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By Paul Kiefer
The family of Iosia Faletogo, a 36-year-old man killed by Seattle police officers in North Seattle on New Year’s Eve 2018, filed a wrongful death lawsuit in federal court against the City of Seattle on Thursday. The suit alleges that Faletogo’s fatal encounter with Seattle police officers began with an unjustified and discriminatory traffic stop, and that the police officers who initiated the stop failed to de-escalate, ultimately leading to the struggle that ended when a police officer shot a prone Faletogo in the head.
“There wasn’t a clear necessity to detain Iosia or any risk of imminent harm that justified what happened to Iosia,” said Becky Fish, an attorney with the Public Defender Association representing Mr. Faletogo’s mother in administering his estate. Nathan Bingham, the attorney who filed the civil suit for the Faletogo family, specified that the suit will focus largely on the decisions by police officers that led up to the shooting, rather than on the moment of the shooting itself.
On the night of December 31, 2018, Iosia Faletogo was driving on Aurora Avenue North, apparently driving a companion who was sitting beside him to work. According to the report on the shooting produced by Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability (OPA), two Seattle Police Department patrol officers driving behind Faletogo decided to search Faletogo’s license plate for possible infractions, though they didn’t explain their reasoning for searching the license plate to the OPA. Their search matched the car to a woman with a suspended license, but they didn’t turn on their patrol car’s emergency lights until Faletogo pulled into the parking lot of a convenience store near the intersection of Aurora Avenue and N 96th Street.
The officers commented to one another that Faletogo was not the car’s registered owner—the car belonged to his stepmother, and the officers did not believe he had stolen it—but held him anyway, later telling the OPA that they intended to address the “illegal lane change” he made when turning into the parking lot. After questioning Faletogo about his lack of a driver’s license and his criminal history (two felony charges, both of them around 17 years ago), the officers took Faletogo’s keys and called for backup; four more police officers responded to the call. The officers told the OPA that they thought Faletogo was behaving suspiciously and could try to escape.
Less than thirty seconds later, Faletogo fled from his car and ran across Aurora Avenue N. The six officers chased Faletogo; during the chase, an officer’s body-worn video camera captured another officer shouting, “stop reaching for your waistband, you’re going to get shot!” The officers converged on Faletogo a block away, tackling him to the sidewalk. As he wrestled with the officers on top of him, a handgun fell from his waistband. The body-worn video footage of the subsequent thirty seconds, filmed from multiple angles by several officers, shows Faletogo with his hand on and off the gun at various points during the 22-second struggle. An officer yelled that he was reaching for the weapon; “nope, not reaching,” Faletogo responded.
The officers later told the OPA that they didn’t hear Faletogo’s reply. Roughly one second later, an officer shot him behind his ear at close range. He slumped to the sidewalk, at which point the officers handcuffed him and searched his pockets. By the time EMTs arrived at the scene, Faletogo was dead.
Bingham told PubliCola that the lawsuit against the City of Seattle centers on the argument that the officers’ decision to stop Faletogo was unwarranted. “If we take a step back and look at the stop itself, this guy should never have been detained in any way,” he said. “He was stopped as part of a fishing expedition for other crimes under the guise of a traffic stop,” he added, alluding to the officers’ unclear reasons for searching Faletogo’s license plate.
Bingham also said the alleged infraction the police officers used to justify questioning Faletogo—an illegal lane change—wasn’t an infraction at all. “They said the lane change was illegal because he moved across two lanes of traffic at once. That’s not actually illegal – it’s only illegal to cut someone off. There is no infraction, and officers can’t stop people for driving in a way they don’t like. But they used this imaginary infraction to continue this detention.”
The suit also alleges that the officers’ decisions to call for additional backup and threats to shoot Faletogo as he ran constituted a failure to de-escalate. In their interviews with the OPA, the officers involved made the opposite argument, contending that the “extra backing units…were forms of de-escalation.” The OPA ultimately ruled in the officers’ favor; in his final ruling on the shooting, OPA Director Andrew Myerberg wrote that “even though the initial crimes at issue were not severe, the potential offenses grew more serious as the incident unfolded,” and that the officers were justified in shooting Faletogo once he began resisting arrest and reaching for the handgun that fell from his waistband.
PubliCola has reached out to the OPA to discuss its findings in the case and possible role in the suit.
The officer who shot Faletogo, Jared Keller, transferred to the Spokane Police Department in 2020.
The Federal District Court of Western Washington has not yet assigned a hearing schedule for the lawsuit.