A Garfield High School teacher filed a $500,000 claim against the city of Seattle Wednesday, alleging that a police officer lacking cause doused him with pepper spray shortly after he participated in the Martin Luther King Jr. Day rally and march Jan. 19.
A Garfield High School teacher filed a $500,000 claim against the city of Seattle on Wednesday, alleging that a police officer lacking cause doused him with pepper spray shortly after he participated in the Martin Luther King Jr. Day rally and march Jan. 19.
Jesse Hagopian, a history teacher who gave a speech during the event, says in the claim that as he began to head home in the afternoon to celebrate his 2-year-old son’s birthday, he was walking on the sidewalk in the South Lake Union area talking to his mother on the phone when the officer sprayed him.
“He instantly felt a burning sensation in his eyes and had some difficulty breathing,” says the claim, which serves as a prelude to a lawsuit unless the matter is settled.
The claim does not describe all of the events that were occurring at the time, nor did Hagopian’s attorney and a parade of speakers who appeared at a City Hall news conference where they decried the officer’s actions.
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But video posted on YouTube, shot from a high vantage point, shows that officers deployed pepper spray into a crowd and used bikes to form a barricade after an officer went to the ground in the area of Westlake Avenue North and Republican Street.
The officer had been knocked off his bike by someone while a splinter group from the rally, which wouldn’t disperse, was apparently moving from Aurora Avenue North to Interstate 5 as part of a traffic-blocking effort, Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, the department’s chief spokesman, said Wednesday. The officer, who was injured, was treated at Harborview Medical Center and released.
Another video, also posted on YouTube and shot at ground level, appears to show a female bike officer indiscriminately firing pepper spray at people, some of which hit Hagopian.
During the news conference, Hagopian’s attorney, James Bible, said Hagopian was pepper-sprayed “irrationally” by the officer. “No provocation and no reason,” Bible said, calling the officer’s action a challenge to free speech.
Before the incident, Hagopian had spoken at the holiday event about how black lives matter — a cry that has swept the country since grand juries in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y., declined late last year to indict white police officers in the deaths of African-American men.
After the news conference, Bible said the officer’s first shot of pepper spray appeared to be fired in his client’s direction but also might have been initially directed toward a woman near him.
Hagopian, speaking at the news conference, said he felt “piercing pain” when hit by the pepper spray, which he washed out with milk. “So the pain that shot through my face only lasted so long, but the painful memory is something that I don’t know when it will leave me or my family,” he said.
Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole said Wednesday she couldn’t comment on Hagopian’s claim because it is a legal matter.
But she said there were six uses of pepper spray during the confrontation, and all are being reviewed as part of an expedited examination of every use of force applied during protests that erupted after the initial grand-jury finding in the Ferguson matter in November.
The department will look for any lessons that can be learned and make any changes if needed, O’Toole said, noting that public safety is the department’s primary concern.
If misconduct is suspected, it will be referred to the department’s Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) for an internal investigation, she said.
Bible said Hagopian would not cooperate with OPA because the internal-review process is a “worthless joke of a system.”
O’Toole said she also plans to discuss her department’s handling of the protests next week during one of her regular meetings with the U.S. Justice Department and a federal monitor to discuss the city’s 2012 consent decree to curtail excessive force and biased policing.
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and O’Toole came under fire at the news conference, where Sheley Secrest, an executive officer with Seattle King County NAACP, said people want action and not “pretty words.”
Lisa Daugaard, in her role as policy director at the Public Defender Association nonprofit in Seattle, said she was concerned that the police had created unnecessary enemies by the way they have handled the protests.
She pointed to police herding of protesters, in what she called a violation of their free-speech rights, in order to protect downtown shoppers.
In addition, police have intentionally arrested the leaders of the protests to curtail the demonstrations, and apparently misused photography as a surveillance tool, Daugaard said.
Daugaard also is a co-chair of the Community Police Commission, a citizens-advisory group created as part of the federal consent decree.
She said she wasn’t speaking on behalf of that group. She also noted that she believes OPA has improved its internal investigations.