When a black man named Aaron Roberts was killed by a white cop during a Central District traffic stop three years ago, police insisted race had played no role. Today, one of the officers involved says the incident was, in fact, a hate crime—committed against him. Seattle Police Department patrol officer Greg Neubert, who was dragged 150 feet along 23rd Avenue East by Roberts' Cadillac before the suspect was shot by another cop on May 31, 2001, contends in a lawsuit deposition that Roberts assaulted him with the Caddy "because of my race as a white officer." According to new court documents, Neubert, who has not spoken publicly about his view of race's role in the controversial case, also filed a city of Seattle insurance claim after the shooting, stating that his injuries resulted from Roberts' alleged hate crime. He was paid $3,883 by the city for that claim, according to City Attorney Tom Carr, who has filed a lien against Neubert to get the money back, should Neubert prevail in a lawsuit he's filed against the dead suspect's mother.
It's another strange twist or two to a case filled with them (see "A Shot in the Dark," Sept. 26, 2001). Though no charges were filed in the shooting, it lives on in the King County Superior Court civil suit. Neubert, a 12-year SPD veteran, has taken the unusual step of seeking damages from Roberts' mother and the state of Washington for his line-of-duty injuries. The mother and the state attorney general's office now are using testimony Neubert gave in the recent deposition to seek dismissal of the officer's suit. Under what is called the professional rescue doctrine, an officer legally accepts a level of risk and responsibility when taking a public-safety job. Neubert has suffered a number of injuries in the line of duty, he says, including being poked with needles, attacked by pit bulls, and assaulted "with fists, feet, vehicles. . . . Doing our job can be dangerous, yes." The officer says he was aware the built-in risks might include being dragged off by a fleeing motorist. "We'll be arguing that the rescue doctrine applies here," Assistant Attorney General John Kirschner said last week, "and that he has not established a legal basis for his claim." A pretrial hearing is scheduled on those points; barring dismissal, a trial is set to begin next month.
Neubert, then 35, and fellow officer Craig Price, 33, who fired the fatal shot, were cleared of wrongdoing by King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng following an inquest jury's conclusion that the late-night shooting was justified. The death of Roberts, 37, and the inquest finding generated angry protest marches and business boycotts. (No inquest jury has found a cop-related killing unjustified in three decades.) Some black leaders were accused of unfairly playing the race card. At the inquest, Neubert testified he "couldn't tell you what [Roberts'] intentions were. His intentions didn't matter. His actions mattered." The FBI probed the shooting for civil-rights violations but found none. Following Maleng's decision, Neubert's attorney said she hoped the community would heal and move on. Neubert apparently has not.
He alleged in a city insurance accident report that he was injured during the commission of a "hate crime by Aaron Roberts against myself. He used his vehicle to assault me." Diagnosed with a chest-muscle injury and knee strains, Neubert later sought damages from the insurance company of Roberts' mother, Deloris Roberts, but apparently did not allege a hate crime as the cause. That claim was denied, and Neubert filed the civil suit against Deloris Roberts last year. The officer argues that the mother is liable for his injuries because she allowed Aaron Roberts to use her car that night. Neubert is also suing the state Department of Corrections for negligence. Roberts, who was finishing a term for unlawful firearm possession, had escaped two months earlier from a state halfway house.
Neubert's claims in the civil suit are not based on hate-crime allegations. But in court papers and testimony, Neubert indicates he continues to seek damages because he believes it was a hate crime and he was treated unfairly after the shooting. Neubert could not be reached for comment, and his attorney, Susan Sampson, referred us to a recent court filing in which she says "the incident was not within the ordinary scope of risk he undertook in his job." In his deposition, Neubert said, he now thinks Roberts was racially motivated based on the "actions he took. The smiling at me while driving down the road, trying to physically harm me. It was almost sadistic to me." Asked about Neubert's statement, assistant AG Kirschner says, "Well, I've been around long enough that nothing surprises me anymore."
And He Smiled
An excerpt from SPD Officer Gregory Neubert's Sept. 20 deposition in a civil lawsuit he is bringing against the mother of Aaron Roberts and the state of Washington:
Q: And on May 31, 2001, you've testified that you didn't even recognize Aaron Roberts, correct?
A: That is correct.
Q: And you couldn't even tell the race until you approached the vehicle.
A: That's correct.
Q: And he didn't say one word to you?
A: That is correct.
Q: And he smiled?
A: He did smile, yes.
Q: So how can you conclude that he was doing this because you were white?
A: I did it because I felt—this is my feelings in this, no one else's—I felt that Aaron Roberts' actions were—not only because he knew me, but because of my race as a white officer is why I felt he did what he did. But that's just my opinion; it's no one else's.
Q: What's the basis for your opinion?
A: What he did. His actions that he took. The smiling at me while driving down the road, trying to physically harm me. It was almost sadistic to me. The fear that he caused in me by driving towards a busy intersection dragging me down the street, this to me I felt strongly what it was. . . .