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The firing of an officer: A turning point for SPD?

Mayor Ed Murray, left, with Police Chief Kathleen O'Toole at a 2015 press conference. Credit: Robert LeCompte/Crosscut

When Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole announced Wednesday she was firing Officer Cynthia Whitlatch, an exhale — either of relief or exasperation — rippled its way through members of the community, elected officials and the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG).

The Whitlatch case had become something of a bellwether for how a new chief, armed with new policies and watched more closely by the public, would handle an incident involving findings by the department of bias and excessive force. In an atmosphere where voices in Seattle and across the country are calling for changes in police practices and accountability, what does Whitlatch’s firing say about the state of the Seattle Police Department? Has the police reform effort demanded by the U.S. Department of Justice created a stronger basis for handling problematic behavior by police? Would Whitlatch have been fired three years ago, before the reforms began?

The precise mix of factors behind the O’Toole firing is far from clear. O’Toole has yet to answer questions about her written findings, which seem certain to be appealed. But public opinion and O’Toole’s commitment to reform appear to have come into play, and her findings relied in part on new policies developed during the past three years. Still, a number of those involved with the department’s reform effort question whether the change in policies were as important to O’Toole’s decision as the general sense that greater accountability should be required of police.

The Whitlatch drama became public thanks in large part to reporting from the Stranger newspaper and Ansel Herz. A camera on the dashboard of Whitlatch’s patrol car documented her arrest of an African American pedestrian, William Wingate, in July of last year. Wingate, 69 at the time, was walking with a golf club, as he did each day, and Whitlatch, who is white, claimed he swung it toward her car, although the video shows no such gesture or any other offense from Wingate. What it does show is an apparently aggressive arrest on the part of Whitlatch.

The event was enough to spark protests and an investigation by the Office of Professional Accountability, a semi-independent accountability body within the Seattle Police Department. Meanwhile, Whitlatch suggested that she was the target of a sort of reverse racism. In June of this year, OPA recommended she be fired, pointing to the event, Whitlatch’s racially charged comments on social media, and a somewhat rocky past within the department over her handling of the public in several situations.

Despite cries from the local police union, the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG), Chief O’Toole agreed with OPA and terminated Whitlatch. O’Toole, in justifying the firing, pointed to violations of three policies, two of which tie directly back to changes made since the City of Seattle signed a settlement agreement with the Department of Justice to reform SPD. One of the policies covers the use of de-escalation tactics as a tool to calm rather than inflame police encounters with the public; the other requires bias-free policing.

The incident provided the most public opportunity that O’Toole has had to crack down on an instance of bad or overly aggressive policing since she became chief roughly a year ago. Ultimately, Whitatch’s own handling of the incident also may have played a role.

When the Department of Justice completed its investigation of the Seattle Police Department in 2011, it concluded that SPD officers consistently used excessive force. And while the findings did not conclude that policing in Seattle was necessarily biased, it did point to “serious concerns about practices that could have a disparate impact on minority communities.”

It was with those findings in mind that the Department of Justice sued the City of Seattle, ultimately leading to a 2012 settlement agreement between Seattle and the United States (by way of the DOJ) in which the penance, of sorts, was to consent to reforms in the police department.

Reform efforts have been ongoing, with most of the focus on increased training, better reporting and accountability measures, and more precise definitions of force and bias.

Use-of-force and bias-free policies are certainly not new, but under the settlement agreement they’ve been expanded considerably. Most notably, perhaps, is the addition of de-escalation to the use-of-force policy, which mandates that, given time and relative security, officers must attempt to talk down agitated suspects.

OPA Auditor Anne Levinson, while not willing to comment on the case, also points to what she has written about extensively in her semi-annual report: Before the settlement agreement, any review of the use of force was generally siloed, lacking consideration of the events leading up to the final event. The new policy says that the officer’s behavior leading up to a decision to use force may be considered in determining whether or not force was appropriate. This, said Levinson, is the result of a long road of community pressure that eventually led to the consent decree.

With regards to bias-free policing, the new measures approved in early 2014 expand what was a relatively short policy and defines more broadly the potential for discriminatory actions by police. Reforms have also resulted in more bias-free training.

The core of O’Toole’s rationale for firing Whitlatch leans heavily on the de-escalation policy and the fact that Whitlatch did not apparently absorb the material in a recent training on bias-free policing. “Officers are required to treat members of the public considerately and respectfully,” writes O’Toole in addressing Whitlatch, “and not behave, as you did, in a confrontational and unreasonable fashion, out of compliance with Department policies on both exercise of discretion and de-escalation.”

Additionally, O’Toole cites the bias-free policy and specifically the training around bias-free policing. “The day before your confrontation with the individual,” she writes, “you received training on Biased Free Policing … yet apparently did not utilize that contemporaneous training.”

O’Toole makes it clear she disapproves of the entire interaction between Whitlatch and Wingate. But she made a point that she was relying on objective standards, and would avoid any finding on the basis of her own subjective assessment of the decision to stop Wingate.

Whitlatch’s failures to de-escalate and incorporate her training became that objective standard by which O’Toole could justify punishment, which, although O’Toole says she considered otherwise, was the firing. Three years ago, before the settlement agreement, O’Toole would not have had that standard to cite so clearly.

When asked if the policies are what led this to the firing, City Council President Tim Burgess, a onetime cop himself, says, “I don’t know for sure.” He, like most players in the police reform effort, was not willing to speak specifically to the Whitlatch case.

It’s clear, though, he puts the emphasis on O’Toole herself rather than the policies. Immediately after the firing, Burgess, who was on the search committee to find O’Toole and has been among her most consistent supporters, sent out a statement saying, “The Chief of Police has sent a strong and appropriate signal.”

Mayor Ed Murray hired O’Toole with the requirement that she make reform her top priority. And while O’Toole’s title as a leader of reform can only be confirmed with the long-term success or failure of the consent decree, there’s a good deal of cautious optimism about her commitment. Former Seattle Police Department public information officer Drew Fowler told Crosscut last April that, under O’Toole, changes had been happening “lightning fast.” She has made a series of shakeups internally, including the bold promotion of a Seattle lieutenant, Lesley Cordner, to a high-level command role as an assistant chief and the unheard-of-in-Seattle hiring of two outsiders, Robert Merner of Boston and Perry Tarant of Yakima, to be assistant chiefs as well.

Regardless of how the case is interpreted, the Whitlatch firing certainly bolsters O’Toole’s reputation as someone who is willing to make tough decisions and shake up the status quo.

Yet, while seeing the Whitlatch firing as a marker of change, some are unwilling to credit the action to policy changes or even, primarily, O’Toole. “I would not sign off on the theory that the policies made the difference,” says Lisa Daugaard, director of the Public Defender Association. Daugaard, also a member of the Community Police Commission but not speaking on its behalf, instead points to a broader change within the community: “A lot of people have played a role — from the mayor, the Community Police Commission, the Chief, the DOJ, the City Attorney and the people on the streets.” Outward pressure is great enough, says Daugaard, that were it not for the particular objective policy standards O’Toole cited, the chief would have found others. “No matter what policies are in place, you cannot sweep these bellwether incidents under the rug anymore.”

The question, in that case, is less of whether Whitlatch could have been fired a few years ago and more of whether she would have been fired.

Former Mayor Mike McGinn, who gained himself a reputation for clashing with the DOJ, agrees with Daugaard there is a larger shift in the whole environment and is also unwilling to point specifically to policy changes for spurring that change. “It’s not so much a matter of policies changing,” he says. “The most important thing here is the discussion we’ve had in Seattle and nationally about biased policing.” In this day, says McGinn, Whitlatch’s lack of remorse is enough to do her in, regardless of who’s at the helm. “I think Jim Pugel [police chief under McGinn] would have done the same thing because of the fact that she showed no remorse and confirmed her bias.”

As of press time, Whitlatch’s attorney Robert Christie had not returned a call for comment.

The Seattle Police Department, the City Attorney’s Office and U.S. District Attorney’s Office all declined to comment further. The Mayor’s Office did not respond to requests.

As it stands, there is at least a decent chance the case will be overturned. SPOG President Ron Smith promised to appeal on the grounds that the OPA recommendation had taken longer than the 180-day time limit allotted from when a case is brought to OPA’s attention. In a statement, SPOG argues that 323 days passed from when the initial complaint against Whitlatch at a community meeting came up to when OPA completed its investigation. The appeal could well come down to a hearing examiner’s determination whether that community meeting represents the beginning of the 180-day period.

For some, including Reverend Harriet Walden, an advocate with Mothers for Police Accountability, it’s too soon to say what the Whitlatch firing means. She says she’ll wait until she knows how the appeal comes out before she says more.

And one case is not enough to establish a pattern. Had Whitlatch shown the kind of remorse that Officer Shandy Cobane did after he was caught insulting and kicking a Latino man in 2010, O’Toole herself suggested the outcome could have been different. But because Whitlatch refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing, saying she would have done nothing differently, she may have made O’Toole’s decision easier. How the chief acts when a case is less well documented and less publicized will likely be the real test of the state of discipline in the SPD.

Still, the fact that Whitlatch is the first firing because of allegations relating to use of force and bias since the DOJ came to town inevitably makes her case something of a test of whether the city is getting a significantly better handle on questionable police behavior.

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