Seattle police need to clean house

Some of SPD’s worst officers are the best paid.

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In 2011, a get-together in South Seattle ended just about as badly as a party could. Some folks were listening to some tunes and drinking in their friend’s backyard when their fun was suddenly interrupted by some unwanted guests: The Seattle Police Department.

Three officers responding to a noise complaint asked to be let into the backyard but the tenant demanded a warrant. When they couldn’t show one, he asked them to leave. And after some back and forth in the front yard, Sgt. Bruce Creamer had the tenant arrested for obstruction. From the other side of the fence, the guests started yelling for him to be released.

By that time, six or seven more police had arrived on the scene. Witnesses heard an officer scream “C’mon motherfuckers, let’s do this!” before they burst through the gate. One cop, later identified in a lawsuit as David Bauer, grabbed a shovel from the yard and was using it like a riot stick. He struck one of the guests in the head, splitting his scalp open. Shortly thereafter he bashed two women with it, according to the court complaint.

The three of them were later diagnosed with various forms of blunt trauma injuries.

The boyfriend of one of the women said something to the effect of, “Hey, why are you hitting her?” The officers responded by ordering him to the ground and handcuffing him.

Once he was cuffed, Sgt. Creamer and officer Nathan Patterson proceeded to beat him with “flashlights, batons, knees or fists,” according to the lawsuit. Patterson was later caught on video bragging about how he broke his nightstick on the man’s back during this incident. Officer Jake Briskey cornered another guest, Tasered him and stomped his leg, fracturing his shin.

The plaintiffs in the suit were charged with assault, resisting arrest and obstruction —often referred to by civil rights activists as “cover charges.” In the end, however, the criminal charges were dropped and the city settled the suit for nearly $195,000.

With the exception of Sgt. Creamer, who appears to have retired, most of the officers involved in this incident are still on the force. At least one has since been promoted.

At the time this happened, the Department of Justice was investigating the Seattle police for excessive force, racial bias as well as mistreatment of the homeless and mentally ill. The following year, the department began a series of court-ordered reforms under the watchful eye of a federal judge.

This episode only came to light a few years into the reform process. The FBI began an investigation of Officer Bauer — the one with the shovel — over another arrest where he punched a subdued immigrant man in the head 14 times.

While his use of force wasn’t consistent with post-reform policy, it was deemed appropriate under the policy in place when it happened, explained Kathleen O’Toole, who was the chief at the time. Bauer was given a short suspension and returned to duty.

Bauer has been on the force since the 1980s. Under the union contract, the pay scale tops out at $109,200 plus a 3 percent premium for patrol, additional longevity pay and a 2 percent bonus for body-worn video, which they are legally required to wear.

His base pay is $61 per hour, which comes out to about $119,000 a year. Excluding sergeants, Bauer is one of the highest-paid officers on patrol. His hourly rate is higher than that of Ron Willis, a patrolman who made $414,000 last year (including $214,000 overtime and $70,000 retroactive pay). Given the length of his service, Bauer will be paid a pension of about $71,000 annually plus benefits when he retires.

Obstruction of justice

The other officers involved in the 2011 melee are also at the top of the pay scale and, like Bauer, have one or more civil suits against them for excessive force. Now a K9 officer, Jacob Briskey once tackled, manhandled and arrested Romelle Bradford a Boys and Girls Club volunteer in 2008. Bradford was slapped with a trumped-up “obstruction” charge that was later dropped. A jury awarded him $269,000 — an extraordinary sum in cases like this.

Patterson, the one who bragged about breaking his nightstick, has been named in five lawsuits total, including four for police brutality and one for reckless driving. In addition, he shot to death a 77-year-old black man with severe dementia who had called the police to report a prowler.

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According to another lawsuit, Patterson and several officers beat Eric Garcia-Arcos with their flashlights and batons, causing a range of severe injuries including fractures to his skull, spine, eye socket and ribs. This was also in the course of responding to a non-criminal noise complaint.

It followed a familiar pattern: The officers filed a felony assault charge. The charge was dropped. Garcia-Arcos sued and the city settled.

A few years later came another party, another noise complaint, another face busted with a MagLite, another arrest and another six-figure lawsuit. Michael Renner and Joseph Maccarrone, two of the officers who had beaten Garcia-Arcos, sent University of Washington student David Pontecorvo to the hospital for filming them from his own front porch.

Renner, Maccarrone and Patterson have all since been promoted to sergeant. Each of them is now making in excess of $130,000 a year.

Slipping through cracks, rising up ranks

And that’s the truly troubling aspect of all this. The Seattle Police Department is not only retaining problem officers and paying them six-figure salaries — it’s actually promoting them to positions of authority.

The federal consent decree mandated an overhaul of the department’s policies and disciplinary process, but a system of accountability is only as good the people overseeing it. Middle management, i.e. sergeants and lieutenants, form the backbone of that system, reviewing arrests reports for policy violations and forwarding them to the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA).

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Brutal, dishonest cops go on to either overlook or actively abet the brutality and dishonesty of their subordinates. They survived over the years by learning how to maneuver in the system, and when they make rank, they pass on the tricks of the trade. Rookies are first trained by the department to act within policy, then they receive a second training from veterans who teach them how to act outside of it.

For instance, Rolf Towne, the lieutenant who fast-tracked the baseless assault and riot charges from the 2011 party, was sued more than a decade earlier. He and another officer shot a homeless man in the face with a riot gun from close range, knocking out five teeth. Towne charged the man with assault, resisting arrest and obstruction, which his lawyer referred to as the “Holy Trinity of false accusations.”

According to an audit of Seattle police discipline, internal referrals accounted for about one-third of all OPA complaints from 2016 to 2018. If supervisors or civilian watchdogs don’t catch misconduct, it will often go unpunished. Many victims don’t file complaints either out of fear of retaliation. Some might find the accountability system hard to navigate or lack faith that their complaint will be taken seriously.

Sometimes complaints don’t come to the OPA’s attention until a lawsuit is filed — as was the case with the University of Washington student. There are deadlines set in the police union contract, past which the officer can’t be disciplined. Such was the case with Sgt. Lora Alcantara — now Lt. Alcantara — who was caught on tape using a racial slur and fabricating a bizarre story about a news crew rifling through a suspect’s car.

Though firing is the presumed penalty for dishonesty — both according to the contract and SPD policy — Alcantara was spared because the investigation took place one month past the deadline. Not long after, she was promoted.

Officers are slipping through the cracks then rising through the ranks.

Last in, worst out

Since the movement to defund the police started to gain traction, its opponents have cried foul over how cuts will supposedly affect the department’s diversity. Chief Carmen Best, who recently resigned, had human resources conduct an informal study that found layoffs would disproportionately impact BIPOC and women officers hired as part of reform efforts.

The assumption here is that the department would have to follow the city’s seniority rules for layoffs, i.e. “last in, first out” or LIFO. However, these rules aren’t set in stone. The City Council is pushing to add exceptions to allow for problem officers to be fired out of order, though such a move would likely be challenged by the police union in court.

Alternatively, hours for these officers could be slashed in half, which isn’t considered a layoff. Many of the officers would then quit or retire early to lock-in their pensions at a higher rate. It’s not ideal, but it would get them off the streets.

The department’s backers have painted the cuts as extreme and “unreasonable,” raising the specter of skyrocketing crime rates and 911 response times, but shedding the detritus of the bad old days will make the department more effective both in terms of cost and accountability.

Clear out the dead wood and what’s left is the mostly the officers who were hired in the post-2012 reform era instead of those socialized in a culture of corruption, violence and impunity.

Police misconduct is often chalked up to a “few bad apples,” so why not reach deep in the barrel and remove the source of the rot?

Journalist, socialist, activist. Founder and co-chair of DivestSPD. Bylines at SPLC, The Baffler, GEN. Follow on Twitter: @justwardoctrine, @DivestSPD

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