Thinning blue line

Charges of racism, illegal tapings, and another resignation add to SPD's woes.

To the clients of attorney James Womack, it’s called “contempt of cop.” Protest your treatment by police, and your troubles are bound to get worse.

“What happens is,” says Womack, an African American who most often hears this complaint from blacks in Seattle’s Central District, “in the process of you trying to assert your rights, you’re accused of resisting, and . . . the next thing you’re charged with a felony for assault.”

Along with claims of racial profiling and unequal treatment, piling on the charges for those who question police conduct is seen by some minorities as another racial flash point between Seattle’s citizens and cops. Of course, such differences, aired at a public hearing at Central Area Motivation Program headquarters last week, aren’t necessarily new: some in the mostly black crowd of a hundred who, like Womack, told their stories to a community-leaders group, recalled still-festering racial run-ins with Seattle cops dating back to the early 1980s.

But those and other complaints, such as being stopped supposedly for DWB—Driving While Black—carry an added weight today: they’re another layer on a heap of trouble bearing down on Seattle cops and six-year police chief Norman Stamper.

In less than four months, it’s been a startling about-face: a police department with an evenhanded reputation is almost instantly embroiled in widespread claims of misconduct and civil rights violations. In March, reports of an allegedly covered up 1996 theft of $10,000 by a detective unleashed a series of revelations including claims of rape, burglary, and tolerance of narcotics deals by police officers, and the firing of the police personnel director for having sex with a cop wannabe.

Those events have in turn led to two top department resignations and separate inside and outside reviews of SPD operations. Also exposed were repeated breakdowns in the department’s misfiring internal investigation system and feuding between old guard officers and those supporting Stamper’s more politically correct agenda—in one instance, leading to a $1.5 million judgment for a veteran officer wrongly fired for, among other things, telling dumb-blonde jokes.

And there’s no scandal relief in sight. In the wake of a recent dustup over unauthorized police videotaping of a minority community press conference, allegations of a similar earlier taping have arisen. A police auditor is also investigating a number of other video complaints including the alleged covert filming of political rallies and the hiring of outside private firms to do taping for the department, circumventing city law.

Though police won’t speak for the record, Police Intelligence Auditor Jeffery Robinson, in a March 12 letter to community activist John Hoffman, acknowledges he is investigating at least several allegations of videotapings by the SPD intelligence division.

Following an uproar over politically inspired tapings of anti-war groups and other left-wingers in the 1970s, the city banned such department filmings. But Hoffman, using open-records laws, has found what he says are repeated violations of that law—with the cameras again focused on lefties and civil rights groups.

Hoffman last year unearthed two intelligence videos of political rallies that were determined by then-auditor Kay Frank to be at least technical violations of the city ordinance—the department filming of a 1997 antipolice-brutality rally by the October 22 Coalition, and a demonstration for and against thenIsraeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Now Hoffman says he’s discovered existence of two more questionable intelligence videos—one a taping of last year’s October 22 Coalition rally here, the other a filming of an anti-war rally in Seattle Dec. 19, 1998. The auditor is reviewing those filmings now.

In 1996, Hoffman also says, documents show that “a private detective hired by a law firm retained by the city videotaped a meeting at the Langston Hughes Cultural Center, which featured Harriet Walden of Mothers Against Police Harassment and was about her lawsuit concerning police dogs.” (A daily newspaper report on the October 1996 event quotes a police spokesperson as saying police did not attend due to the pending lawsuit.)

That filming by the firm for the department in effect skirted the political-video ban law, Hoffman says, and involved the taping of a mostly minority press conference similar to the one held recently by the NAACP and other groups. The June 11 NAACP press conference was filmed “illegally” by the SPD, says community leader Eddie Rye Jr. Stamper claimed the taping was for a police cable-access show, but later apologized and said the tape would be destroyed.

Meanwhile, more charges were leveled against the department’s scandal epicenter, the Internal Investigation Section. In addition to claims—under review by a mayoral panel—that IIS is unresponsive and lacks credibility for its mostly secret self-examinations of the department, some say even filing a complaint can be a waste of time.

Chris Clifford, who has had a running battle with police over attempts to close his downtown sports bar, Jersey’s, as a nuisance, says he complained to IIS about harassment that included an order from uniformed officers to “stop catering to ‘them’—meaning black people.” His complaint, which he filed with the help of an aide to City Council member Margaret Pageler, however, “disappeared down a black hole” at IIS, says Clifford. “They even denied I ever made a complaint.”

Activist John Fox of the Seattle Displacement Coalition recalls making IIS complaints—backed by other witnesses—about police brutality that seemed simply to languish and die. “Nine months later,” IIS told him in one instance of claimed brutality, he says, “they could not substantiate my charge—in essence, telling me I lied. Nine months later!”

Fox, as well as police officers, has also raised new questions about Stamper’s pet Community Policing project, intended to bring cops and citizens closer in the old style of “beat cop” assignments. Officers complain the program drains personnel from active investigations, further adding to SPD’s staffing problems. Fox thinks the program favors some citizens over others—the rich over the poor, for example. “Something has to be done to reexamine the concept of community policing so that it embraces all of us,” Fox says, “not just merchants and white homeowners.”

Such complaints and resistance are thought to be among the reasons behind the announced resignation last week of community policing leader Nancy McPherson, whose unit was also responsible for filming the June 11 NAACP press conference. A longtime aide to Stamper, she gave no reason for her planned departure other than saying she felt her mission was complete. Hers was the second high-rank SPD resignation in a month: earlier, one of Stamper’s legal advisors, Carol Newell Pidduck, resigned apparently in protest of departmental policies.

Though Stamper seems to have permanently distanced the current SPD from the department wracked by widespread payoff and kickback scandals in the 1970s, he has not succeeded in opening SPD operations to the broader scrutiny and accountability that is at the heart of today’s turmoil.

Observers are certain the mayor’s police-review panel will ask that the door be opened wider. After all, critics ask, why should full details of misconduct allegations be kept from the public? And as a speaker noted at last week’s public hearing, why don’t police support a more open process since it could prove their contention that most complaints are capricious and unfounded?

“We need police,” the Rev. Robert Jeffrey told the crowd. “No question. But we don’t need out-of-control police.”