Seattle City Council members questioned Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole on Thursday about her decision to reprimand rather than suspend an officer for wrongly pepper-spraying a high-school teacher.
Two Seattle City Council members are joining a Garfield High School history teacher who was doused with pepper spray by a police officer on Martin Luther King Jr. Day to question why the officer has received a verbal reprimand rather than a stiffer penalty.
Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole issued the reprimand recently after the department’s Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) recommended a one-day suspension.
When the incident occurred Jan. 19, the teacher, Jesse Hagopian, was “escorting an unpermitted protest following a permitted march,” according to the OPA. The encounter was caught on camera.
The OPA determined that the officer’s use of spray was not reasonable, necessary or proportional and it determined Hagopian posed no threat.
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Hagopian is an adviser to Garfield’s Black Student Union and an education, labor and civil-rights activist, supporters noted at news conference Thursday with council members Kshama Sawant and Nick Licata.
“If somebody as well-known and well-respected as Jesse Hagopian receives this kind of treatment at the hands of police and is still waiting for justice, then I would want us to think about the kind of chilling effect this would have on other community members and also on protest movements,” Sawant said.
Councilmember Nick Licata said the officer’s superiors should also be held accountable and objected to the use of pepper spray against peaceful demonstrators.
“Our focus must go beyond the actions of an individual officer,” Licata said. “We must look at the decisions taken by the command staff. Line officers follow their directions.”
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 towards people walking laterally to her, hitting at least two individuals and possibly others with the spray,” according to the account.
O’Toole, in an interview with The Seattle Times, defended her decision to modify the officer’s punishment.
“Sandra Delafuente is not an evil person. She has a great reputation. She’s very impressive. She has a great record,” O’Toole said. “Her colleagues respect her. The community respects her. This woman is 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.
O’Toole said command staff met with the OPA director to discuss punishment. After the officer pleaded her case during a hearing, command staff met with O’Toole and the OPA director to again weigh punishment.
“In this instance, we quickly came to the conclusion that she did violate department policy,” O’Toole said. “She used the pepper spray pretty indiscriminately. We collectively concluded that she should get a reprimand with retraining.”
O’Tool added: “I think I’ve demonstrated I have no problem whatsoever firing officers or holding them accountable for wrongdoing. But I have to be very fair. I have to make sure justice is served for the community and justice is served for the officer.”
Seattle Police Officers’ Guild President Ron Smith also defended the officer’s actions, saying he was enraged at Sawant.
“The chief has every authority under the city charter to impose whatever discipline she deems necessary in any certain case,” Smith said. “Sawant should stay in her own lane and worry about her role as a council member.”
Hagopian has filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit against the police department based on the spraying incident. The OPA determined there was no bias by the officer.
Hagopian on Thursday said 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.
During a council briefing Thursday morning on Mayor Ed Murray’s proposed budget, Sawant and Licata questioned O’Toole about civilian oversight of her disciplinary decisions.
The chief said she supports a proposal that she be required to notify the council when handing down punishment that differs from an OPA recommendation.
The proposal is part of a package of accountability reforms that have been under negotiation for many months. Under existing law, the chief must notify the council when she overrules OPA findings but not when she decides on a different penalty.