By Paul Kiefer
More than three years have passed since a driver hit a Real Change vendor who was riding his bicycle near the parking lot of the Grocery Outlet in the SoDo neighborhood. At the time of the crash, the vendor, whom PubliCola is calling John to protect his privacy, was living in a RV in the neighborhood.
Last month, Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability (OPA) finished its investigation into misconduct allegations against Evan Pitzner and Dane Hagan, the two Seattle police officers who arrived on the scene and, according to John’s account, targeted and mocked him for being homeless.
John didn’t file a complaint with the OPA himself, but several members of the public did after watching a viral video—edited and released by Real Change in 2020—that showed Pitzner and Hagan chuckling as John sat injured on the pavement nearby. Neither officer will face discipline for the incident. The OPA didn’t sustain any of the allegations against Hagan, and while investigators concluded that Pitzner behaved unprofessionally, he resigned from SPD before investigators could interview him about the incident.
At the heart of the complaints against Pitzner and Hagan, were allegations of anti-homeless bias—allegations that the OPA dismissed as unprovable. For John and the Real Change staffers who first took issue with the officer’s comments, the OPA’s ruling raises questions about how Seattle’s police oversight system defines and punishes bias—especially bias against people experiencing homelessness.
“In downtown, officers are so busy that they don’t have time to stop you for small stuff. In SoDo, I once had an officer walk away from a [traffic stop] to stop me for not wearing a helmet. They just wouldn’t leave homeless people alone, even if you kept your space clear and minded your own business.”
Although he never spoke with the OPA, John says he has no doubt that Pitzner and Hagan treated him differently because he was homeless. “It was obvious,” he said.
Pitzner and Hagan were among the last responders to arrive at the scene. A team of field officers from the state Department of Corrections (DOC) witnessed the crash and had stopped the driver nearly a block away, and paramedics from the Seattle Fire Department were assessing John’s injuries when the officers showed up. When paramedics told Hagan that John described feeling pain “everywhere,” he repeated “everywhere” out loud while pretending to write on his notepad. His pen never touched the page.
The DOC officers told Pitzner and Hagan that both the driver and John were at fault for the crash. The driver left without a citation, though the state later revoked his driver’s license; Pitzner reasoned that the driver’s advanced age, not “malintent,” was to blame. He cited John for not wearing a helmet.
Then, as a sheriff’s deputy dragged John’s bicycle—a Lime Bike—out of the street, Pitzner wondered aloud whether the bike was stolen. “Do you really want to know?” the deputy asked. “Yes, because it’s a felony,” Pitzner replied. (Stealing an item worth more than $750 is a Class B felony in Washington state.) John claims that he borrowed the bike from a friend who used the Lime app to rent it.
Hagan and Pitzner set off to a nearby store to find security camera footage of the crash. Inside, the officers struck up a conversation with a customer and a cashier about rising crime in SoDo. “We keep this area pretty thick with officers anyways because there’s a lot of crime that happens down here, associated with people—we don’t like to draw correlations,” Hagan commented. “There’s also not a drug and housing status correlation either, apparently… as I’m told,” he added, apparently referring to the concentration of homeless people in the neighborhood.
Meanwhile, John was sent to Harborview Medical Center, where he says he underwent surgery on his knee. He left the hospital a few days later with a walker, three fractured ribs, and an unrelenting pain in his neck. “I couldn’t raise my head—I had to look at the ground for two years,” he said.
“I don’t like that [Pitzner] brought up the bicycle, because it seems immaterial. But maybe Pitzner has seen a lot of bicycle theft cases. Given the limitations of the complaint, it’s really hard to subjectively identify whether he asks if the bike is stolen out of bias or if he just has good investigative instincts.”—OPA Director Andrew Myerberg
From John’s perspective, Pitzner and Hagan didn’t conceal their bias against him. “Why did they automatically categorize me as suspicious?” he asked. “Why would they automatically assume I stole that bike?” The officers didn’t ask John directly whether he had stolen the bicycle, and they didn’t pursue the issue further.
John added that police officers had stopped him more than a dozen times in SoDo, including nearly a half-dozen times for not wearing a helmet while riding a bicycle. “It was hard to avoid in that neighborhood,” he said. “In downtown, officers are so busy that they don’t have time to stop you for small stuff. In SoDo… they just wouldn’t leave homeless people alone, even if you kept your space clear and minded your own business.”
OPA investigators disagreed. “The fact is that he wasn’t wearing a helmet while crossing an intersection and got into a collision,” said OPA Director Andrew Myerberg. “Given that fact, I can’t see how we could ever prove that the citation was biased.”
Tiffani McCoy, the advocacy director for Real Change, pushed back on this interpretation. “We had a person injured on the pavement in a crash, and the driver didn’t stop. A hit-and-run is a felony, but the officers took a more respectful tone with the driver and let him go without a citation—he just lost his license. Instead of worrying about [John’s] injuries, they focused on whether he was wearing a helmet. Why is that the priority? Why did they show him so little respect and care?”
OPA investigators focused their attention on whether Pitzner’s apparent assumption that John stole the bike he was riding and Hagan’s sarcastic comments about homelessness and crime showed a bias against homeless people. They concluded that neither remark clearly crossed a line. “I don’t like that [Pitzner] brought up the bicycle,” Myerberg said, “because it seems immaterial. But maybe Pitzner has seen a lot of bicycle theft cases. Given the limitations of the complaint, it’s really hard to subjectively identify whether he asks if the bike is stolen out of bias or if he just has good investigative instincts.”
Lisa Daugaard, the director of Seattle-based Public Defender Association and a former member of the city’s Community Police Commission, said it’s obvious from the video that Pitzner asked if John stole the bicycle because of his apparent economic status. “It’s deeply concerning that this wasn’t thought by OPA to be evidence of bias based on economic status—and we see here how readily such bias can lead to harm,” Daugaard said.
Investigators also concluded that Hagan’s remarks about homelessness and drug use “merely indicated his perspective” gleaned from his on-the-job experiences, not a bias against homeless people. “If an officer works in that neighborhood, they’re going to see a lot of violence, drug abuse, and medical calls in encampments,” Myerberg said. “Maybe 80 percent of the calls they respond to involve homeless individuals, and the calls will often be crime-related. If that’s what you’re seeing, you might develop a perspective. That doesn’t mean it’s biased.”
Had Hagan expressed open contempt for homeless people, or had he claimed that all homeless people were drug users, his comments might have crossed a line, Myerberg added. “I do wish he had expressed his opinion differently,” he said, “but I don’t see it as a clear-cut example of bias.”
The OPA only occasionally upholds bias allegations against officers—a consequence, Myerberg said, of the high bar for proving that an officer acted out of bias. To reach that high bar, he added, an officer would need to make their biases explicit, like an officer suspended for nearly three weeks last year after shouting “fuck the homeless” during a drunken argument with his wife at the Washington State Fair.
“Whoever has my job next could apply a less stringent burden of proof,” he said, “but there’s always going to be the risk that any discipline they try to hand down will get tossed out by an arbitrator”—an attorney who handles officer appeals of disciplinary decisions— “because it’s really, really hard to prove implicit bias.”
SPD’s training regimen includes a course on rooting out implicit, or unconscious, bias, which can shape how an officer interacts with members of the public. Because the department introduced the course in response to public criticism about racial disparities in arrests and uses of force, SPD’s training focuses on racial bias; officers’ unconscious biases against homeless people, on the other hand, remain largely unexamined.
According to Myerberg, because the OPA can’t easily prove that an officer’s actions were the result of an implicit bias, there’s no straightforward way to hold an officer accountable for that bias. McCoy, however, argues that the OPA should be more willing to take on the issue of implicit bias, even if it they run the risk of losing in arbitration. “If the bar for proving bias is so high that an officer has to make it explicit, that seems like condoning bias,” she said. “Most of the time, people don’t share their biases in big capital letters… I think the OPA could at least try to show that it sees bias for what it is. Otherwise, it feels like we’re just going through the motions.”
From John’s perspective, officers’ unspoken biases against people experiencing homelessness are as much of a problem as open hostility. “When an officer stops you for nothing, puts you against the car and humiliates you in public, they’re not going to say that they’re just stopping you because you’re homeless,” he said. “But it’s still a lot of stress you don’t deserve.”
Ultimately, the OPA ruled that while neither officer had displayed a bias against homeless people, Pitzner had acted unprofessionally by laughing after a DOC officer called the crash a “good hit.” Investigators also noted that Pitzner’s report on the crash was riddled with gaps and inaccuracies—enough to qualify as misconduct. Pitzner resigned from SPD before he could be disciplined for the incident. While investigators noted that Hagan appeared dismissive when discussing the extent of John’s injuries, Hagan denied that he was trying to minimize John’s pain. Unable to disprove Hagan’s claim, the OPA referred him to his supervisors for re-training instead of disciplining him.
John has mostly recovered from his injuries, but he hasn’t used a bicycle since the crash. “I’m tired of the hassle,” he said. But his case caught the attention of the King County Board of Health, which vote next year on whether to repeal a county law requiring bicyclists to wear helmets—a law disproportionately enforced against unhoused people like John.