Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole has found Officer Cynthia Whitlatch violated department policies when she arrested a 69-year-old African-American man using a golf club as a cane. Whitlatch accused the man of swinging the club as a weapon.
Seattle police Officer Cynthia Whitlatch was fired Tuesday over her arrest of an African-American man carrying a golf club as a cane, in what Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole labeled a case of biased and overly aggressive policing.
O’Toole sustained findings by the department’s Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) that Whitlatch violated department policies regarding bias, discretion and de-escalating confrontations.
But O’Toole modified findings that Whitlatch had no basis to stop Wingate or use minimal force while detaining him, determining the evidence was inconclusive.
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Whitlatch, 48, defended herself throughout the internal investigation, insisting she acted properly. She also portrayed herself as the victim of discrimination because she is white.
O’Toole, in her termination order, cited Whitlatch’s defiance, noting that even in hindsight, Whitlatch had failed to recognize her misconduct and the damage it had done to community trust.
“Without this ability to learn from your mistakes, understand how you can improve and do better, and recognize your own errors, you are unable to effectively function as an officer,” O’Toole wrote.
O’Toole said Whitlatch’s response dissuaded her from considering Whitlatch for a lengthy suspension, disciplinary transfer to a unit that doesn’t interact with the public and removal from the sergeant’s promotional registry.
Whitlatch’s actions previously sparked strong condemnation from the community, including a February march of protesters carrying golf clubs as canes.
Ron Smith, president of the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, issued a statement Tuesday, saying, “I am disappointed that Chief O’Toole caved into the enormous political pressure surrounding this case.”
Smith said the guild now will take up whether to file an appeal.
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.
The two engaged in a heated verbal exchange, captured on patrol-car video, in which Wingate denied swinging the club. Wingate was booked into jail for investigation of unlawful use of a weapon and obstructing a police officer.
O’Toole’s termination order noted Wingate showed no recognition of Whitlatch when she stopped him, saying “huh?” and “what’s going on” during the encounter.
Whitlatch raised her voice and repeatedly demanded Wingate put down the club, while he never acted in an “aggressive or threatening manner,” O’Toole wrote.
A closer look
City prosecutors pursued only a weapon charge, and Wingate agreed to a continuance of his case, under which the misdemeanor charge would be dropped in two years if he met court conditions.
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.
Whitlatch’s racial views subsequently emerged as an issue 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., over the fatal police shooting of an African-American man on Aug. 9, 2014. In her post, she criticized “black peoples (sic) paranoia” in assuming whites are “out to get them.”
The OPA had already looked into that matter, referring it for supervisory counseling.
But Whitlatch’s overall racial views led to an internal recommendation that she be fired over the encounter with Wingate. She claimed during the internal investigation that she was being targeted because she is white, and noted Best and the judge who dismissed the case against Wingate are both African American.
O’Toole, in the termination order, wrote that she was troubled by Whitlatch’s belief the decisions were race driven and “not the legitimate factual and legal analysis by thoughtful and dedicated public servants.”
“Your perceptions of race and other protected categories appear to be so deeply seated that they likely impacted the authoritarian manner in which you treated this man and your refusal to deviate from that approach towards an individual whose actions did not warrant such treatment,” O’Toole wrote.
An earlier department report noted Whitlatch had been previously disciplined and counseled for “unprofessional conduct,” including a verbal reprimand in 2002 over a traffic stop and a written reprimand in 1998 stemming from a personal dispute over $1.04 at a retail store.
Whitlatch told the OPA she detained Wingate after she heard a “big clank,” saw Wingate hit the sign with the golf club and deemed it was a “threat toward a police officer.”
She said 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.”
In a second OPA interview, Whitlatch acknowledged that she didn’t see Wingate actually make contact with the stop sign, but saw a motion, heard a clang and saw Wingate “glaring” at her.
O’Toole, in modifying the OPA findings, found it inconclusive whether Whitlatch lacked reasonable suspicion to stop Wingate. In turn, she also found inconclusive a finding that Whitlatch improperly used force when she held down Wingate’s wrist while searching his pockets.
O’Toole, as required, explained her reasoning in a letter to the mayor and City Council.
In a statement Tuesday, City Council President Tim Burgess said, “The chief of police has sent a strong and appropriate signal. Officer behavior that compromises public trust is not acceptable in Seattle.”
Smith, the police guild president, reiterated Tuesday his belief that the department “blatantly violated” a requirement 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, according to Smith.
Wingate sued the city and Whitlatch in April, alleging race discrimination, false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress and violation of his civil rights.
Whitlatch’s Facebook post contributed to the police department’s development of a sweeping social-media policy that went into effect March 1, which bars officers from privately posting comments that reflect negatively on the department and its ability to serve the community.