By Erica C. Barnett
Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz appeared before the Community Police Commission Wednesday morning to address a body-worn video showing a fake tombstone with the name of Damarius Butts, who was killed by four SPD officers in 2017, displayed on a shelf above a microwave in a break room at the department’s East Precinct on Capitol Hill. The video also shows large Trump 2020 flag hanging on a back wall of the room.
The Office of Police Accountability (OPA) is investigating the incident.
During his comments, Diaz did not directly apologize for the display, saying only that he “acknowledged the impacts that we created after George Floyd’s murder, and I apologize for those impacts—those impacts that we’re here discussing today.” Diaz added that since 2021, when the video was taken, the department has taken a number of steps to create a “healthy environment,” including a relational policing program called Before the Badge and trainings in a system called Outward Mindset. He also noted that officers were under a great deal of stress during and after the 2020 protests.
“Over the last three years we’ve lost 575-plus officers, [so] our personnel since that time has changed. We are changing,” Diaz said. “We continue to move this department forward. But change takes time.”
“I want to know why this happened. I want to know why it was allowed to continue. I want to know if anyone has been held accountable. I want to know what is being done so it never happens again. I want to know why killing my son and getting away with with it wasn’t enough. I want answers and so far, I haven’t heard any.”—Stephanie Butts, mother of police shooting victim Damarius Butts
In response to questions from CPC member Adrian Leavitt, who is also the attorney for Butts’ surviving family, Diaz said he had no information about where the tombstone came from, how it ended up at the East Precinct, who propped it up on the shelf, how many weeks or months it sat there, or how many people saw it before it was finally removed.
“As far as some of the other details, as far as officers who saw it, who displayed and who put it up, those are stuff that I think OPA will hopefully be able to kind of unwind and be able to articulate what happened,” Diaz said. “We had a significant amount of officers that left the department, many officers from the East Precinct specifically, and so we still don’t know if some of those officers that left the department were a part of that.”
Butts’ mother, Stephanie Butts, said she was shocked when she learned SPD officers were “so callous that they were heating up food in a microwave below my son’s fake tombstone and didn’t see anything wrong with that. … I want to know why this happened. I want to know why it was allowed to continue. I want to know if anyone has been held accountable. I want to know what is being done so it never happens again. I want to know why killing my son and getting away with with it wasn’t enough. I want answers and so far, I haven’t heard any.”
In an official statement released last week, SPD suggested the tombstone may have placed outside the precinct by a protester, and referred to the shelf in the break room as a “storage shelf” where SPD stored items “until they were discarded.” The video does not show any other items in a similar state of “storage.”
According to Leavitt, the tombstone was taken from a nearby memorial for victims of police violence that featured many similar tombstones representing people killed by police.
Diaz said efforts to improve the culture at SPD have already started bearing fruit. “In a short time, our OPA complaints have seen a drastic reduction compared to four years ago and our use of force has seen a drastic reduction, a 40 percent reduction,” Diaz said. “And up until yesterday, we had not had an officer involved shooting involving a person in 13 and a half months.” On Tuesday, police shot a man in downtown who was suspected of stabbing another person a few blocks away. That shooting is currently under internal investigation, according to the department.