The city of Seattle has paid nearly $160,000 to settle a federal civil-rights lawsuit in which a veteran police officer with a significant history of discipline for unprofessional and questionable behavior tackled a belligerent man who was handcuffed in a holding cell in 2015.
The settlement was finalized Feb. 28 by U.S. District Judge Thomas Zilly, who entered judgment against the city in a lawsuit filed by Alonzo Price-Holt against Officer Zsolt Dornay and the police department. The settlement, offered by the city, paid Price-Holt, a 25-year-old African-American man, $100,001. His attorneys were paid $58,989 to cover their fees and costs.
Dornay was given 30 days off without pay for the use of unnecessary force, the most serious penalty the department can render short of dismissal, according to records from the Office of Police Accountability (OPA). It was Dornay’s third 30-day suspension in a 25-year career with SPD that included a controversial off-duty shooting near Pike Place Market in 2006 and a drunken-driving conviction in 2010, according to records and news accounts.
Dornay, 49, who was hired by the department in 1994, works as an officer in the West Patrol operations bureau, said department spokesman Sgt. Sean Whitcomb.
The lawsuit and a subsequent OPA investigation showed Dornay and another officer had encountered Price-Holt during a domestic-violence call the evening of Sept. 13, 2015, at an apartment on Capitol Hill. The officers said they had no cause to arrest anyone for that incident, but learned a few minutes later that Price-Holt had an outstanding arrest warrant for theft out of King County. The lawsuit alleges the officers returned to the apartment and Price-Holt was arrested, roughly taken to the ground and handcuffed using an “unauthorized” technique that placed strain on his wrists and shoulders.
He was handcuffed so tightly that the manacles left “circumferential” contusions on his wrist, according to reports and photographs of the injury contained in the OPA report. The investigation showed that Price-Holt complained at least twice that the shackles were too tight while on his way to the precinct, but that Dornay did not loosen them for nearly an hour, and then only after a sergeant had arrived to talk to Price-Holt about the incident inside the cell. That conversation prompted investigations by the department’s Force Investigation Team (FIT) and the OPA.
After his arrest, Price-Holt had been placed in the bare holding cell after being booked. He screamed, cursed and repeatedly kicked the locked plexiglass door, according to reports and video of the incident. The investigation pointed out that he was wearing sheepskin slippers that were unlikely to do much damage. Even so, Dornay decided after a couple of minutes that he would confiscate Price-Holt’s shoes to discourage the inmate from damaging the door or hurting himself, according to OPA documents.
Surveillance video shows Dornay charging into the room as Price-Holt retreats, his arms cuffed behind him. The officer grabs him and takes him roughly to the ground, where they scuffle as another officer, identified as Jesse Thomas, joins Dornay in trying to control the prisoner. During the tussle, Thomas was kicked in the head before Dornay managed to pry the slippers off the struggling man’s feet and exit the room. Price-Holt scrambled to his feet, followed them and kicked the door again.
The FIT investigation concluded that Dornay violated a department policy that prohibits the use of force against restrained subjects except in “exceptional” circumstances, and criticized him for failing to make an effort to de-escalate the situation before going hands-on with a handcuffed and obviously upset prisoner. Thomas and two other officers who had minor involvement were cleared of wrongdoing, with investigators concluding they were only responding to help Dornay.
Based on the officer’s statements, Price-Holt was charged by prosecutors with felony assault after the incident. Those charges were dismissed, as were the theft charges for which he was originally arrested, according to the lawsuit and court records.
Reports indicate that Price-Holt was resistant, argumentative and verbally abusive when he was arrested and the behavior continued when he and officers arrived at the West Precinct. During an inventory of his property, Price-Holt’s glasses were knocked off his face and taken from him. Price-Holt claims an officer slapped them off his face; the officers allege Price-Holt was squirming and resisting and they were knocked off by accident. Regardless, they were not returned to him for several hours, although SPD policy says they should not have been taken, according to OPA documents.
The incident inside the cell lasted about 31 seconds and Price-Holt was not seriously hurt, according to the documents.
Price-Holt sued in 2017. Last November, the city made an unusual offer to settle the case, invoking a settlement rule in federal court: The city would accept liability and Price-Holt would be paid $100,001 and attorneys’ fees, or he could reject the offer and take the case to trial on the gamble of a larger jury verdict. However, if a jury awarded less than the $100,001 offer, Price-Holt would have to pay his own attorneys as well as trial costs for the city.
Price-Holt took the deal, and last month Zilly awarded Price-Holt’s attorneys, James Bible Jr. and Jesse Alvarez, almost double what the city had recommended they be paid. Final judgment was entered against the city this month.
Dornay has a checkered history as a police officer, including numerous referrals for internal investigations, according to news accounts. He’s been praised as an aggressive street cop and a skilled investigator — he was once named officer of the year — but has shown lapses in judgment that have landed him in trouble. In perhaps the most notorious incident, Dornay was involved in a Post Alley melee in 2006 in which he shot and seriously wounded an attorney who allegedly was part of a group of men who had attacked Dornay after he drove his motorcycle through a crowd of revelers. Dornay was hospitalized with serious injuries. The man he shot survived.
Comment was sought from Dornay through the Seattle Police Officer’s Guild. SPOG media spokesman Rich O’Neill did not return a call seeking comment. Chief Carmen Best did not respond to an inquiry sent through a spokesman about Dornay’s continued employment as an officer.
In 2010, Dornay was convicted of drunken driving in Grays Harbor County in a case in which the arresting Washington State Patrol trooper said Dornay flashed his SPD identification and seemed to be asking for “a courtesy” when he was stopped. Dornay was convicted by a jury and given a 30-day suspension for that incident.
In 2012, he was given two days off for being unprofessional during a conversation with a Snohomish County sheriff’s dispatcher and, the following year, was given another 30-day suspension after allegedly driving his vehicle onto his neighbor’s front lawn and spinning his tires, causing property damage, according to OPA records. He was charged with malicious mischief and destruction of property. OPA documents indicate he challenged the 30-day suspension through the Seattle Police Officer’s Guild. The outcome of that challenge was not available.