By Paul Kiefer
This post was updated on December 4th, 2020.
In January, a woman in South Seattle called 911 to report that someone had crashed into her parked car and fled the scene. She hadn’t seen the crash, but she had seen a Seattle police officer park in front of her car, look at it, and leave. Over the phone with a 911 operator, she asked for that officer to return to the scene.
On Wednesday morning, Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability (OPA) released scathing findings from an investigation stemming from that hit-and-run. According to the OPA’s report, the police officer who stopped to survey the damage, then responded to the call, was also the driver who had crashed into the parked car in the first place. OPA investigators found that the officer tried to dissuade the woman from filing a report; denied responsibility; and lied to the car’s owner, his sergeant, and the OPA.
Despite the efforts of the officer’s sergeant to reduce the officer’s punishment, Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz fired him.
The crash and its aftermath were a cascade of unforced errors. The officer’s in-car video showed him crash into the back of a parked Toyota Prius, reverse, then park in front of the Prius before leaving the scene two minutes later. The Prius’ owner had seen him get out of his patrol car, but he drove away while she was getting dressed to step outside and to ask what had happened. When she finally spotted the damage, she immediately put the pieces together.
But when the officer volunteered to respond to the scene, he feigned ignorance, even after he acknowledged that he had stopped by the car only minutes before. He told the Prius’ owner that unless she could provide the license plate number of the car that hit hers, she would have to pay for the damage out of pocket. When the woman and her companion confronted him, the officer tried to claim that he had stopped to inspect their car while looking for a black Mercedes with no license plate. When asked why that would involve examining a white Prius, body-worn video captured his attempt to deflect: “Any car I pass, I look at. That’s just what I do,” he said.
The Prius’ owner and her companion pressed him further, so the officer called his sergeant to the scene. Looking at the damage to the Prius, the sergeant and another responding officer agreed that “whoever hit the car would have known that they did so” before comparing the damage to the push bar on the front of the officer’s patrol car. The damaged area was small, but it exactly matched the dimensions of the push bar. The sergeant then returned to her precinct and referred the case to the OPA.
But despite the sergeant’s earlier acknowledgement that the driver responsible for the damage would have known they had hit a car, when OPA investigators later interviewed her, she sided with the officer. She didn’t deny that the officer had crashed into the Prius; instead, she said she believed the officer had been honest when he claimed he hadn’t noticed the crash.
During his interview with the OPA, the officer tried to explain away the incriminating footage from his in-car video; when OPA investigators called out obvious holes in his story, he tried to adjust his account, insisting that he hadn’t heard or seen the crash. OPA interviewers also pressed the officer about why he asked the Prius owner about their car insurance deductible and why he discouraged her from making a report. Once again, his answers did not convince the OPA investigators.
In his conclusions, OPA Director Andrew Myerberg pointed to the in-car video as the clearest evidence that the officer was fully aware that he had crashed into the Prius. Myerberg also disagreed with the findings of a homicide sergeant assigned to the criminal investigation of the crash, whose conclusions—namely that the officer never left his patrol car after the initial crash—Myerberg called “conjecture” based on an interview “rife with leading questions.” Though the homicide sergeant concluded that the officer had done nothing wrong and the Seattle City Attorney declined to prosecute the officer, Myerberg expressed confidence in his office’s findings and issued a resounding condemnation of the officer’s actions.
UPDATE: The officer’s termination is only the fourth this year. When also counting officers who retired or resigned in lieu of termination, it is the sixth. According to Myerberg, that number is consistent with past years, despite the surge of OPA complaints filed in response to SPD’s handling of last summer’s protests. None of the six terminations stemmed from protest-related misconduct; Myerberg told PubliCola that many of those cases—including that of Molly Clark, the former SPD officer who resigned after she allegedly tried to drive through a group of protesters near downtown in July—won’t be finished before the end of the year.
In fact, four of this year’s terminations were the result of complaints filed between 2017 and 2019. Notable among them was an employee who had violently abused his then-girlfriend, called fellow officers and superiors an array of racist and sexist slurs (including “angry Black lesbian” and “monkey,” and possibly “lazy Mexican” and the n-word), and routinely used drugs. Another officer was terminated for racist and Islamophobic comments on Twitter in 2019 targeting undocumented immigrants and Minnesota congresswoman Ilhan Omar.
Thus far, the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) has not appealed any of the terminations, and the window for the union to appeal any of this year’s decisions has closed. Two of the terminated officers are appealing the department’s decisions to the Public Safety Civil Service Commission (PSCSC), which oversees public safety employees in Seattle.
At present, there will not be any consequences for the supervising sergeant and the sergeant who led the criminal investigation. However, the criticisms Myerberg leveled against the investigating sergeant for his less-than-rigorous questioning reveal a weak point in criminal investigations of SPD officers: the OPA has no hand in those investigations, and therefore has no hand in whether officers face criminal charges for misconduct.