Punching People and the Perils of Increased Police Presence [Updated]

by Latoya Peterson

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Two days ago in Seattle, a police officer trying to arrest a woman for jay walking found himself in a sticky situation:

Seattle police say the punch came after the young woman became verbally and physically abusive after a jaywalking stop. Seattle police say it all started after an officer observed four women jaywalking across Martin Luther King Junior Way South. When the officer attempted to stop them, voices and tensions escalated. The officer was attempting to handcuff a 19-year-old woman when her 17-year-old friend tried to intervene.

In the video, you can see the 17-year-old push the officer. That’s when the officer pulls back his arm and punches the teenager in the face.

Seattle police say the officer believed the girl “was attempting to physically affect the first girl’s escape” and when she came at the officer, he “punched her.” As a crowd of people gathered around the officer and suspects, one of the witnesses videotaped the incident.

Eventually the officer managed to handcuff the first suspect as well as the girl he punched. The 19-year-old woman was booked into King County Jail for obstructing an officer. The 17-year-old girl, who was punched, was taken to the Youth Service Center for investigation of assault on an officer. Both females were cited for jaywalking.

The video has touched off a firestorm of controversy surrounding the officer’s conduct and if the officer was justified. Monica Potts, over at Tapped, argues yes. But I’m not convinced.

The facts of the case are pretty clear. Kids were jaywalking. Officer comes over attempting to arrest kid. One kid, unwisely, decides it would be a good idea to shove the police officer. Officer punches kid.

Monica argues:

Most people are probably unfamiliar with police procedure manuals, but there’s a point at which the use of force is justified. And that point comes sooner than people think. According to most patrol guide rules and legal precedent, officers can use physical force to arrest someone who is physically resisting, and they can use force to subdue someone who has become violent with them. That means officers are allowed to punch people. They’re even allowed to punch women. Officers aren’t obligated to get pushed around or injured when lawfully arresting someone, even if it turns out those arrests don’t hold up in court. Should he have punched this particular woman in this particular instance? It’s really hard to know without having been there. But I think we should, in all fairness, acknowledge that at the moment an officer is faced with two people who are ready to fight, he might not be able to have a mental debate over the subtle gradations of force that would be merited to get the situation under control — he had to act quickly, and was trained to do so. […]

We’ve decided, as a society, that officers are authorized to use force to keep the peace. We’ve also decided that they can issue tickets for jaywalking, and then if that situation is escalated for some reason then they can arrest the jaywalker. Arrests are violent things. Women sometimes get arrested. We can’t put them in a cocoon. Police departments are usually pretty bad about responding to allegations that they acted inappropriately, but they sometimes have a point in that many people don’t understand what an arrest really looks like. Many more don’t understand the procedural rules that dictate when and on whom police can use force.

But just because something is common procedure, does that make it right? I’m not feeling the justification here. Was that kid in the wrong? Hell yes. But there’s a power dynamic here that tilts the scale in favor of the police officer. He, as a trained member of the police force, has a lot more rights and avenues for recourse than the average citizen. He also has the discretion to do things like punch people in the face, arrest people, and carry a gun. It is often argued that with rights come responsibilities – and what’s happened in so many communities, particularly communities of color, is that the police take some extreme liberties with these additional rights, which leads to community distrust.

The Seattle Weekly starts shading in the background:

The incident comes a month after an officer was caught on tape threatening to “beat the fucking Mexican piss” out of a robbery suspect he then stomped on the face. King 5 says Seattle police have decided not to review tape of this latest arrest, but we’ll see what happens later once this thing circulates.

UPDATE: Deputy Chief Nick Metz told King 5 that police have concerns about the video.

“You obviously have to take into context everything that occurred from the point that the officer did make contact with the individuals until the situation ended. As I said before, we have some concerns about the tactics the officer used and employed at the time. Again, we did feel what occurred did deserve a review by the Office of Professional Accountability,” said Metz.

And there was a 2002 feature written by the Seattle Weekly, also documenting the efforts to decrease tensions between the police and the community.

Just because the officer has the discretion to do something, it doesn’t mean that’s the tactic that should be employed. If their own department “has concerns,” why are some of us so quick to justify the officer’s actions?

Police work relies on a lot of factors to be effective – community trust is one of them. And as a person who doesn’t have much, if any, police contact in her daily life, I am struck by all the narratives in my own community in DC. A situation happened last year (that Renina was there to observe with me) where I called in some friends for back up. We’re all educated and work in either advocacy or media – we all knew how badly things could go. I asked the first officer on the scene what was happening and he nastily replied he didn’t have to tell me anything, he owed me no explanation. The next officer on the scene came, apologized for the first officer’s conduct, and explained the situation. As we waited for a resolution, my friends talked about some of their experiences. How they expect to be fucked with, because that’s just how the police are. Another friend, a Latino male who works with youth, talked about the time where simply giving dap to one of his friends ended up with him being slammed against the wall and dick checked, with no further explanation or apology after no drugs were found around them. (“I was walking while Latino!” he said, still pissed three years after the fact. “Talking about me throwing shit into the bushes when my hands were full of books!”)

Police are supposed to work in service of the public, kind of like teachers. But if a teacher punches a kid that pushed them, we say the teacher was in the wrong – even though the kid was physically violent. It’s that power dynamic, again, the idea that someone with increased training and authority should work to de-escalate the situation, instead of retaliating. I don’t doubt that there are situations where teachers may be justified in decking someone. But they can’t do it without severe penalty. Yet, this idea that police are in service of the public doesn’t seem to factor into the justification of these types of actions, though the stakes are far higher. The worst of it is that this situation arose out of a desire to make residents safer. I’m waiting for a verifiable source on this, but apparently the officer was stationed near the school because motorists were concerned about the safety of the kids jaywalking after school. The idea was to ticket the kids so they would stay out of the streets and use the cross walk. Yet, somehow, this assignment started with the idea to keep kids safe and ended up with a seventeen year old being punched in the face, and both girls being arrested.

Community based work runs on trust. And the fact is, too many of us do not trust the police. I grew up in the suburbs outside of DC, where our police still wear regular uniforms with dress shoes and visit schools on a regular basis. I’m not saying that our police force is perfect and free of racial profiling – it isn’t. But when I started spending more time in DC, I was struck by how militarized the police are. They are walking around in the community, the same way the suburban cops do, but they have on riot gear, vests, and combat boots. By nature, it starts to change the dynamic of the engagement. Combine this with the observation that the police are all over the city, but are reluctant to respond to crime calls in certain precincts…it’s a recipe for mistrust. In order for the police to do the best work in our communities, the relationships cannot be adversarial. Harassing people over non-violent offenses (like the jaywalking charge that led to the punching situation) is a bad use of that discretion, and one that erodes community trust.

I’m sure we can defend this officer with the letter of the law – but at what ultimate cost?


This article at the Seattle P.I. adds another element to all of this. It’s about the ID issue (is someone required to produce ID at police request) but provides some interesting background info – actually, Seattle police have cameras in their squad cars and microphones on their uniform to record all of these incidents. So where are the tapes?

When the arresting officer was asked recently in an interview whether the ID issue was the only reason he took Rachner into custody, he said “no”. But he declined to address why his arrest reported cited ID as the only reason, and refused further comment.

Inconsistent memories are why every Seattle officer has a video camera in the squad car and a microphone on their uniform. Expanding in use nationally, they provide an unblinking witness and are automatically activated when the patrol car’s flashing lights are turned on. Cops are often more protected than citizens by these videos, but are the police willing to produce the recordings when they might be in the wrong?

Rachner repeatedly tested that question, asking for the video and audio recordings of that night’s arrest as part of pre-trial discovery and, separately, in requests under state public disclosure law. That part of the discovery request wasn’t fulfilled and the SPD denied the first disclosure request because the criminal charge was pending, records show.

On the day last May when the city attorney dropped the charges because of unexplained “proof” problems — nearly six months and more than $3,500 in defendant legal expenses after the incident — Rachner filed another disclosure request for the recordings.

The department responded: “These recordings are both past our retention period and can no longer be obtained. Please note that the majority of 911 calls and videos are retained for a period of ninety (90) days.”

“They just flat out said they didn’t have it,” said Rachner.

Police were wrong. The recordings weren’t destroyed and Rachner — just starting the next round in his fight — was the kind of person to discover that.

Commenters have pointed out some of their observations from living in Seattle and what the law actually states, which is worth a read.

Courtney wrote:

@Gregory A. Butler

According to the reports I have read, they were cited (ticketed) for jaywalking but arrested for “obstructing an officer” (the woman in the black shirt trying to get out of the cops grip) and “assaulting an officer” (the woman in the pink shirt who got punched.)

I lived in Seattle for several years, and it is very common to be cited for jaywalking (cited, not arrested.) It’s used as a decent-sized revenue stream for the city and the “don’t jaywalk” culture is strong enough that it’s common to see people standing at an intersection in the rain at 11 PM without a car on the road, waiting for the light to change.

I’m curious why this officer was there by himself at all. This intersection is known for having jaywalking problems that result in regular deadly pedestrian-auto accidents (which is why the pedestrian overpass was built.) It was reasonable to assume that any officer placed there would see multiple jaywalkers at any given time. Also, Seattle has a really bad track record when it comes to racist actions by police and the response from police and city leadership when complaints are filed or incidents are exposed by news media. The neighborhood where this occurred is predominantly populted by non-white people, and there is considerable (and justified) mistrust of the police among people of color.

Why was this officer alone, trying to ticket at least 5 offenders in two different groups for an offense that most people don’t take seriously? Was there no one who could predict that *someone* was going to try to walk away from the ticket–and that the person who tried it was likely to be a person of color? If the Seattle Police department really had the goal of reducing jaywalking at this intersection and also improving its relationship with this community, there should have been at least 2 officers at the intersection (one to direct offenders over and one writing up the tickets) and at least one of them should have been a person of color.

Elise wrote:

Actually, Washington State Law, RCW 46.61.021 (3) states that you need only give an officer your name and address when identification is requested. The officer did have probable cause to arrest her, but he did not have the right to demand identification.

Also, Monica Potts responded to my piece over at the Tapped blog.

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