The federal lawsuit seeks monetary damages over the arrest of William Wingate, who was carrying a golf club as a cane and was accused by a Seattle police officer of using it as a weapon. The officer was later fired.
A federal jury heard conflicting views Monday in a federal lawsuit brought against a former Seattle police officer who arrested an African-American man who, at age 69, was carrying a golf club as a cane.
Attorneys for William Wingate, now 72, told the eight-member jury racial bias motivated Officer Cynthia Whitlatch, who has since been fired, to accuse Wingate on July 9, 2014, of using the golf club as a weapon.
“Two lives are connected that day and his is forever changed,” Wingate‘s attorney Susan Mindenbergs said in opening statements of the civil-rights trial in which she maintained her client had been severely traumatized by the confrontation.
But Whitlatch’s attorney, Robert Christie, told jurors to keep an open mind until they hear the full story.
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“This case is about perspective,” Christie said, insisting Whitlatch wasn’t motivated by race but by an honest belief Wingate had acted in a menacing fashion.
Whitlatch stopped Wingate while he was walking in Capitol Hill and, according to official accounts, claimed he swung the club in a threatening manner, striking a stop sign, while she was driving past in her patrol car.
The two engaged in a heated verbal exchange, captured on patrol-car video, that was shown to the jury during opening statements.
Wingate denied swinging the club but 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.
Whitlatch’s racial views subsequently emerged as an issue when it was disclosed that, a month after the arrest, she posted a comment on her Facebook page in the aftermath of riots in Ferguson, Mo., over the fatal police shooting of an African-American man on Aug. 9, 2014. In her post, she criticized “black peoples (sic) paranoia” in assuming whites are “out to get them.”
Christie told jurors Whitlatch “got caught up in the national debate” over Ferguson and that she didn’t have Wingate on her mind.
“It’s embarrassing to her,” he said.
But Wingate’s attorneys sought to paint a starkly different picture of her when they called her as the first witness.
Whitlatch, 49, strongly resisted when one of the attorneys, Vonda Sargent, repeatedly sought to get her to confirm that she had used the N-word in an email she had forwarded to herself. No explanation was given for the circumstances behind the email.
“I don’t want to use that word … ,” Whitlatch said, adding she never says it.
But Whitlatch finally acknowledged what she had written, saying it aloud in the courtroom.
Whitlatch also admitted ranting about “black racism” on social media, and stating during a Seattle police internal-investigation that some minorities, gays and women work hard to achieve in life while blacks get away with things by invoking their heritage.
Mindenbergs said Wingate served in the Air Force Reserve and drove a King County Metro bus for 35 years, during which time he developed a working relationship with police officers.
After the incident, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome, she said.
She told jurors Wingate will ask for at least $750,000 in monetary damages during the trial, along with punitive damages.
Christie portrayed Whitlatch, who joined the Police Department in 1997, as a dedicated and decorated officer who is now working as a Starbucks barista.
He told jurors that at the time of his arrest, Wingate answered “maybe” when asked if he done anything menacing or that could be perceived as a threat by Whitlatch.
The suit named the city as a defendant. But U.S. Judge Richard Jones, who is presiding over the case, dismissed the city, ruling Whitlatch’s action didn’t stem from city policies or longstanding practices.
However, the city is required to pay Christie because Whitlatch’s actions occurred while she was city employee.
Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole fired Whitlatch last year over what the chief labeled a case of biased and overly aggressive policing.