The Seattle FBI office has opened a criminal civil-rights investigation into the Seattle Police Department’s use of force against a University of Washington student who recently received a $100,000 settlement from the city of Seattle.
The FBI has opened a criminal civil-rights investigation into the use of force by Seattle police that left a University of Washington student battered and bruised after he was told to stop recording video as officers were arresting a friend at a loud party in 2012.
Police received a letter from the Seattle FBI office Friday notifying it of the investigation, the department confirmed Monday in response to a Seattle Times inquiry.
The city of Seattle recently agreed to pay $100,000 to settle a civil-rights lawsuit filed by geography student David Pontecorvo, who suffered a broken cheekbone, a broken nose, bruises and lacerations after he was pulled off his front porch by officers and beaten with fists and a flashlight, according to his attorney and the lawsuit.
Video: Footage from David Pontecorvo arrest in 2012UW student David Pontecorvo says he was beaten with fists, batons and flashlights after videotaping the arrest of his friend during a loud party on Sept. 22, 2012. (Courtesy of David Pontecorvo)
He underwent surgery in June to repair his damaged sinuses, according to his attorney, Daniel Fjelstad.
In a letter dated Dec. 7, FBI Special Agent in Charge Frank Montoya announced that the bureau had initiated a “full civil rights color of law” investigation into the Sept. 22, 2012, arrest of Pontecorvo.
It seeks incident reports, photographs, medical records, witness statements and other documentation of the actions of the officers.
The letter also asks for materials related to another arrest of Pontecorvo, on Feb. 3, 2014, when he was booked into jail for allegedly throwing a glass bottle at police during a disturbance in the aftermath of the Seattle Seahawks Super Bowl win.
The investigation comes as police nationwide have come under intense scrutiny over the use of force; Seattle’s department has adopted sweeping reforms to address excessive force since entering into a court-ordered agreement with the U.S. Justice Department in 2012.
Pontecorvo was 18 years old and on the eve of starting at the UW when several Seattle police officers responded during the 2012 incident to a report of loud music at his West Seattle home. According to Fjelstad, it took officers two hours to respond to the complaint, and when they arrived, the occupants turned down the music.
Police were leaving when, according to Fjelstad, “one of the geniuses” in the house turned the music back on.
The officers returned and arrested one of the people in the house, according to Pontecorvo’s civil-rights lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in 2014.
Pontecorvo and another of the partygoers began recording the arrest on their cellphones, complaining that the officers were being overly aggressive and telling them they were being recorded.
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Video from one of the cellphones shows an officer, identified as Christine Nichols in the lawsuit, telling them to stop. Pontecorvo, who is inside the house filming the action on his front porch, is ordered outside and told by Nichols he is going to be arrested for “obstructing.”
The shaky video shows Nichols placing her hand on Pontecorvo’s chest and pushing him toward the stairs, and then the pair move out of the picture frame. Another officer is heard yelling, “I’m coming, Christine!” and Pontecorvo is then heard asking, “Why are you using force?”
“I’m not doing anything wrong! I’m not resisting! Why are you doing this?” he can be heard yelling.
According to the lawsuit, Pontecorvo said that once he was at the bottom of the stairs he was grabbed by Officer Michael Renner, who took him to the ground. Renner, Nichols, Sgt. Joseph Maccarrone and others “commenced beating” him with fists and a flashlight, the suit alleges.
One officer dragged Pontecorvo to the curb, where he said another kneed him in the back of the head. He was handcuffed, put in the back of a patrol car and taken to the West Precinct.
Medics who responded to look at his injuries said he needed to be taken to the hospital, where he was treated in the emergency room before being transported to jail where he spent the weekend, according to Fjelstad.
Pontecorvo was never charged, according to the lawsuit.
Court records show Renner and Maccarrone were defendants in a 2008 lawsuit filed by Eric Garcia-Arcos, who claimed he was beaten, shocked with a Taser and illegally arrested after a noise complaint in 2006. Garcia-Arcos suffered fractures to two vertebrae, two ribs and lacerations that required stitches, according to court documents.
The city paid $85,000 to settle that lawsuit, according to court records and the City Attorney’s Office.
In another incident, Renner was ordered to undergo additional training after he got into an altercation with a bicyclist on Alki Beach. The man complained to the police department’s Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) that Renner “chest bumped” him down the sidewalk.
Renner’s patrol-car dash camera recorded him telling the man, “usually most people who do get up in my face and yell, they end up on the ground, bloody.”
Renner told OPA investigators he was angry and lost his temper.
Pontecorvo’s 2014 arrest during the Super Bowl disturbance resulted in charges of reckless endangerment and obstructing a police officer. He entered into a continuance of his case on March 31, 2014, under which the charges were dismissed after 12 months when he met court conditions, including no criminal violations and five days on a work crew.
On learning of the FBI investigation, Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole referred the matter to the OPA’s civilian director, Pierce Murphy. O’Toole became chief in June 2014.
Murphy has said there previously was no complaint and therefore no investigation into the Pontecorvo incident. None of the officers were disciplined.
Murphy said that under recently initiated protocols between OPA and the City Attorney’s Office, he is notified when officers are named in civil complaints or lawsuits, and he can decide unilaterally whether to open an investigation. In the past, the OPA was not notified when an officer was sued.
Fjelstad, Pontecorvo’s attorney, said Monday: “David is thrilled that the FBI has taken notice. The city paid as a result of the lawsuit, but there’s always been an issue of accountability. David has felt it was wrong that the officers faced no discipline for their actions.”
FBI spokeswoman Ayn Dietrich-Willliams confirmed the investigation Monday, saying in an email that when the bureau reviews a use-of-force incident it is routine to open a full investigation.
“We then evaluate our findings jointly with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division to determine if there is sufficient evidence to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, a federal violation under the Color of Law statute,” she wrote.