Seattle police have opened an internal investigation into an incident in which an officer slugged a man who was being questioned for leaving his car running outside a store.
The Seattle Police Department opened an internal investigation Friday into the 2010 arrest of a 20-year-old man who was punched by an officer after police stopped to question him about leaving his car running outside a store.
Sgt. Sean Whitcomb said the department already has reviewed the incident twice, with the officer’s commanders and an assistant chief concluding no violations of law or department policy occurred when four officers took Isaac Ocak to the pavement after learning he had a prior felony conviction and had been tagged in the department’s computer as being “assaultive to officers.” However, the department could not provide an incident in which Ocak had ever been so.
At the time, Ocak was being questioned and was not under arrest, according to police Sgt. Sean Whitcomb. The incident escalated when Ocak resisted the officers’ attempts to handcuff him for flight and officer-safety reasons, Whitcomb said.
Whitcomb said Ocak had left his car running while parked outside a store — a common ploy used by shoplifters.
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The incident will now be reviewed by the department’s Office of Professional Accountability to determine whether excessive force was used during the arrest.
Ocak was left bloodied after being slugged twice in the face by Officer Larry Longley and taken hard to the ground by Longley and three other officers outside Westwood Village on Dec. 29, 2010, in West Seattle. Although officers eventually determined Ocak had not committed any crime at the shopping center, he was later charged with assaulting an officer after he allegedly bit Longley’s finger during the incident.
The charges were dismissed by the Seattle City Attorney’s Office after prosecutors reviewed the video, which was recorded by Longley’s dashboard camera.
The video shows the officer repeatedly ordering Ocak to keep his hands on the hood of the police car and rudely dismissing Ocak’s questions and explanations. At one point, after the officer questioned him about the number of keys on his key ring, Ocak complained, “Why are you being so rude to me?”
Longley responded: “I don’t have to be nice to you.”
Whitcomb conceded that Longley’s abrasive demeanor likely fell short of the department’s new community policing credo of “Listening and Explaining with Equity and Dignity,” but added that Longley was being a good, proactive police officer.
And once Ocak bit the officer — even though it appears Longley put his hand in Ocak’s mouth during the struggle — the officer was justified in throwing the punches. “He didn’t know if it was intentional or not,” Whitcomb said.
The four officers struggled with Ocak for several minutes before getting him under control.
The City Attorney’s Office dismissed the assault charge filed against Ocak because of the question over whether Ocak intended to bite the officer.
Spokeswoman Kimberly Mills said the chief of the office’s criminal division brought the video and the officer’s actions to the attention of OPA last month, although it was not considered a formal complaint and did not trigger the investigation.
Whitcomb said the department received a formal complaint on Friday. Ocak’s attorney, Seattle lawyer James Egan, said he filed it.
Egan has also filed a $100,000 claim on behalf of Ocak against the city, the first step toward filing a federal civil-rights claim.
Whitcomb said the video, and the officer’s gruff and dismissive treatment of Ocak, “probably wouldn’t be a good example” of a textbook citizen interaction.
“But I would remind you that it’s 2013, and we’ve come a long way in those two years” toward addressing community concerns over police accountability, including the ongoing implementation of the department’s “20/20″ plan to adopt 20 reforms in 20 months.
The department has found itself under a court-enforced consent decree after a Department of Justice investigation that ended in December 2011 that the SPD routinely uses excessive force, most often against minorities and individuals in crisis.
It specifically criticized the department for misusing or misunderstanding the law around so-called “Terry Stops” — brief detentions while an officer investigates a possible crime — like the one the officers used to justify questioning Ocak. The DOJ also criticized SPD officers for escalating routine incidents into confrontations that require the use of force.
Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or firstname.lastname@example.org