Seattle Police Kathleen O’Toole, in overturning internal findings, wrote that she would have done the same thing as three officers who mistakenly fired at a car.
In a rare action, Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole has reversed misconduct findings against three officers who heard gunshots and returned fire toward a car they mistakenly believed to be the source of the shots.
O’Toole, who has final say, revealed her decision in a letter sent Friday to Mayor Ed Murray and City Council President Bruce Harrell. A letter is required whenever the police chief reverses findings by the department’s civilian-led Office of Professional Accountability (OPA).
Warning: Video contains explicit language.
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In it, O’Toole said that officer-involved shootings are of significant concern to the community and the department, and that careful review of them is taken “extremely seriously.” But, in a candid comment, she wrote that she would have done the same thing as the officers.
No one was hurt in the New Year’s Eve incident on Dec. 31, 2014, which was captured on patrol-car video.
“She made the absolutely right call,” said Detective Ron Smith, president of the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, describing the OPA analysis as “20/20 hindsight” prohibited by department policy and U.S. Supreme Court case law.
“All three officers are relieved and so am I,” Smith said.
Pierce Murphy, OPA’s civilian director, said Sunday the outcome “speaks highly” of a careful oversight process in which the conduct was closely reviewed, with differing viewpoints.
The late-night incident occurred as the officers were investigating a potential domestic-violence disturbance at a South Seattle house, according to O’Toole’s letter, copies of which were also sent to the rest of the City Council, Murphy and City Attorney Pete Holmes.
Two officers were interviewing a person outside the house, by a patrol car, while another officer was inside the house.
As a fourth officer was moving from the house to the patrol car, multiple gunshots were fired in the direction of the officers from east and behind the patrol car, according to O’Toole’s letter.
All three officers who were outside reported they heard gunshots and bullets “whiz” by their heads, the four-page letter said.
The officers saw a car coming toward them, and reported it was the only thing they could see that was moving. It was traveling from the direction they believed the bullets were coming, and the officers did not see any other potential source of the shots, according to the letter.
The three were also aware of active discussions on social media describing the date as “Kill the PIG Night,” a reference to the police, O’Toole wrote.
They also knew that a fatal drive-by shooting had occurred in the area earlier that night, with the suspect at large, and were aware of reports of shots fired from a vehicle in the same neighborhood a few days earlier, the letter said.
“All three officers believed they were being ambushed by the occupants of the car that was headed towards them, and all three officers returned fire towards the vehicle,” O’Toole wrote.
One officer, before firing, made sure the person being interviewed was shielded by the patrol car.
The officers stopped firing when the approaching car abruptly stopped, according to the letter.
The driver opened the door, shouting he was under fire by another vehicle. Two other people were in the car.
“Although officers’ shots struck the driver’s side door, thankfully no one was injured,” O’Toole wrote.
The other vehicle left the scene. But a suspect was subsequently identified, convicted of drive-by shooting and unlawful possession of a firearm, and sentenced to 87 months in prison, court records show.
O’Toole noted the time between the shots fired toward the officers and their return fire — 10 shots — was about six seconds.
Evidence showed the officers reasonably believed they faced “immediate threat of death,” even though the shots fired at them came from a different vehicle they weren’t aware of, according to a department report outlining the internal investigation.
But Murphy, the OPA director, found insufficient evidence to show the officers had a reasonable basis to believe anyone in the approaching car posed an imminent threat of death or serious injury, the report said.
As a result, Murphy recommended the officers be found in violation of department policy regarding the use of deadly force. The proposed discipline: 15-day suspensions without pay for each officer.
In a highly unusual response, Deputy Chief of Operations Carmen Best, Assistant Chief of Patrol Operations Steve Wilske and South Precinct Captain Mike Washburn all wrote a memorandum to O’Toole contesting the OPA findings.
While noting they respected OPA’s work and the seriousness of the matter, the three wrote they had a “difference of opinion.”
“At the time the officers first heard, and felt, gunshots whiz by their heads, there was one vehicle moving towards the officers from the same direction as the shots,” they wrote.
O’Toole, in her letter, also expressed her “respect and appreciation” to the OPA for a thorough, fair investigation.
But O’Toole, who met with the officers during the disciplinary process, said she disagreed with the findings, concluding the officers acted reasonably, consistent with department policy and their public-safety obligations. The officers were called on to make an “instantaneous decision” to protect their lives and that of the person who was being interviewed, she wrote.
“Indeed, based on my experience as a law enforcement officer, I have no reason to believe that I would have acted any differently had I been in that situation; the Department’s Deputy Chief, the Assistant Chief of Patrol Operations, and other Department leaders have likewise stated the same,” she wrote.