After a morning meeting with Mayor Ed Murray, Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole agreed to a conduct a broad review of the department’s handling of the matter and placed Officer Cynthia Whitlatch on desk duty pending full reviews of her conduct.
Facing mounting outrage, Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole announced Thursday the removal from street duty of a white patrol officer who made racially charged comments on Facebook within two months of arresting a 70-year-old black man for carrying a golf club.
After a morning meeting with Mayor Ed Murray, O’Toole agreed to conduct a broad review of the department’s handling of the matters and placed Officer Cynthia Whitlatch on desk duty pending full reviews of her conduct.
Both moves occurred as the NAACP called for Whitlatch’s firing.
On a Facebook post last summer attributed to Whitlatch, the officer was critical of “black peoples (sic) paranoia” in assuming whites are “out to get them, ” and cited the Ferguson, Mo., riots that followed the fatal shooting of a young African-American man by a white officer Aug. 9.
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O’Toole said she learned only Wednesday of the post and became concerned that it closely followed the golf-club incident July 9.
“This is serious stuff, and we’re going to address it head-on,” O’Toole said in an interview on what has become her most challenging internal crisis since she became chief in June.
She said her department will continue to face challenges as it works to meet federally mandated reforms to curb excessive force and biased policing but declared the “vast majority” of officers understand the need for change.
Whitlatch, 47, joined the department in 1997, working primarily as a patrol officer.
In a statement released Thursday afternoon, O’Toole said, “I was shocked and disappointed to read her comments. We are working to reform the Seattle Police Department, and behavior of this nature seriously undermines our efforts.”
O’Toole said that, along with a comprehensive review she ordered Wednesday of cases involving Whitlatch, the department’s Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) would conduct a separate internal investigation of Whitlatch that could lead to discipline.
OPA Director Pierce Murphy said Thursday evening the investigation will focus on the golf-club matter, which he first heard of Wednesday when it was publicly disclosed. The OPA previously determined the Facebook post involved off-duty conduct and referred it for supervisory counseling.
O’Toole also agreed to Murray’s directive to conduct a “management investigation” of all the circumstances and decisions related to Whitlatch’s actions.
In a statement Thursday, Murray said the city must do more to carry out reforms to restore public trust.
“While I support the Chief’s decision yesterday to call for a more comprehensive review of the overall conduct and performance of the officer involved — considering there were two incidents with this officer in the same summer — there appear to be lapses in our protocols,” Murray said.
Hours before O’Toole’s announcement, William Wingate, the Seattle man who was arrested and jailed in July for carrying a golf club on a Capitol Hill street, said he didn’t immediately obey Whitlatch’s commands to drop the club because he was frightened.
“I was scared,” Wingate said during a news conference in the Seattle office of his attorney. “I didn’t know what she was going to do.”
Wingate said he believed he was targeted by Whitlatch because he is black and described the officer as “out of control” during the encounter.
Wingate’s attorney, Susan Mindenbergs, filed a claim — a precursor to a lawsuit — against the city in November. The claim, which seeks at least $750,000 in damages, says Wingate’s civil rights were violated and his only crime was “walking in Seattle while black.”
Wingate was on his daily walk, using the golf club as a cane, when Whitlatch claimed he swung it in a threatening manner while she was driving her patrol car.
Patrol-car video and a police report indicate she circled the block, pulled up alongside Wingate and repeatedly ordered him to drop the golf club. On the video, Wingate denies any wrongdoing, refuses to drop the club and tells the officer to call somebody — presumably a supervisor or another officer.
Police said the patrol-car video doesn’t substantiate Whitlatch’s claim that Wingate waved his club. However, dashboard cameras are pointed forward and do not capture images from alongside patrol cars, police said.
Wingate was booked into the King County Jail for obstruction and harassment. He pleaded guilty to unlawful use of a weapon, a misdemeanor, under an agreement in which the case would be dismissed after two years if he complied with all conditions ordered by the judge.
After questions were raised about the arrest, the Seattle City Attorney’s Office had the charge dismissed. Seattle police apologized to Wingate for the arrest.
To some, the incident mirrored issues raised by the U.S. Justice Department when it found in 2011 that the Police Department had engaged in a pattern of excessive force and displayed troubling evidence of biased policing. It also concluded that Seattle officers “escalate situations and use unnecessary or excessive force when arresting individuals for minor offenses.”
The finding led to a landmark settlement in 2012 in which the city agreed to make broad reforms.
Whitlatch was one of 100 officers who filed an unsuccessful lawsuit last year to block new use-of-force policies.
O’Toole, in her statement, said, “I was hired because of my track record for reform and my commitment to bias-free policing. I knew this would be a difficult job, but days like this make me even more determined.”
Pledging to work with the city’s elected leaders, federal officials and the community, O’Toole added: “Together we will address our challenges head-on, we will accomplish our goals, and we will be stronger in the end.”
Gerald Hankerson, president of the Seattle King County NAACP, said at a news conference Thursday that Wingate’s case bolstered the organization’s decades-long claim that Seattle police operate on bias.
Outrage expressed by African Americans in Seattle has been overwhelming since stories on Wingate’s arrest made national news Wednesday, he said.
“Termination is the only thing that we accept,” he said of Whitlatch. “She doesn’t deserve to wear that badge.”
“We do not accept the apology,” he said. “We do not want someone like that walking around.”
Hankerson said it’s especially disheartening because the arrest followed the federally initiated reforms.
“Don’t say ‘training,’ don’t say ‘reform’ …,” he said. “The question is what is SPD going to do about it?”
Wingate, a former King County Metro bus driver, described himself as “pro-police” in the past, although his view has changed since the encounter.
During the news conference he held up a cane he said he obtained after the golf club was taken away.
“I’m just a regular, blue-collar guy,” he said. “I’m a working man, and I’m still working.”