Officer Cynthia Whitlatch will be given the chance to plead her case after she was notified Monday she faces termination over the arrest of a 69-year-old African-American man who was carrying a golf club as a cane but she accused of wielding as a weapon.
Seattle police Officer Cynthia Whitlatch was notified Monday she faces termination over the arrest of a 69-year-old African-American man who was carrying a golf club as a cane but she accused of wielding as a weapon, according to sources familiar with the matter.
Under department disciplinary procedures, Whitlatch, 48, will be given an opportunity to plead her case at a meeting next month with Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole before O’Toole issues a final decision, according to one source.
An internal investigation into Whitlatch’s July 9, 2014, arrest of William Wingate sustained a variety of policy violations, including biased policing, another source said.
Ron Smith, president of the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild confirmed the notification and pending meeting with the chief.
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He sharply criticized the findings and termination recommendation, saying he has lost confidence in the department’s Office of Professional Accountability (OPA), which conducted the internal investigation.
He vowed to appeal if O’Toole upholds the recommendation, asserting the department was throwing “spaghetti noodles against the wall to see how many will stick.”
The department declined to comment on the status of the case, but the OPA’s civilian director, Pierce Murphy, issued a statement:
“The OPA conducted a thorough and objective investigation into the allegations of bias and improper conduct raised in this case, an investigation that has been certified by both me and the independent civilian OPA Auditor.
“After careful review and consideration of all the evidence, I recommended that the Chief of Police sustain the allegations and end the involved officer’s employment. I stand by the quality and objectivity of OPA’s independent investigation, as well as my recommendations to the Chief.”
Wingate’s arrest unleased a firestorm of public criticism when patrol-car video of Whitlatch’s confrontation with him was made public in January.
Whitlatch, who is white, also came under scrutiny over the disclosure that, within two months after the arrest, her Facebook page included racially charged comments relating to the turmoil that erupted in Ferguson, Mo., after a young African-American man, Michael Brown, was shot and killed Aug. 9 by a white police officer.
Police said they had apologized for the arrest and returned Wingate’s golf club, acting after a former state representative raised questions about the case.
The OPA then opened the internal investigation and O’Toole ultimately placed Whitlatch on paid leave pending the outcome.
Wingate was on his daily, 10-mile walk, using the golf club as a cane, when, according to official accounts, Whitlatch stopped him on Capitol Hill, claiming he swung the club in a threatening manner, striking a stop sign, while she was driving past in her patrol car.
Video from her patrol car did not capture Wingate swinging the club, raising questions about Whitlatch’s account.
Smith, in his comments Monday, said there is no evidence showing that Wingate did not swing the club.
The video captured Whitlatch circling the block, pulling up alongside Wingate and repeatedly ordering him to drop the golf club.
On the video, Wingate denies any wrongdoing, refuses to drop the club and tells Whitlatch to call somebody — presumably a supervisor or another officer.
Smith said Whitlatch didn’t escalate a confrontation marked by her constant use of “please” and “sir” and Wingate’s refusal to comply with her requests. He noted Wingate complied with a male officer who arrived at the scene.
Wingate, a military veteran and former King County Metro Transit bus driver, was arrested and booked into jail for investigation of unlawful use of a weapon and obstructing a public 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 dismissed the entire case.
The OPA’s internal investigation into Whitlatch’s conduct did not formally include the Facebook post, which was critical of “black peoples (sic) paranoia” in assuming whites are “out to get them,” and cited the Ferguson riots that followed the shooting of Brown.
The OPA had previously determined the post involved off-duty conduct and referred the matter for supervisory counseling.
But the department is seeking to use the post as backdrop to support a bias finding in Wingate’s arrest, Smith said, even though the post has nothing do with happened at the time of the arrest.
He stressed the union wasn’t insensitive to concerns in the African-American community about the post, but that the department’s case hadn’t been proved by clear and convincing evidence.
The post played a role in the police department’s development of a sweeping new 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.
Another officer’s Twitter posts in which he ranted about race, gays, President Obama and other subjects also preceded the new policy.
In April, Wingate, now 70, filed a lawsuit in King County Superior Court after his precursor claim seeking at least $750,000 in damages went unanswered by the city. Named in the suit were the city of Seattle and Whitlatch.
The suit alleges Wingate was targeted because he is black. It also noted the Facebook post.
Since his arrest, the lawsuit says, Wingate has been treated for depression and post-traumatic stress and is fearful of police officers he doesn’t know.
Whitlatch was hired by the city in 1997.
After Wingate’s arrest, she expressed strong displeasure with prosecutors for not pursuing a charge of obstructing a public officer in addition to the weapon charge, according to an email exchange.
“As far as obstruction cases go this guy was one of the most obstinate, uncooperative, and obstructive suspects I’ve dealt with in my 17+ years in patrol,” Whitlatch wrote. “He received warning after warning. I would like to see him charged.”
Smith also confirmed the internal investigation didn’t sustain allegations, made by an ex-girlfriend of Whitlatch’s, that Whitlatch had made racist comments in the past and previously took marijuana from evidence for her personal use.