Jesse Hagopian, a history teacher at Seattle’s Garfield High School, was walking on a sidewalk and talking to his mother on his cellphone when an officer pepper-sprayed him on Jan. 19, 2015, after he participated in a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event.
The city of Seattle has agreed to pay $100,000 to settle a federal lawsuit brought by a Seattle high-school teacher who was pepper-sprayed by a police officer after giving a speech at the city’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day rally and march last year.
Jesse Hagopian, a history teacher at Garfield High School, said in his complaint that he was walking on a sidewalk and talking to his mother on his cellphone when a female officer pepper-sprayed him on Jan. 19, 2015.
The incident was recorded on video, which showed the officer waving a canister and screaming at passers-by to back up before spraying some of them.
The civil-rights complaint, which sought damages to be determined at trial, said Hagopian suffered difficulty breathing, anxiety and stress after being pepper-sprayed, and that he missed some of his 2-year-old son’s birthday party as he treated his injuries.
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Earlier, Hagopian had filed a $500,000 claim against the city.
The case was dismissed in U.S. District Court in Seattle on Monday, after the settlement was reached last month with no admission of liability on the city’s part nor additional payment to Hagopian’s attorneys.
The Seattle Police Department’s handling of the incident sparked controversy when Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant and then-Councilmember Nick Licata joined with Hagopian at a news conference in October to question why the officer who sprayed him had received a verbal reprimand rather than a stiffer penalty.
Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole issued the reprimand after the department’s Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) recommended a one-day suspension.
When the incident occurred, Hagopian was “escorting an unpermitted protest following a permitted march,” according to the OPA. An overhead view of the encounter also was caught on video.
The OPA determined the use of spray was not reasonable, necessary or proportional and it determined Hagopian posed no threat.
Hagopian’s attorney, James Bible, said Tuesday that he and his client are “at peace” with the monetary settlement and now will work toward achieving police accountability, particularly involving marches and protests.
Sandra DeLaFuente, the officer who sprayed Hagopian, was ordered shortly before the incident to help form a “mobile fence line” at Westlake Avenue North and Republican Street to prevent a group of people from moving toward a highway, according to an OPA account.
As several protesters pushed past police, DeLaFuente “used a generalized stream of (pepper) spray in a sweeping motion” toward people walking laterally to her, hitting at least two individuals and possibly others with the spray, according to the account.
In October, O’Toole defended her decision to modify the officer’s punishment.
DeLaFuente is “not an evil person.” O’Toole said. “She has a great reputation. She’s very impressive. She has a great record. Her colleagues respect her. The community respects her. This woman is a wonderful role model. It would be an injustice if she was misportrayed in this instance. She made a mistake. She owned up to it.”
The chief said issuing a reprimand was motivated by three factors. First, there weren’t enough police officers at the scene.
Second, there were no lieutenants there to make the decision on whether to use pepper spray, the chief said. The department requires such decisions be made by personnel with the rank of lieutenant or higher.
And third, the chief said, DeLaFuente believed another officer was seriously hurt.
“Her instinct and her adrenaline was survival instinct. She just started spraying to get people out of the way and Jesse Hagopian walked by,” O’Toole said.
Hagopian said in October that hearing that DeLaFuente would receive only a reprimand was “deeply painful.”
“If someone with definitive proof of being assaulted by an officer and someone who has such deep connections … can’t receive justice, then how is anybody supposed to feel safe in this city?” he asked.