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In pepper spraying teacher, Chief O’Toole blames system, not officer

Chief O'Toole reduced the disciplinary recommendation for Ofc. Delafuente. Credit: YouTube

Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole wanted to remind everyone in the council chambers that she doesn’t back down from a fight. “I’ve demonstrated I have no trouble firing police officers that have no place in the police department,” she told the Seattle City Council. She was referring to her firing of Cynthia Whitlach, the officer filmed arresting a black man, William Wingate, for apparently no good reason.

Mere weeks after the Whitlach firing, though, O’Toole is under fire for recommending a lighter punishment for Officer Sandy Delafuente who was filmed pepper spraying Garfield High School teacher Jesse Hagopian at a Black Lives Matter demonstration.

In doing so, O’Toole has not violated any rules. But the anger and confusion expressed Thursday nevertheless reveals a police reform process still very much in limbo, especially regarding the disciplinary process and policies for policing demonstrations.

Hagopian had just finished giving a speech at the demonstration on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day on Jan. 19. As he was leaving, on his way to his son’s second birthday according to Hagopian, Officer Delafuente sprayed him directly in the face. A protestor filmed the incident.

The Office of Professional Accountability (OPA), the semi-independent review office embedded within the Seattle Police Department, found that Delafuente had indeed violated policy. But while they recommended a one-day suspension, punishment is ultimately the Chief’s decision. O’Toole told councilmembers Thursday that she, along with her chain of command and OPA director Pierce Murphy, concluded that Delafuente was not entirely to blame. “Command let them down because there weren’t enough people,” said O’Toole. “There was no lieutenant on the scene. Officers were there without direction.”

For now, though, there is no plan for discipline of the command staff.

O’Toole also emphasized that Delafuente had apologized and shown a willingness to learn. (This is clearly very important for O’Toole; she cited Whitlach’s lack of remorse in her decision to fire her.) With these, as O’Toole called them, “mitigating” factors in mind, the ultimate decision was to “verbally reprimand” Delafuente and put her into more training.

When the Stranger reported that Delafuente’s punishment was less severe than previously thought, there was a collective flashback to 2014 when interim Police Chief Harry Bailey reversed the disciplinary findings on six officers, which sparked public rage and may have contributed to O’Toole’s hiring. Before an SPD budget briefing, Councilmembers Kshama Sawant and Nick Licata hosted a press conference with Hagopian, demanding answers for the most recent reduced punishment.

At issue is the difference between recommendations and findings. The Chief is required to send a letter to the council if she plans to reverse OPA findings. But she is not obligated to abide by the OPA-recommended disciplinary action, nor is she required to notify the council when she does something differently.

The Community Police Commission, a civilian board that makes recommendations on federally mandated police reforms, and OPA Auditor Anne Levinson have publicly said that the chief should not be allowed to change recommended discipline. That’s not to say they do not favor allowing the chief to make the ultimate disciplinary decision – a “hybrid” system with civilian oversight from OPA and institutional discipline. But when the chief goes a different direction than the OPA recommendation, they believe there should be more transparency.

When Councilmember Nick Licata asked O’Toole if she favored notifying the council and public when she changed a recommendation, she said, under the current system she would. But she added that she felt like the whole process should be changed.

In the background of the Hagopian case is a larger, unresolved issue related to changes in how the police department handles demonstrations. After the tense Ferguson and May Day protest, the CPC sent a letter to O’Toole pointing to a wide range of issues with police practices during demonstrations. They include poor crowd control, targeting individuals, excessive use of pepper spray and racial bias. O’Toole acknowledged the letter (to some displeasure in City Hall), agreeing to review the practices. In July O’Toole announced she would organize a review panel, which she said Thursday would include an examination of command level faults at the MLK demonstration where Hagopian was pepper-sprayed. According to CPC Co-Chair Lisa Daugaard, substantive discussions about making changes to the handling of demonstrations are on hold until that panel convenes.

O’Toole said the department was right on schedule to convene the panel, although she wouldn’t say when, exactly, that would happen. Licata was a little antsy. “We hoped to have findings by the end of the year,” he said.

For now, the fire among reform advocates seems to have quelled slightly. “The Chief’s recognition that there were command and supervision mistakes with respect to the policing of some Black Lives Matter demonstrations dovetails with the observations the CPC made in our letter in May,” said Daugaard in an e-mail. “It’s important for community confidence that this recognition be followed up with action to ensure the same mistakes are not repeated. We look forward to working with the review panel to shed light on the issues we highlighted in May.”

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