A 30-year-old protester who remains hospitalized after police tried to arrest him for alleged property damage during a Capitol Hill demonstration Wednesday night was brought to the ground by police before he stopped moving, according to officer body-camera footage the Seattle Police Department released Thursday evening.
Details about what led to Kel Murphy-Duford’s detainment and his current condition remain vague. While the city’s Office of Police Accountability (OPA) said he had a “medical event” and there’s no indication that it was related to police use of force, Murphy-Duford’s attorney said an officer “slammed” him to the ground and “his head hit the pavement hard.”
Seattle Fire Department spokesperson David Cuerpo confirmed fire crews took a person in stable condition to Harborview Medical Center at about 10 p.m. Wednesday night but declined to say whether the person was conscious at the time, citing patient privacy.
Harborview spokesperson Susan Gregg said the patient was transported to the hospital in critical condition on Wednesday night. By Thursday evening, his condition was “serious and improving,” and by Friday morning his condition was satisfactory, Gregg said.
The incident has been added to an ongoing lawsuit against the city of Seattle, King County and Washington state alleging excessive police force at protests this summer. Many of the protesters, including Murphy-Duford, are represented by Stritmatter Law Firms and Cedar Law PLLC.
In the surveillance and body-camera footage provided Thursday evening, bike officers can be seen leaving the East Precinct and starting to make arrests. They grab Murphy-Duford, whose face is blurred out, and are heard yelling at him to roll onto his stomach and to “stop fighting us.”
“Relax your arms — you are under arrest,” one officer yells.
He’s on his stomach as officers place handcuffs on him, and he can be seen laying still as they instruct him to roll back over onto his side and sit up.
Once the officers notice he isn’t moving, they ask him, “Do you have any injuries?”
When he doesn’t respond, an officer tells another to call Fire Department medics to the scene, the video shows. As they wait for medics to arrive, they roll him onto his side and check his pulse and breathing. Both “feel normal,” the officers say to each other.
Murphy-Duford’s attorney, Karen Koehler, said that “witnesses heard the crack on impact” when his head hit the ground. Bike officers “piled” onto him as he was motionless and “face down on the ground,” she wrote in a Thursday afternoon statement, which she said was based on witness reports.
Officers prevented other protesters from coming to his aid, according to Koehler, and shone lights at them, which they said blocked them from filming Murphy-Duford or seeing what was going on.
“Our legal team is upset and appalled by this incident,” Koehler wrote. “There has been no reassuring news yet from his doctors. On his behalf, we demand immediate answers from the City.”
Office of Police Accountability Director Andrew Myerberg was notified about the incident at midnight and went to the scene, said OPA spokesperson Anne Bettesworth Thursday.
“There is no indication at this point that the medical event was related to the force used by the officers to take the individual into custody,” Bettesworth said in an email, although the OPA is still reviewing officers’ body-camera video “to determine whether there is any identifiable misconduct that warrants further investigation.”
Bettesworth said the OPA came to that conclusion based on information from Harborview and body-camera video showing the person was “actively moving, including resisting the officers’ attempts to handcuff them, for close to 30 seconds after the takedown, and the lack of any strikes or other hard impacts to the ground during that time.”
“This doesn’t foreclose the possibility that somehow the force caused the medical event, but, given what we know so far, it appears unlikely,” Bettesworth said. The OPA has not received any complaints about the incident but will investigate if the office receives a complaint, she said.
Murphy-Duford was part of a small group of protesters that marched through Capitol Hill on Wednesday evening as part of a nightly demonstration against police violence and racial injustice. On Thursday, police said officers arrested seven people total throughout the night, alleging crimes including obstruction, property damage, pedestrian interference and assaulting an officer.
Shortly after 10 p.m., people with the group near the precinct began posting to social media about a person on the ground, who they said did not appear to be moving after police had arrived in the area.
SPD’s Force Investigations Team, which reviews certain uses of police force, was reviewing the incident, police said.
Disagreements over what prompted Murphy-Duford’s hospitalization continued to circulate throughout Thursday.
In an online post Thursday evening, the Police Department said they believed it was “potentially related to a substance the subject had ingested prior to police contact.”
Koehler responded by saying they were “outraged at the libelous entry.”
“This latest unsupportable blog entry is designed to turn public attention away from police misconduct and towards a victim who currently is unable to speak or stand up for himself,” Koehler said in a statement following the Police Department’s post.
The statement continued, “Not that it is anyone’s business. But Kel has diabetes and takes insulin.”
According to Koehler, police hadn’t received any new information from Murphy-Duford’s doctors because of Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) laws, and that neither he nor his husband had given the hospital permission to speak to law enforcement. As of 5:50 p.m., he was still intubated and unconscious, she said.
“We suggest that the SPD stop trying to shift blame. And stop defaming Kel,” she said in the statement.
Murphy-Duford was also injured when he was hit by a tear-gas canister and other police crowd-control weapons during a July protest on Capitol Hill, according to the ongoing claim.
In several photos included in the claim, Murphy-Duford’s legs can be seen covered in contusions, in addition to extensive swelling and bruising on his hip.
“Kel has been under medical supervision for possible complications of the massive hematomas caused by this impact,” the claim said. “Even months later, Kel’s legs have not healed.”
Murphy-Duford was born and raised in Texas and studied dance at Seattle’s Cornish College for the Arts, according to his attorneys. In 2014, he married his husband, Josh, and two years later, they moved from Dallas back to Seattle.
Murphy-Duford, who his attorneys say identifies as trans-masculine, has been active in the LGBTQ+ community since he lived in Texas, including phone banking for trans rights in bathroom policies, his attorneys said. He began joining protests in June, after George Floyd’s killing in Minnesota, and has continued to participate in demonstrations about twice a week since then.
Earlier Wednesday evening, a separate group of protesters marched through Pioneer Square and downtown to call for accountability in vote counting for the presidential election, while another group rallied at Westlake Park downtown.
Correction: Based on initial information from hospital and fire officials, a previous version of this story incorrectly identified the person hospitalized as a woman.