Officers Scott Miller and Michael Spaulding allege that the Seattle City Council member damaged their reputations by saying that they had carried out a “brutal murder.” The two later were officially cleared of wrongdoing in the 2016 shooting.
The two Seattle police officers who fatally shot Che Taylor last year have filed a defamation lawsuit against City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, alleging she falsely declared they had committed a “brutal murder” before they were cleared of wrongdoing by an inquest jury.
The suit, filed Friday in King County Superior Court, was brought against Sawant as an individual.
Efforts to reach Sawant for comment Tuesday were not successful.
The highly unusual suit does not name the city of Seattle or the Seattle City Council as defendants, pointedly stating that Officers Scott Miller and Michael Spaulding “do not want one red cent of public money.”
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“This is a complaint seeking damages against one individual who, acting in her own capacity and only on her own behalf, defamed two good men,” the suit says, without specifying a sum.
Miller and Spaulding “do a hard job for modest pay and little thanks — realities they accept,” the suit adds. “But what they do not accept, and what the law does not permit, is having their reputations ruined by an ambitious politician, doing so for personal gain.”
The lawsuit says that about five days after the shooting, Sawant appeared before a crowd and news media in front of the Police Department.
While her appearance was not official city business or a legislative function, Sawant “implied awareness of inside factual information,” the suit alleges.
“With gravitas established, she went on to pronounce Che Taylor’s death a ‘brutal murder’ and product of ‘racial profiling,’ ’’ the suit says.
Earlier this year, a King County inquest jury found that the officers believed Taylor, 46, posed a threat of death or serious injury when Miller and Spaulding shot him on Feb. 21, 2016, while trying to arrest him as a felon in unlawful possession of a firearm.
The two officers, who are white, were conducting an undercover operation in search of another man wanted on a drug warrant when Taylor, an African American, arrived in a car, jurors were told during the fact-finding proceeding.
The officers testified that they recognized Taylor and knew he had a criminal history.
Miller testified he saw a handgun in a holster on Taylor’s right hip as Taylor left the car and informed Spaulding.
When they confronted him, the officers testified, Taylor crouched and reached to his right hip, with his elbow bent in a motion consistent with drawing a gun. Both officers said Taylor’s body blocked their view of his hip, but they were convinced he was reaching for a gun.
Jurors unanimously agreed that Taylor showed his hands and moved downward after the officers gave him commands. They also found Spaulding had reason to believe Taylor was drawing a gun, and six jurors concluded Miller thought Taylor was drawing a gun, while two answered “unknown.”
Taylor, who was standing next to another car, had ignored commands to get on the ground, the officers said.
Taylor fell into an open door of the car after being shot, the officers testified.
All eight jurors found that a handgun was later recovered from under the seat.
Lawyers for Taylor’s family raised questions about whether Taylor was armed when he was confronted and whether the gun found in the car had been there before the shooting. They also questioned whether Taylor was given conflicting, confusing and overlapping commands from Spaulding and Miller and other officers backing them.
The shooting came at a time of heightened scrutiny nationwide into the police use of deadly force against African-American males. The president of the Seattle King County NAACP called the shooting “coldblooded murder.”
A Seattle police review board found last year the shooting fell within department policy and, after the inquest, King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg declined to bring criminal charges against Spaulding and Miller.
Sawant’s statements before the inquest weren’t couched as opinion and she did not acknowledge the ongoing investigation, according to the suit.
“She, instead, tried and convicted the officers herself in the court of public opinion,” the suit alleges.
Despite the inquest ruling, Sawant continues to refer to the shooting as a “murder” and publicly asserts the officers avoided “accountability,” the suit says.
Sawant has not responded to the officers’ request to retract her statements, the suit says.
The officers face the steep hurdle of proving that Sawant, as a public official, acted with malice and reckless disregard of the truth, said Ronald Collins, a law professor and First Amendment expert at the University of Washington.
They also must show Sawant was speaking specifically about the two officers, not the police in general, Collins said.
The suit alleges Sawant pronounced the officers to be “murderers,” although it is unclear if she is being accused of using that specific word.
Adam Rosenberg, one of two attorneys for the officers, wrote in an email that their clients directed them to not comment on the suit.
“It’s their feeling, as detailed in the complaint, that the process of sorting right from wrong should play out in a courtroom, not the court of public opinion,” Rosenberg wrote.
Collins said the matter is basically a conflict between public officials over a public issue.
“This is not the kind of case that belongs in a courtroom, but should be judged instead in the court of public opinion,” he said, adding, “This is the candidate par excellence for an uninhibited, robust discussion of public issues.”
Seattle attorney Michele Earl-Hubbard, who practices First Amendment law, said Sawant, as a public official, doesn’t have absolute immunity for her comments but might have a qualified privilege that “could be pierced” if it is shown she knowingly made false statements.
Seattle First Amendment attorney Bruce E.H. Johnson said he has not seen another lawsuit like it in more than 40 years of practice. “It’s very strange,” said Johnson, whose firm represents The Seattle Times.
Under a city ordinance, City Council President Bruce Harrell will decide if the city will pay Sawant’s legal costs, based on whether her conduct fell within the scope of Sawant’s official duties.