I was riding my bike past Fourth Avenue South and South Jackson Street at about 7:25 p.m. last night when I saw several officers huddled around a young black man sitting down. The cops were speaking loudly at him. As a reporter, when I see a buzz of police activity, I almost always stop to see what's going on. As the officers started barking louder at the man, I took out my phone and snapped this pic:
Several officers surround a man downtown.
From 20-25 feet away, I couldn't discern exactly what was happening, but the man eventually stood up to leave. That's when one of the officers eyed me and yelled something like, "He's got a camera!"
King County Sheriff's Office Sergeant Patrick "K.C." Saulet rushed over and told me to leave or be arrested. He claimed I was standing on transit station property; the plaza belongs to King County Metro's International District Station and I could not stand there, he said. I backed up about two feet over the line that he pointed out (two parts of the same walkway) until I was unambiguously on the City of Seattle's sidewalk, near a utility pole by the curb. But Officer Saulet then insisted that I would be arrested unless I left the entire block.
Now, let me pause for a second to say this: When the US Department of Justice alleged that the Seattle Police Department was routinely using excessive force, federal prosecutors stressed in their report that officers were escalating ordinary interactions into volatile, sometimes violent, situations. Now a federal court controls the SPD under a reform plan, and the King County Sheriff's Department has faced extensive scrutiny for officer misconduct, so the two agencies should be showing more civility on the beat. Or so you'd think.
Back to Saulet: "You need to leave or you're coming with me," he said while repeating his arrest threat yet again. Commuters, shoppers, and vagrants were milling about the sidewalk and plaza—some people were passing closer to the center of the police activity than I was—but I was the only one on that busy block told to leave (the guy watching the police and taking their picture). I hadn't tried speaking to the officers or bothering them in any way, I hadn't even identified myself as a reporter, and I was standing on public property. The officers did not accuse me of any offense other than standing there. At this point, the man police were questioning had left. So I asked for the officer's name—I wanted to know who was threatening to arrest me—and he pointed to his embroidered shirt breast; as I took a photo of it, he lifted his hand, apparently in an attempt to block the shot.
After snapping Saulet's picture, I rode my bike across the street because I didn't want to get arrested, even though standing on the sidewalk and taking photos of police from a reasonable distance seemed legal. I was jotting down a few notes so I'd remember what happened when I saw three officers leaving the scene. I asked them who at the scene was the commanding officer. They explained that they were Seattle cops and they didn't know which county officer was in charge. Then Seattle police officer John Marion asked why I was asking.
I explained to him that I'd just been threatened with arrest for standing on the sidewalk (even though he'd just watched the whole thing), so I wanted to know who was in charge and if he thought it was illegal to stand on the sidewalk.
Instead of answering, Officer Marion asked why I was asking him questions.
I explained that I'm a reporter and I didn't think I'd broken any laws. He asked what news outlet I worked for. The Stranger, I told him.
Seattle Police Department officer John Marion
Then Officer Marion said this: "I'm going to come into The Stranger and bother you while you're at work." He asked for my business card so he could get the address to come to my office, and, twice more, he threatened to come harass me at work. His point, he said, was that I was "harassing" him.
In other words, I stopped and asked matter-of-fact questions in a normal tone, and this SPD officer—with two colleagues at his side—escalated the situation without prompt or segue by threatening to "bother" me at my job.
Officer Marion became physically agitated when I took his photo (that's him giving the Come at me, bro gesture), and left the scene.
Last night and today I followed up with the county and city police departments. Both confirm that taking photos of officers and standing on public property—staying out of their way, like I was—is legal. Although she was not able to comment on this specific incident, King County Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Sergeant Cindi West explains, "It's a free country, and as long as you have a legal right to be there, you can take a picture." She elaborated in an e-mail that "in general a person cannot be ordered to stop photographing or to leave property if they have a legal right to be there. Additionally, if a group of people are in an area legally we could not order just one person to leave."
Speaking on behalf of the Seattle Police Department, Sergeant Sean Whitcomb said, "It is our job—it is our job—to politely answer reasonable questions from members of the public when it is safe to do so." He then confirmed that questions regarding the on-scene commanding officer and legality of sidewalk standing are reasonable.
"The public does not expect us to threaten them with a workplace visit for the sole purpose of bothering them," Sergeant Whitcomb added.
Let me be the first say it: This is not a big case. Seattle police have punched, kicked, and killed people in recent years. What happened to me was minor. But I'm writing about it because it's minor. Officers went out of their way to threaten a civilian with arrest and workplace harassment for essentially no reason. Because they could. Because they didn't like being watched.
I'll bet this sort of harassment happens every day. Cops treat normal, law-abiding people like garbage—and it works. Most people don't complain; they get intimidated. They get bullied, they back down, and the cops never face any scrutiny.
As the the DOJ pointed out in its 2011 report on police practices: "In a number of incidents, failure to use tactics designed to de-escalate a situation, led to increased and unnecessary force."
This is part of the pattern that led to the SPD's consent decree and still some cops haven't gotten the message. They are part of a stubborn, toxic culture of disrespect and intimidation, and until that culture is exposed and discarded—and until bad apples are fired or retired—the local police will be reviled by people who should appreciate and trust them. So I'm making this an issue because even minor incidents like this shouldn't be happening in the first place—and some minor incidents turn into major incidents.
If the officers had just gone about their business, I would've assumed they had a legitimate interest in talking to the man and left. Call me bombastic, call me caustic if you want—and I don't shy away from difficult exchanges as a reporter—but I don't test my luck around cops. I'm professional and I follow orders.
The county sheriff's office has asked me to file a complaint, and I intend to. Solely based on my questions about the incident, the SPD has already initiated an investigation into SPD officer Marion; I got a call this afternoon from an investigator for the SDP's Office of Professional Accountability. I'm going to write about going through the process—and see if these disciplinary programs mean anything.
Because it shouldn't be considered professional conduct for police in our county to threaten law-abiding citizens with arrest. That's rank intimidation. It also shouldn't be considered professional conduct for city police to respond to a simple question—am I breaking the law?—with the threat of harassing that civilian in his place of work. If either of those things are considered acceptable, we should change the code of police conduct, because both are insane. And if they aren't considered acceptable, I expect the departments to punish the cops involved.
UPDATE on AUG 2: I have filed complaints with both the King County Sheriff Office's Internal Investigations Unit and the SPD's Office of Professional Accountability, submitting both recorded audio testimony and written allegations. I'll be writing more about them soon. In the meantime, I've responded to SPD Chief Jim Pugel in this post called, "Dear Chief Pugel: I Am Not Alleging Rudeness.'"