Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole must decide whether to accept an internal recommendation to fire Officer Cynthia Whitlatch, who last year arrested a 69-year-old man carrying a golf club as a cane that she considered to be a weapon.
In the coming days, Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole will make her most politically charged disciplinary decision since she took the job 14 months ago.
O’Toole must decide whether to accept an internal recommendation to fire Officer Cynthia Whitlatch over her July 2014 arrest of a then-69-year-old African-American man carrying a golf club as a cane that she considered to be a weapon.
Whitlatch’s racial views also came under scrutiny when it was disclosed that, within two months of the arrest, she posted a comment on her Facebook page in the aftermath of riots in Ferguson, Mo., after the fatal police shooting of an African-American man. In her post, she criticized black “peoples (sic) paranoia” in assuming whites are “out to get them.”
The head of the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild has made it clear he thinks the recommendation by the department’s Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) is flawed and vows a vigorous appeal if O’Toole fires Whitlatch.
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“I thoroughly believe if she is terminated, she will have her job back,” said Guild President Ron Smith.
But anything short of termination almost certainly would unleash a strong reaction from many in Seattle, particularly in the African-American community. In February, the man who was arrested by Whitlatch, William Wingate, led a march in which protesters carried golf clubs as canes.
Wingate also sued the city and Whitlatch in April, alleging race discrimination, false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress and violation of his civil rights.
Compounding the tension was the release last week of documents that formed the basis of a recommendation to fire Whitlatch for violating various department policies, including rules regarding stops, biased policing and de-escalating confrontations.
The documents show Whitlatch was anything but contrite, even painting herself as the victim of discrimination because she is white.
The records were released to The Stranger newspaper by the Police Department under a new public-disclosure policy. The newspaper, in a story on the documents, posted them on its website.
Previously, records relating to the work of the OPA, which handles internal investigations, were not made public until the police made a disciplinary decision. Now, the records will be released when OPA closes an investigation and submits its findings to the chief.
Copies of the documents were later released to The Seattle Times.
Smith, who was infuriated by the sudden policy change, said he is worried that disclosure of the documents will “fuel public opinion” before O’Toole acts.
In its story, The Stranger reported that O’Toole wrote one of the documents — a proposed disciplinary report and termination notice sent to Whitlatch — before the officer met with the chief Aug. 21 to offer her side of the case.
It made O’Toole appear to have preconceived views.
But O’Toole didn’t write the report; it was prepared by a department employment lawyer, with input from police commanders and civilian staff, according to Brian Maxey, the department’s senior legal counsel.
The report states that Whitlatch lacked “reasonable suspicion” to stop Wingate; acted combatively; and used unnecessary force when she held his hand on her patrol-car’s hood while searching his pockets.
It doesn’t specifically mention her Facebook post, which was previously handled with supervisory counseling. Nor does it find she used racial slurs during the encounter with Wingate.
But the report states that Whitlatch’s actions and statements, during the incident and the recent past, indicate that she felt unfairly treated by African Americans, and notes her perceptions of race appeared so “deeply seated” they influenced unwarranted and aggressive treatment of Wingate.
When O’Toole reaches her decision, she will issue a final report with her signature.
Wingate was arrested July 9, 2014, while on his daily 10-mile walk, using the golf club as a cane. Whitlatch stopped him on Capitol Hill and, according to official accounts, claimed Wingate swung the club in a threatening manner, striking a stop sign, while she was driving past in her patrol car.
During the internal investigation, Whitlatch initially told the OPA she heard a “big clank,” saw Wingate hit the sign with the golf club and stopped him for making a “threat toward a police officer.”
Whitlatch defended the stop, which was captured on patrol-car video, saying she initially didn’t intend to arrest Wingate but that he was “extremely hostile” and “more obstructive than almost anybody else I’ve ever dealt with.”
Asked if race played a role in her interactions with Wingate, she replied, “Absolutely not. And it’s actually quite insulting that I’m being accused of that. And I have, I’m not really sure I would be here if my race was different, so I’m kind of upset about that.”
Explaining, she added, “Would I be here if I was black?”
In a second OPA interview, Whitlatch acknowledged that she didn’t see Wingate actually make contact with the stop sign. She also referred to Wingate angrily “glaring” at her.
Wingate was booked into jail for investigation of unlawful use of a weapon and obstructing a police officer.
City prosecutors pursued only the weapon offense, and Wingate quickly agreed to a continuance of his case, under which the misdemeanor charge would be dropped in two years if he met court conditions.
But prosecutors later moved to dismiss the entire case, after a former state representative raised questions about the arrest. A judge accepted the dismissal, and the police department’s deputy chief, Carmen Best, ultimately apologized to Wingate for his arrest and returned his golf club.
In her OPA interviews, according to the documents, Whitlatch commented on the outcome, noting the judge who dismissed the case and Best were both African American.
“The judge was black and the Chief is black, so I mean to me … how does that look? It, it doesn’t support the officer, that’s for sure. I, I mean how can you have a Chief take the weapon back to the guy who swung it at an officer? I really have a hard time accepting that.”
Smith, the guild president, said officers, during a training course about race and the power of illusion, are told that their perceptions form their reality. Whitlatch is potentially being punished for being honest about her perceptions, he said.
In July, Smith said, O’Toole met with guild members and was asked if she would ever fire anyone for political reasons.
O’Toole insisted she would not, Smith said.
Smith said the department also failed to complete the investigation within a required 180-day limit. Police should have opened it in September 2014, when two commanders learned of the matter at a meeting with community members, not in January of this year as was the case, he said.