Officer Ian Walsh pulls his fist way back. In less than a second he will punch the Franklin High School student standing in front of him so hard in the face the African American teenager will stagger one…two…three steps back before Walsh slams her forehead against the windshield of his patrol car.
It’s hard to pinpoint when, exactly, the community’s faith in its police force began to erode, but this camera phone footage from June 14, 2010—the violent aftermath of a jaywalking stop on Martin Luther King Jr. Way—is a good candidate.
Not that there’s a dearth of others.
Two months before Walsh clocked the Franklin High teen, another infamous video starred officer Shandy Cobane kicking a prone man and threatening to “beat the Mexican piss” out of him. In August 2010 a dash cam caught Native American woodcarver John T. Williams peacefully crossing the street in front of officer Ian Birk’s patrol car. Birk fired four shots and Williams died on the spot; witnesses told investigators the woodcarver, despite holding a small pocketknife, posed no threat to Birk or anyone else.
Ian Walsh kept his job. Shandy Cobane kept his job. Ian Birk resigned but faced no criminal charges. It seemed there would be no recourse, no change, no solace for a community that had grown to fear those sworn to protect it.
Until the United States government stepped in.
Based on a scathing 67-page Department of Justice report, the U.S. filed suit against the City of Seattle on July 27, 2012. “When SPD officers use force, they do so in an unconstitutional manner nearly 20 percent of the time,” the DOJ found, adding that the cops were prone to a “disproportionate number of street checks on people of color” and too often escalated rather than deescalated potentially volatile encounters.
The city struck a deal with DOJ that outlined new policies and gave the police department five years to right its excessive force ship. In the meantime, the mayor appointed a new police chief, the reform-minded Kathleen O’Toole, and the city has demonstrated compliance with DOJ recommendations, despite a counter lawsuit by more than 100 SPD officers declaring the new guidelines too restrictive.
Officer Ian Walsh pulls his fist way back, and he’ll punch the high school student in the face so hard she’ll stagger one…two…three steps back. But help, in the form of smart, more accountable policing, is on its way.