Seattle attorney James Egan has a copy of a police dash-cam video in his possession, a video allegedly showing three Seattle police officers assaulting a suspect so brutally that Egan says "it will make your jaw hit the floor."
But if the Seattle Police Department gets its way, no one will ever see it.
James Egan waving the alleged police brutality video before a room of drooling reporters.
According to a lawsuit filed today (.pdf), the SPD is illegally blocking Egan from sharing the video with the public by claiming that it was obtained via criminal court discovery (i.e. evidence that can only be viewed and used in a criminal court case), not a standard public disclosure request. Now Egan and his client, Leo Etherly, the alleged victim of police brutality, have hired their own lawyer to strong arm the SPD into publicly releasing the video.
"This is a clear violation of our state and federal constitutions that protect free speech," says Jim Lobsenz, the criminal defense attorney representing both Egan and his client, Etherly. "You can’t stop people in advance from disseminating information. It’s clearly illegal and yet that’s what they’re doing."
Leo Etherly, photographed four days after his arrest.
It all started six weeks ago, says Egan, on October 6, when his client was pulled over by three officers in the Central District and accused of being involved in a hit and run. Instead of simply questioning Etherly, Egan says that the police investigation "immediately escalated into violence." According to Egan, the dash-cam video in his possession shows two officers holding Etherly down on his back on the hood of a patrol car as another officer, identified as Officer Faust, "went immediately for his jugular and strangled him for several seconds." As the video continues, Egan says that Etherly is clearly seen choking on his own spit as he's being strangled. At that point, "Officer Faust decides he’s deliberately spitting on him and he throws a tremendously fast fist into [Etherly's] eye, causing permanent partial blindness."
"I passed out," Etherly recalls. He's also seen the video, which he says shows him lying "motionless and [Officer Faust] was still punching me. I woke up then and saw blood everywhere."
Etherly was arrested and booked into King County jail for assaulting an officer (with his spit). On October 10, Etherly was charged by the Seattle City Attorney's office with both hit-and-run and assault. This is where the story gets complicated: On October 10, Egan sent a broad public records request (PDR) for dash-cam video of his client's arrest and the next day, also filed a more pointed video request for discovery with the City Attorney's Office (meaning he requested the same video, once from SPD directly and then again from the city attorney).
On October 17, Egan received his video from the city attorney's office but never received a response to his PDR request from the police department. On October 22, the charges against his client were dismissed, yet Egan still pursued his video request with SPD because, he says, the copy of the video he has cannot be disseminated and also because the department is breaking the law—and its own rules—by withholding it.
"It's the worst video I’ve ever seen of police misconduct by far," Egan reiterates, and the public has a vested interest in seeing it, especially given the recent Department of Justice decree finding that Seattle police officers engage in patterns of unnecessary force against suspects (among other things). Egan says that the Department of Justice is also trying to get its hands on a copy of the video but thus far has also been denied by the department.
The Public Disclosure Act requires that the video be produced within five days of a request or, alternately, a reasonable explanation be given for the delay. "They've delayed giving me the video, or authorizing me to release the video I already have, three times so far," says Egan.
Hence today's lawsuit. Egan, Etherly, and their lawyer Lobsenz are seeking a declaratory judgment forcing SPD to release the video, hopefully within the next two weeks. Meanwhile, Egan says that the police department's Office of Professional Accountability has launched an internal investigation into the responding officers' actions.
"You will watch this video and you will wonder why the officers aren’t charged with a felony," Egan says.
It's only a matter of time until the public sees the video. The real question is, if it's as bad as Egan swears, will there be repercussions within the department? Or will Mayor Mike McGinn once again stand behind a police chief that has steadfastly ignored or apologized for the brutality of his officers without offering up serious, categorical reform?