Seattle police concede they gambled when they released to the media a video clip of a vicious beating in Pioneer Square in which two of...
Seattle police concede they gambled when they released to the media a video clip of a vicious beating in Pioneer Square in which two of the victims turned out to be soldiers who had served in Iraq.
They weighed the risk that TV could sensationalize the clip against the possibility that airing the video could restart an investigation that had hit an impasse.
While there have been no arrests more than a month after the assault, police say they are comfortable with their decision and say the release generated useful leads.
But at the same time, they say they’ve been taken aback by some of the reaction the video has generated, much of it the result of a faulty assumption — that the victims were white. (Their race was not clear in the video.) That assumption prompted a flood of calls to police from citizens, radio and television talk shows and others across the country, with some wondering why the incident wasn’t being treated as a hate crime.
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The video showed two African-American men being punched and kicked by three other African-American men in the early-morning hours of July 31 along First Avenue near Yesler Way. At one point on the video, an assailant is seen stomping on the head of a man on the ground.
Two of the men who were beaten suffered broken jaws and minor facial cuts, and one also had a broken arm. A third, not seen on the video, suffered a concussion and facial cuts, said Sean Whitcomb, spokesman for the Seattle Police Department.
A month after the assault, detectives had made little progress in finding the assailants. At that point, the investigating detective approached Whitcomb to get his opinion on distributing a video of the assault to media outlets to generate leads.
The video was shot by a man who happened to be filming his night on the town when he saw the assault. He turned the video over to police.
“I said, ‘Wow, that’s terrible, but also great quality,’ ” Whitcomb said, recalling his reaction to the footage.
Police are not releasing the names of the man who shot the video or the ones who were beaten. The video also shows a second man videotaping the beating.
The video released to the media is an edited version of what police received, and it is stripped of audio. It aired repeatedly on local TV stations and also appeared on stations around the country.
Whitcomb said police expected the video to get more airtime than still images would have received. (The Seattle Times is not running still images from the video because of the poor quality of the photo reproduction.) But police did not expect the surge of interest beyond Seattle media, from network TV shows, talk radio and the Internet’s blogosphere.
His office received inquiries from CNN, MSNBC, FOX, “The Maury Povich Show,” “Inside Edition” and even “Oprah,” Whitcomb said.
The video also caught the attention of conservative radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, who picked up on the returning-vet angle. He told his listeners that the beating demonstrated that “the anti-war left, claiming to be a peace movement, illustrates itself to be anything but.”
Whitcomb said he was most surprised by an inquiry from television’s “America’s Most Wanted,” since the crime was felony assault and not a murder or rape. Police also did not count on the public, and some in the media, jumping to conclusions about the race of the victims.
While the race of the victims was not clear from the video, the race of the attackers was. The sheer violence of the video drove the story initially, Whitcomb said, but “later the question of whether or not this was a hate crime continued to drive it.”
“Folks have been reading into it,” Whitcomb said. “Working in this [public-information] office, it has been unfortunate to be reminded that racism is alive and well … The presumption is that the … soldiers were white.”
Police don’t normally discuss race — unless offering descriptions of suspects or missing persons — because it usually is irrelevant, Whitcomb said. But in this case, he said, his office felt compelled, after repeated inquiries about whether the incident would be prosecuted as a hate crime, to inform some citizens and media representatives that all involved were black.
Whitcomb said he doesn’t regret releasing the video because it produced significant leads. He said police “don’t think they [the attackers] are going to elude us for long.”
Al Tompkins, who has 25 years of local TV-news experience and is on the faculty at The Poynter Institute, a school for journalists, observed that when you “air video over and over again, it doesn’t enhance one’s understanding” of an event.
He also said that, generally, the more distant a TV station is from a crime, the less useful the airing of a video is in helping solve the crime. “You eventually end up using it because it’s interesting video, not because it’s important,” he said.
Seattle police say they think the attackers live in the Puget Sound area, which is one reason Whitcomb’s office saw little benefit to working with network shows to get additional exposure on national TV.
“We ran the risk of it being sensationalized, but that risk was outweighed by the desire to have the guys in custody, because the investigation was at an impasse,” he said.
If a future crime is captured on video, Whitcomb added, his office will carefully evaluate it.
“But if the release of the footage will help us,” he said, “we’re not going to hesitate to do that.”
Peter Lewis: 206-464-2217 or firstname.lastname@example.org