a different officer for an incident in which the complainant filmed him saying, “I have a hard-on for this shit and, if they cross the line, I will hit them” while responding to a demonstration. The officer in question admitted his wrongdoing to the OPA‚ saying he said he had been quoting a movie (“Top Gun”).
His admission of wrongdoing opened the door for Myerberg to make use of a new disciplinary track for SPD officers called rapid adjudication, which began as one of the accountability reforms proposed by former OPA Auditor and retired Judge Anne Levinson in 2014 and adopted in 2018 as part of the Seattle Police Officers Guild contract.
In a rapid adjudication case, the officer accepts a disciplinary action and waives the right to an investigation or an appeal, saving the city and themselves from an investigative process that could last up to 6 months. The goal of rapid adjudication, or RA, Levinson said, “was to create a department in which officers can admit their mistakes and acknowledge responsibility. Typically, union contracts prioritize due process‚ officers have the right to investigations, for instance—so there wasn’t room for officers to admit wrongdoing.”
In this case, the officer will only receive a written reprimand. At the moment, Myerberg’s office doesn’t measure the efficacy of disciplinary actions in changing officers’ behavior, but he hopes they will start tracking that data in the future. “We could look at recidivism,” he says, adding that a punishment as minor as a written reprimand could still incentivize good behavior because multiple reprimands are grounds for the department to suspend or terminate an officer.
Myerberg’s office did not sustain the complaint against the officer who pepper-sprayed the seven-year-old, concluding instead that the officer had not intended to spray the child and therefore hadn’t violated department policy. The OPA wasn’t able to interview the child or his father (who was pepper-sprayed alongside his child) after the family’s legal counsel didn’t respond to the OPA’s interview requests.
However, based on body camera footage and officer testimonies, the OPA found that the father and child were standing behind a woman who was trying to wrestle away an officer’s baton; when that woman ducked, the pepper spray hit the child. The bodycam footage also appeared to disprove the father’s claim that he and his child had been praying with members of their church just before the incident: the footage showed the father yelling obscenities at officers in the lead-up to the incident.
Because a picture of the child crying after being pepper-sprayed circulated widely on social media, Myerberg expects the OPA’s findings in that case to be unpopular, but he also doesn’t believe his office has legal grounds to push for disciplinary action against the officer. Instead, he said, the City Council’s crowd control weapons ordinance—the subject of an ongoing court battle—could provide recourse in similar situations in the future.
Because the ordinance bans the use of several less-than-lethal weapons (including pepper spray) in crowd-control scenarios, Myerberg said that in the future, “officers could be liable even for unintentional harm.” It would not, however, open the door to retroactively punish the officer for pepper-spraying the child on May 30.
The OPA also declined to sustain complaints in two other cases. In one, protesters alleged that an officers violated the department’s use of force policy by pushing them back with batons; one complainant added that because of his sexual orientation, the officers’ aggression “seemed homophobic.” After reviewing the bodycam footage, Myerberg found no reason to conclude that the officers had used excessive force, nor did he find evidence that the officers acted out of bias.
The second case arose from a complaint that an SPD officer pushed down an elderly man on Capitol Hill on May 30th. The person who filed the complaint, however, heard about the incident second-hand, and Myerberg’s office couldn’t find any witnesses or video evidence of the incident to back up the complaint.
The OPA will continue to release protest-related findings on a rolling basis. Myerberg’s office has not given a timeline for the next sets of investigations, but the OPA website includes a dashboard showing the progress of demonstration-related complaint investigations.