By Paul Kiefer
Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz has suspended two officers for failing to de-escalate before fatally shooting 44-year-old Derek Hayden on the Seattle waterfront in February 2021. According to an investigation by Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability (OPA), Officers Cassidy Butler and Willard Jared acted recklessly when they responded to a call for backup from two Port of Seattle Police officers who were following Hayden along Alaskan Way. Hayden was carrying a knife and threatening to kill himself. Within seconds of their arrival, Butler and Jared opened fire, killing Hayden.
Although former OPA Director Andrew Myerberg ruled that the officers did not follow SPD’s de-escalation guidelines, he did not rule that the shooting itself violated department policy. Diaz suspended Butler for one day and Jared for three days.
The ruling marks the second time in less than a year that SPD has disciplined officers for failing to de-escalate before shooting a person in crisis. In August 2021, the department suspended Officer Christopher Gregorio for 20 days after the OPA ruled that he had exacerbated a tense confrontation with 57-year-old Terry Caver on a Lower Queen Anne sidewalk the previous year; the confrontation ended when Gregorio shot and killed Caver, who was carrying a knife and suffering from an apparent acute schizophrenic episode. Citing Caver’s death in his assessment of Butler and Jared’s actions, Myerberg reiterated his call for SPD to “revamp” its training on how to respond to people carrying knives.
On the night of February 16, 2021, Hayden approached a Port of Seattle Police cruiser parked on Seattle’s waterfront and asked the officers inside to kill him. The officers called for backup. The first SPD officers to arrive joined their Port Police counterparts, following Hayden at a distance as he walked along the waterfront. Butler and Jared, however, pulled their cruiser within 20 feet of Hayden. Jared stepped out onto the street, carrying an assault rifle, and yelled for Hayden to drop his knife. Seconds later, Hayden walked towards Jared, raising his knife into the air. Both Butler and Jared opened fire, mortally wounding Hayden. Almost simultaneously, the nearby Port Police officer fired a foam-tipped round in an attempt to subdue Hayden, but it was too late—Hayden fell to the pavement and died at the scene.
Butler and Jared later told investigators that they had arrived at the waterfront without a well-developed plan; most of their pre-planning, Jared told investigators, entailed “trying to figure out where they were going and how to get there.” Instead of joining the officers following Hayden at a distance, Butler and Jared chose to hem him in with their cruiser.
Having placed himself within feet of Hayden—and without any barrier between them—Jared argued that he had no choice but to open fire when Hayden walked in his direction. Jared cited the “21-foot rule”: According to training he received while working for SPD, a person carrying a knife within 21 feet of an officer presents enough of a threat to merit using deadly force. Butler, who positioned herself behind the hood of the cruiser, claimed that she fired at Hayden to protect her partner.
Both the officers’ supervisors and the OPA, however, determined that the officers made a series of disastrous assumptions and miscalculations that made the shooting almost inevitable. According to the OPA, Butler and Jared made no effort to communicate with the officers already on the scene, who were keeping their distance from Hayden to buy time before other crisis responders, including people with behavioral health training, could arrive. Instead, Butler and Jared upended their counterparts’ plans, sending the confrontation hurtling towards its violent end. Although the pair argued that they parked close to Hayden to stop him from wandering towards bystanders, Myerberg noted that there were no bystanders nearby.
While Myerberg pointed to Hayden’s death as a reason for SPD to revamp its training on how to respond to knives—and as a reason for more officers to carry less-lethal weapons, including net guns, as an alternative to live ammunition—the shooting highlighted issues with the department’s handling of mental health crisis calls. Two years of record-breaking attrition have left SPD with its smallest force in decades, and both Myerberg and SPD leadership have warned that with fewer officers available to respond to mental health crisis calls, the remaining officers may not be able to create the time, distance and space needed to de-escalate confrontations.
In an interview last fall, Diaz told PubliCola that SPD is considering how often officers should intervene when they respond to a crisis call. “When someone is not suicidal, and they’re not going to harm anyone else,” he said, “there are times when officers have decided to walk away and wait for mental health crisis responders to arrive.” When a person in crisis might be considering suicide, he said, walking away is not an option, but officers face a moral dilemma. “Do we let someone try to kill themselves?” he asked. “Or do we try to intervene and save someone’s life, hoping that we’re not going to be the ones to take their life?”
Diaz added that it can be difficult to discern from a 911 call or an initial interaction whether a person in crisis is suicidal, making it more difficult for SPD to write policies on how to respond to people considering suicide, including so-called “suicide by cop.”
When Hayden’s friends and family learned that he had been killed by police officers, many were unaware that he had struggled with his mental health. Hayden came to the Northwest as a teenager, moving to Sequim to live with his aunt and uncle and later bouncing between Washington and Oregon. At the time of his death, he was a graduate student at Seattle University’s College of Science and Engineering; the president of the college, Stephen Sundborg, later acknowledged Hayden’s death in a message to students and staff, calling for more mental health resources and a “more serious consideration of changes in responding to such situations to prevent them from happening in the future.”
According to Myerberg, although the Butler and Jared’s actions were reckless and increased the likelihood of a shooting, Hayden’s decision to approach them with his knife raised justified their decision to open fire.
Myerberg’s decision, and the relatively short suspensions the officers received, reflects a trend in SPD discipline. In the rare cases when SPD disciplines officers for using force or failing to de-escalate, the punishment hardly ever exceeds suspension. SPD generally reserves termination, the most serious form of discipline, for officers who breach the department’s prohibitions on bias and dishonesty.
Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold criticized both the OPA’s ruling and the relatively minor punishments for Butler and Jared on Wednesday, arguing that one or both decisions exposed a dangerous gap in the city’s police accountability system. “When an officer’s out-of-policy actions contribute to the circumstances leading to someone’s death, our accountability system must hold them accountable,” she said of Myerberg’s decision to not fault Butler and Jared for the shooting itself.
Herbold also pointed to the Seattle’s Office of the Inspector General’s findings last year that when presented with a range of possible punishments for officer misconduct, both Diaz and his predecessor, Carmen Best, most often chose to impose the lightest possible discipline. Though the OPA’s report on Hayden’s shooting did not reveal what disciplinary options Diaz considered, Herbold his leniency towards Butler and Jared “Doesn’t accountability require more than a 1-to-3-day suspension when an officers’ actions increase the likelihood that someone will be killed?” she asked.