A lawsuit filed by a 74-year-old Seattle man who was held at gunpoint and painfully handcuffed by police in his own home claims the department has a “policy, practice and custom” of using “welfare checks” to enter people’s homes without warrants.
To illustrate the allegations, the man’s attorneys posted a YouTube video that meshes Seattle police dispatch tapes, Computer-Assisted Dispatch entries and body-camera video to highlight the ordeal of Howard McCay, a retired computer programmer, longshoreman and homeowner who woke from a nap one February evening in 2019 to find a cadre of armed officers in his house.
Note: The video embedded below was compiled, edited and published on YouTube by McCay’s attorneys. It includes content that may be disturbing.
The officers, including one armed with an assault-style patrol rifle equipped with a flashlight, ordered a dazed McCay out of his bedroom with his hands up, holding a cellphone connected to 911 dispatch, which McCay had called to report intruders. When he exited the bedroom — where he had been sleeping with the television turned up — the officers ordered him to drop the phone, turn around and lift his shirt to show he wasn’t hiding a weapon, then had him kneel with his hands on his head.
The video shows McCay cooperating as officers point handguns at him. “What did I do?” he asked at one point.
“The officers did not explain why there were in the house, nor did they seek to verify Mr. McCay’s name, residence or purpose in the home,” wrote Seattle lawyer Joseph Shaeffer in a lawsuit filed last year in U.S. District Court.
In a response filed earlier this year, the city’s attorneys don’t dispute many of the factual allegations, which were caught on body camera, but challenge the phrasing and conclusions reached by McCay’s lawyers — that officers used unnecessary force in securing McCay and illegally entered his home to do so.
Sgt. Randall Huserik, a spokesperson for SPD, said the ongoing litigation prevents the department from responding.
The incident was referred to the Office of Police Accountability, which investigated McCay’s claims that officers used excessive force, particularly McCay’s claim that officers “slammed” him to the ground. An investigation concluded in August 2019 found the claims were unfounded. It did not address Shaeffer’s legal allegations that department policy dictating under what circumstances an officer can enter a private home is unconstitutional.
The OPA found that the officer’s cautious, armed approach to the situation was warranted.
McCay, who in an interview Tuesday said he suffered a shoulder injury while working as a longshoreman in 1999, said that when the officers tried to rotate his arms behind his back to cuff him the pain became “excruciating.” Body camera video from several officers at the scene shows McCay writhing on the ground.
“Please! I’m an old man! I have shoulder problems!” McCay yelped as two officers held him down and attempted to cuff him — at that point, there were four officers in the home. Within the next few minutes, according to the lawsuit, there would be 10. An officer, identified in the lawsuit as Joshua Brilla, replied, “Well thank you for telling us, but you gotta give us a second here … We’re not going to leave you alone.”
Officers had responded to McCay’s Cherry Hill neighborhood home the evening of Feb. 23, 2019, after a passing citizen reported that the home’s doors were open and that he thought it looked like “someone may have torn through the house.” The caller said that he didn’t believe it was an emergency and had reported the incident on the department’s nonemergency number. About 50 minutes after the call, three officers were dispatched to check on the home. They arrived and waited for a fourth — armed with a rifle — before going to the front door, according to the lawsuit and body-camera video obtained by McCay through public disclosure.
The officers twice knocked loudly and announced themselves, telling anyone in the home to show themselves and come out with their hands up. They then entered the home, guns at the ready, and began searching ground-floor rooms.
“As even the most basic records inquiry would have revealed, the owner and sole occupant of the house was Howard McCay,” the lawsuit states.
Upstairs, McCay said he had been sick and was sleeping heavily when he heard the commotion downstairs. He called 911 and was told that the individuals in his home were police officers and that he should cooperate with them.
“Can you tell them to put their guns away and not be so threatening?” McCay asked the dispatcher in a recording obtained by McCay and now in possession of his attorneys. The dispatcher explained that the officers were conducting a “house check” and could not do that, and that he should cooperate.
“And I did,” McCay said Tuesday. “I don’t blame the individual officers. They were just following protocol,” which Shaeffer and McCay’s legal team believes violates protections against illegal searches and seizures and requirements that police obtain warrants in all but the most exigent circumstances.
“I don’t think they should have been sent at all,” McCay added, saying that the passerby’s concerns about an open door or whether someone was sick could better be handled by emergency medical technicians or social workers better able to assess and react without pointing guns at people.
“This was a horrible experience,” he said.
After lying on the ground for several minutes, McCay was asked if he lived there. He responded that he did and had for the past 48 years. McCay remained handcuffed as officers told him to get to his feet.
“Hold me so I don’t fall,” asked McCay, who was struggling to balance on the stairs.
An officer, identified in the lawsuit and on body camera video as Scott LaPierre, responded: “Stand up on your own. If you fall, it’s on you.”
McCay then slid down several stairs, crying out, as LaPierre said “You’re doing this to yourself. Use your legs.”
Another officer, identified as Brendan Sullivan, eventually helped McCay make his way to the front porch, where police took his wallet and confirmed his identity and that he lived at that address.