LAST SUMMER, at 4:23 on a sunny weekday afternoon, Seattle Police Officer Daniel Amador was on routine patrol atop Queen Anne Hill when he saw something that might, in a less tranquil setting, not even blink on a cop’s mental radar. According to Amador’s subsequent report on the incident, a teenager crossed West McGraw Street, then West McGraw Place, diagonally, “without checking for traffic.” Wondering if the youth “might be intoxicated or mentally unstable, I circled around to make contact.” Four blocks later, in front of Coe Elementary School, Amador pulled up behind the young man, who was walking in the street near the curb, and told him to stop. “I explained that he was being stopped for pedestrian violations, to check on his condition…. He refused my order to identify himself and indicated he would leave the scene.”
Amador grabbed the youth’s arm and ordered him over to the squad car because, he recounted, they were blocking traffic. Two witnesses say there was no traffic.
“Are you arresting me?” the youth asked, because if not he would not get into the car. He pulled out a cellphone and said he wanted to call Assistant Chief Jim Pugel, whom he knew (he’s on a baseball team with Pugel’s son). Instead he called another family friend, contractor Pat McClure, who lived just 100 feet away. McClure came out and tried to resolve the impasse: “I know him, he’s Joey Wilson, Mary Wilson’s boy. What’s he done?”
“It’s a pedestrian violation.”
“Wait, I’ll call his mother. She lives close by.”
McClure called his wife, who called Mary Wilson at work. And, as witnesses often do these days, he went to get his video camera. When he returned, more officers had arrived. (At least five squad cars, one fire truck, and an unmarked car of the sort used by the police gang unit eventually converged on the scene). As McClure filmed, Amador and another (female) officer held Joe Wilson’s arms while a powerfully built male officer gave him several sharp punches to the midriff and an uppercut to the head. The female officer then punched him in the abdomen as well. A fourth officer stood by, apparently overseeing. The police incident report merely says that Wilson “resisted arrest by forcefully twisting his body and flailing his arms and legs.”
“I’m 17!” Wilson shouted. “I know Jim Pugel! I’m suing! I’m a minor!”
The officers pushed Wilson down to the street, forced his face into the pavement, knelt on him, and handcuffed him. They found a work paper in his pocket that confirmed his identity. They forced him up against the car, then into it.
McClure’s cellphone rang; he told the officers Joe’s mother was on her way. Rather than waiting they took Joe to the station. Mary Wilson followed them there and demanded to see her son. “They said they were screening him,” she told me soon afterward. According to Wilson that screening consisted of one of the officers who’d beaten him popping repeatedly into his cell and asking, “You’re on drugs, aren’t you?” Joe Wilson insisted on seeing a lawyer. McClure’s wife contacted a criminal defense attorney, Peter Friedman, who negotiated by phone to get Joe released. “I told them, the kid has some mental problems, you don’t want him having a breakdown in there.” (Joe Wilson has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, which he controls with medication.)
After about two hours the police released Joe to his mother. “There was blood all over his clothes,” she recounted. “He had a lot of pain in his back. He said he was very dizzy, and he had trouble walking.” She took him to Swedish Medical Center; he had a concussion and broken nose.
Amador recommended charging Wilson with “pedestrian interference”—a charge that requires that the offender intentionally block traffic, as in aggressive panhandling—and resisting arrest and obstructing an officer. Not surprisingly, no charges were filed. Instead Wilson, now 18, filed a complaint with the internal investigations office and an administrative claim with the city, which was rejected.
Joe Wilson is still awaiting internal police reports and official video and 911 recordings related to the encounter, which the department has refused to release on the grounds that the case is still under investigation. He has enlisted several attorneys—testimony perhaps to the seriousness of his case, since lawyers are famously wary of police misconduct suits, which tend to be messy and fiercely contested. They expected to file a lawsuit in August.
Ever since the 1990s, civilian auditors have criticized Seattle police for turning minor encounters into violent clashes.
One of Wilson’s attorneys is Charles Swift, who as a military lawyer became famous when he defended Guantánamo detainee Salim Hamdan in a pivotal civil rights case. Swift, now in private practice in Seattle, sees basic rights at stake in this case as well. Wilson’s treatment, he contends, far outmeasured any possible threat he presented: “There’s no evidence he had a weapon, was about to escape, or had struck anyone. It’s moving from protecting the officer and individual to administering punishment.”
As of early August, McClure’s video had not aired on TV or the Internet. Wilson’s case had gained none of the notoriety of another jaywalking encounter that went bad, in June on Rainier Avenue, when a lone officer punched a young woman who shoved him when he apprehended her friend for jaywalking. But the incident raises the same questions about police use of force and the escalation of minor encounters into violent confrontations—in much starker terms.
Unlike the girl who got punched (and charged) in the more recent case, Wilson did not strike an officer. He’s not alleged to have interfered with traffic until Officer Amador apprehended him, at which point they both would have been in the way. The force used against Wilson was much more severe and, seemingly, disproportionate than the single punch in the Rainier near-melee. His case suggests that questions of overreaction and use of excessive force by Seattle police go beyond the racial bias the local NAACP has alleged in the Rainier confrontation; it happened in bright sunshine to a lone pale-skinned kid on a quiet street in a neighborhood often celebrated as a tranquil village in the middle of the city. If it could happen atop Queen Anne, it can happen anywhere.
Joe Wilson behaved imprudently, perhaps provocatively, in not cooperating with Amador. But the police took the bait, missing several chances to defuse the situation. Instead they resorted to street-level shock and awe.
The outcome in this case may have been extreme, but the problem is endemic. Ever since the 1990s, all three of Seattle’s civilian police auditors have decried the way low-level enforcement—in particular jaywalking busts—escalates into confrontation and use of force. “Obstruction-only arrests”—when police do not charge any underlying crime, merely failing to comply—are particular red flags. Plaintiffs’ attorneys contend they’re often covers for unnecessary force.
In 2008 then-auditor Kate Pflaumer reviewed 76 obstruction-only arrests that either triggered complaints to the Office of Professional Accountability (Seattle’s version of a civilian review board), or—another red flag—were made by officers who’d notched up three or more complaints in 30 months. She concluded that while such confrontations were extremely rare and often stemmed from attempted drug busts, they also happened when suspects tried to walk away rather than receive tickets for minor violations: lacking a bike helmet or dog license, drinking or urinating in public, and, in seven cases, jaywalking or “pedestrian interference.”
In policing as in other endeavors, it’s the little things that get you. “Officers who get in trouble often do so in incidents that seem surprisingly small,” says Seattle City Councilman Tim Burgess, a former SPD officer. Several times in his own patrol career, “what should have been a rather routine encounter turned into something much worse. I perceived [the encounter] as significant. The individual perceived it as an irritation.” On one occasion, Burgess’s more experienced partner chewed him out for mishandling such an encounter: “I was being too aggressive.”
Jaywalkers and poop-scoop violators are often otherwise upstanding citizens unused to dealing with cops, who react self-righteously to being treated, in the common refrain, “like a criminal.” It’s easy for police to likewise react and then feel obliged to escalate: As another police veteran says, “once you go hands-on, you can’t back down.” At the same time, police face a new culture of defiance: When he was young, “it was unthinkable that someone would refuse to stop when you told them to.” Now it’s common. So cops get tougher, fueling a vicious cycle of mistrust.
“The kids think of them as another gang,” says McClure, who has two teenage sons. “If one [cop] gets dissed, they all come—it’s the gang response.” And action breeds reaction. As Wilson’s lawyer Swift says, “use of force puts everyone, including police, at risk.”
Both Pflaumer and Burgess say that teachable, tried-and-true de-escalation techniques can do much to defuse such tensions. But these lessons were cut from SPD’s ongoing training curriculum a few years ago in favor of other priorities. De-escalation training “shifted to a more informal approach,” says Burgess—which means it often falls through the cracks. He says the council will look at providing dedicated funding for it.
Burgess and another council member, Bruce Harrell, are also interested in a more novel measure for reducing confrontations between police and citizens: miniature video bodycams that record exactly what officers see and hear. The cameras have been tried in San Jose, with promising results. “People act differently when they know they’re being recorded,” says Harrell: Suspects and officers alike tread more carefully on camera.
But technology can’t supplant training entirely. SPD has already installed video cameras on all patrol cars. “The use of them actually went down last year,” says Harrell, “either because of malfunctioning or because officers turned them off.”
And even when they’re working, cameras don’t always tamp down confrontations. Officer Daniel Amador’s car cam was on when he stopped Joe Wilson on Queen Anne.
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