The suit stemmed from the arrest of William Wingate while he was walking with the golf club in Seattle on July 9, 2014.
Former Seattle police Officer Cynthia Whitlatch engaged in racial discrimination when she arrested an African-American man who was carrying a golf club as a cane that she viewed as a weapon, a federal jury found Tuesday.
In a unanimous verdict, the eight-member jury awarded $325,000 in compensatory damages to William Wingate. Jurors weighing the civil-rights lawsuit had deliberated about eight hours beginning Monday afternoon.
“It was a vindication. It was wonderful. It was momentous,” Susan Mindenbergs, one of Wingate’s attorneys, said of the outcome.
She and co-counsel Vonda Sargent called the verdict a watershed moment in holding police officers accountable.
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Neither Whitlatch nor Wingate were in the courtroom when U.S. District Judge Richard Jones announced the verdict at midafternoon.
The result in the emotionally charged case represented a rare jury verdict locally against a police officer in a civil or criminal case that goes to trial.
The suit stemmed from Whitlatch’s arrest of Wingate while he was walking with a golf club in Seattle on July 9, 2014.
Jurors heard closing arguments Monday before retiring to decide whether Wingate, 72, should be awarded at least $750,000 sought by his attorneys over his arrest by Whitlatch, a veteran officer who was fired as a result of the incident.
The jury of four women and four men rejected punitive damages, finding Whitlatch’s conduct was not malicious.
Whitlatch, 49, who is white, denied race played a role in her decision to detain Wingate after he, according to her testimony, swung a golf club toward her patrol car as she drove by him at 12th Avenue and East Pike Street on Capitol Hill.
Wingate, who was 69 at the time of incident, maintained he never swung the club.
No patrol-car video captured the initial event. But jurors watched patrol-car video of a heated verbal exchange between Whitlatch and Wingate when she confronted him and ordered him drop the club.
Wingate was arrested for investigation of unlawful use of a weapon and obstructing a police officer and held in jail for 30 hours.
City prosecutors pursued only a weapon charge, and Wingate agreed to a continuance of his case, under which the misdemeanor charge would be dropped in two years if he met court conditions.
Prosecutors later moved to dismiss the entire case after a former state representative raised questions about the arrest. A judge accepted the dismissal, and the Police Department’s deputy chief, Carmen Best, ultimately apologized to Wingate for his arrest and returned his golf club.
In closing arguments, Sargent told jurors they could send a message, citing what she called Whitlatch’s racist views displayed on social media, a text, an email and during the Police Department’s internal investigation.
“The time has come to stop this, stop it in its tracks,” Sargent said.
Whitlatch’s attorney, Robert Christie, attributed the incident to a misunderstanding that had nothing to do with race.
“Judge her by what you saw here,” Christie told jurors, arguing her emotional or sarcastic comments outside the job don’t reflect who she is.
Christie wasn’t in the courtroom for the verdict and didn’t respond immediately to a request for comment.
Sargent and Mindenbergs hugged and smiled after the verdict was announced.
Mindenbergs called Wingate on her cellphone as she left the courthouse.
“He was thrilled, and he cried,” Mindenbergs said.
Sargent added, “This was the first time he had an opportunity to tell his story, and it was believed.”
Both attorneys said the jury’s finding on the race claim validated his case and meant more to him, and them, than the monetary award.
“Hopefully, this will start to become the end of this,” Mindenbergs said, referring to she what she called the “horrible racial bias” uncovered during the case.
“It makes him a whole, complete citizen,” Sargent said.
Of several Seattle police officers who testified in support of Whitlatch, Sargent said it demonstrated a circle-the-wagon mentality still existed in the department.
At the same time, Mindenbergs said, Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole’s firing of Whitlatch demonstrated accountability.
O’Toole, who testified during the trial about her decision, fired Whitlatch last year over what the chief labeled a case of biased and overly aggressive policing. Whitlatch is appealing her filing.
The Police Department is now under a federal consent decree requiring it to carry out reforms to address excessive force and biased policing.
Wingate’s suit named the city as a defendant. But Judge Jones dismissed the city, ruling Whitlatch’s action didn’t stem from city policies or longstanding practices.
However, the city is required to pay Whitlatch’s defense because her conduct occurred while she was a city employee.
Sargent and Mindenbergs will now go before Jones to seek attorney fees.