Officers Suspended For Using "Unprofessional Language" With Gang Members

By Jonah Spangenthal-Lee May 24, 2011

Three East Precinct officers were suspended for weeks without pay and transferred earlier this year for using "demeaning and unprofessional language" with two gang members during a traffic stop on Capitol Hill last year, according to SPD internal investigation records.

The incident happened more than a year ago, but was resolved in late February. In recent weeks, the suspensions have become a hot topic amongst officers in the department who say they're fed up with SPD's over-reactive discipline policies.

According to internal investigation records and a police report, officers Casey Steiger, Brett Schoenberg, and Corey Williams—along with another officer who is not named in the internal investigation—were involved in a traffic stop near Boylston Ave and E Pike St on March 10th, 2010, after officers spotted a driver "driving recklessly and failing to yield."

An incident report says that, as officers approached the vehicle, the 22-year-old passenger in the car refused to roll down his window and "kept reaching into the center console and moving his hands between his legs towards the front of the car."

When officers tried to "escort" the man out of the vehicle, police say the man turned towards Officer Williams, threw his arms out, and balled up his fists.

The officers and the men--both MS-13 gang members on Department of Corrections supervision--then became involved in a series of hostile exchanges.

Officer Schoenberg told investigators one of the men had "been talking about hurting officers, fighting officers [and] how officers deserve to be killed."

Officer Steiger claimed one of the men also told officers "turn off the camera, take off your badge, and let's fight."

Steiger responded by telling the man "if we were to fight, I'd break your fucking neck."

OPA records also say Officer Williams told one of the men his badge was "the only thing preventing [him] from skull-fucking the [man] and dragging him down the street."

Williams later explained to investigators this was "a non-sequitor that I picked up in boot camp" and told the OPA he believed it was an appropriate response to the man's repeated threats.

During interviews with investigators, the officers explained they used harsh language with the men as a means of de-escalation commonly used with gang members.

"I want to put in his head that if he decides to fight's not just gonna be an easy situation for him," Officer Steiger told investigators. "I want to de-escalate him in his mind to think that, 'okay, this guy's serious.'"

Officer Williams told investigators "with gang members, you have to get on their level or typically it could escalate. I feel like I prevented a use of force."

Following the incident, officers booked the 23-year-old driver—who, according to police, had watery, bloodshot eyes and slurred speech—for negligent driving. He was later charged in municipal court, although the case was dismissed due to "proof problems." It appears the 22-year-old passenger was not arrested.

In August 2010, an attorney for one of the men filed a complaint with the OPA, claiming officers "were rude, unprofessional, and used profanity," and that police wrenched one man's arm behind his back and "slammed [him] against the patrol vehicle needlessly."

The complaint also alleged officers conducted an illegal search of the vehicle during the stop.

The investigation cleared officers of using excessive force, but found that police had used unprofessional language in dealing with the men. The OPA recommended supervisory intervention for the search of the vehicle.

OPA records say using profanity is not against department policy, although it is discouraged. However, an investigator wrote in the case report that "Officers should be able to accomplish their mission and make their point in most situations without resorting to gutter language."

In February, all three officers received sustained complaints for use of unprofessional language. Officers Schoenberg and Williams were suspended without pay for 20 days, while Steiger was suspended for 15. Schoenberg and Williams were also given disciplinary transfers, according to OPA records.

Schoenberg, Steiger, and Williams have only been with the department for about three years.

Police records do not indicate why Steiger received lesser punishment, but an OPA report indicates investigators initially recommended giving Steiger supervisory intervention—which typically means the officer receives additional training or counseling from their immediate supervisor—because Steiger's use of profanity "was not as prolific as that used by other officers, but was nonetheless unprofessional."

Chief Diaz decided to sustain the complaint against Steiger anyway.

Seattlecrime requested audio and video of the incident, but the department declined to disclose it, citing pending litigation.

Since the case was resolved in February, several officers have contacted about the case to voice their frustration with, they say, the department's over-reactive discipline policy.

Several officers we spoke with about this incident were outraged by Chief Diaz's heavy handed punishment, calling the suspensions "time off for swearing."

When asked about the case, Seattle Police Officers Guild President Rich O'Neill described the suspensions as "extreme for a first-time offense."

"We're dealing with an MS13 gang member who isn't a choir boy, and isn't speaking like one," he said "If you use profanity and not use force, isn't that a win?"

O'Neill says the officers are appealing the length of the suspensions.

But not every cop has come down on the side of the officers involved in this incident.

Said another veteran officer, "It was wrong no doubt.  If we ever hope to rehab our reputation this stuff can't go on."

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