Officers Down

The Shooting of Seattle Police Officer Timothy Brenton, 10 Years Later

After a spate of assassinations a decade ago, the public rallied around the police. Where’d the love go?

By James Ross Gardner October 22, 2019 Published in the November 2019 issue of Seattle Met

Image: Rob Wilson

We forget the memorial procession. How it started in the University District on the morning of November 6, 2009, and wound its way through the city. Down Montlake, Madison, Pine, Broadway, and Denny—four and a half miles, all the way to KeyArena. We tend to not recall the thousands of first responders from all over the region rolling through. The bagpipes. The police-mounted Harleys. The fire trucks blaring their mournful wail. We’ve let slip from our minds how so many of us, in heavy coats buttoned up against the 45-degree chill, flanked that long parade route, palms flat against our hearts, honoring the life of officer Timothy Brenton.

Six days earlier, on Halloween, the 39-year-old father of two had sat in a parked patrol car in Leschi with a trainee, reviewing with her a previous traffic stop, when the killer wheeled up and aimed his rifle. The trainee survived. Brenton became the 59th cop in Seattle history to die on active duty.

Weeks later, on November 29, another gunman entered a coffee shop in a Tacoma suburb and opened fire on four Lakewood police officers, killing them all. Like Seattle, the City of Destiny honored the slain on a massive scale, in this case with a memorial at the Tacoma Dome.

Two planned assassinations. Five officers killed in the span of a few weeks. An unprecedented outpouring of public grief and support for law enforcement. But the intervening decade has stolen from memory the community’s collective mourning. Time wore that sentiment away, but other things did too.

Nine months came and went before officer Ian Birk shot to death John T. Williams, a Native American woodcarver, at the time holding a piece of wood and a pocketknife. The city released audio of the shooting, later deemed “unjustified” by SPD’s own firearms review board. The protests began almost immediately. Handmade signs like “Danger: Police in Area” were stark contrasts with the civilian tears shed during Brenton’s procession. Other caught-on-tape behavior emerged, including an officer telling a Latino man, “I’m going to beat the fucking Mexican piss out of you, homey.”

The Department of Justice slapped Seattle with a consent decree, requiring police oversight by an independent monitor. After a 2013 public survey, the monitor concluded that 45 percent of Seattle residents believed SPD uses excessive force “very or somewhat often.” More crucially, one in every three Seattleites disapproved of the police overall.

Meanwhile, outside Seattle, the nation reeled from the deaths of unarmed black people at the hands of cops. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Tamir Rice. A reckoning had arrived; America asked its law enforcement to check itself, and that applied here as much as anywhere. We’d forgotten how we felt the morning of Officer Brenton’s funeral. Sometimes it feels like we’re never going back.

The November 6, 2009, funeral procession for officer Timothy Brenton.

Jim Ritter forgets none of it. And that’s not just because he’s SPD’s designated historian. Officer Ritter, who heads the on-hiatus Seattle Metropolitan Police Museum, was an acting sergeant in the fall of 2009—and among the first at the scene of Brenton’s death.

“We knew very little other than we had an officer dead, and another officer in shock and almost killed,” he recalls. What was clear to Ritter and his fellow officers: An assassin had stalked members of SPD. “We were all concerned for our own safety.”

As a police historian, Ritter will tell you the parade for Brenton, with its bagpipes and sirens, drew from traditions a century old. Except here the cop killer remained at large. Ritter sat behind the wheel of the museum’s vintage patrol car, wondering the whole time, “Is this guy going to use this funeral procession as a target-rich environment to do more damage?”

Hours later, just as the memorial service wrapped at KeyArena, two sergeants and a detective apprehended Brenton’s shooter at his Tukwila apartment. A Seattle cop killed the gunman in the Lakewood massacre after a two-day manhunt.

But the police remained on edge, says Seattle University criminal justice professor Matt Hickman, who reached out to SPD in the aftermath. “They were concerned about officer stress, health, and safety in the wake of all these shootings.” Hickman soon conducted a study, wiring a test subject with a GPS-enabled heart rate monitor, and rode around on a late-night shift to record the officer’s reaction to tense encounters. What he observed was enough to recommend—via an academic journal—deployment strategies, such as rotating officers in and out of precinct areas known to be more stressful than others.

The stalking and assassinations may have taken their toll on the cops, and the death of unarmed civilians may have its toll on the public, but Hickman puts little stock in surveys that emphasize the negative perception of the police. These things fluctuate, he says, and approval may tank after an incident like the shooting of John T. Williams, but it eventually returns to a more positive, base level. A redo of the 2013 survey two years later revealed things had changed: The number of Seattleites disapproving of SPD shrank from 34 to 25 percent.

We’re fickle. We read about the next shooting, and then the next. Time moves on. We forget. But when it comes to the death of Officer Brenton and others in the fall of 2009, the Seattle Police Department doesn’t. 

Show Comments